Excerpt from Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Red Plenty

By Francis Spufford

Red Plenty

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And now, on the tram, he was following his thought into implications, into what he was suspecting might be a world of implications. Clearly, the world had got by quite well until now without this idea. In the era before half past two this afternoon, the people arranging the flow of work in factories had been able to do so with a fair degree of efficiency by using rules of thumb and educated intuition, or else the modern age would not be as industrialised as it was: would not have trams and neon, would not have airships and autogyros thronging the sky, would not have skyscrapers in Manhattan and the promise of more in Moscow. But a fair degree of efficiency was very far removed from a maximum degree of efficiency. If he was right – and he was sure he was, in essentials – then anyone applying the new method to any production situation in the huge family of situations resembling the one at the Plywood Trust should be able to count on a measurable percentage improvement in the quantity of product they got from a given amount of raw materials. Or you could put that the other way around: they would make a measurable percentage saving on the raw materials they needed to make a given amount of product.

He didn't know yet what sort of percentage he was talking about, but just suppose it was 3%. It might not sound like much, only a marginal gain, an abstemious eking out of a little bit more from the production process, at a time when all the newspapers showed miners ripping into fat mountains of solid metal, and the output of plants booming 50%, 75%, 150%. But it was predictable. You could count on the extra 3% year after year. Above all it was free. It would come merely by organising a little differently the tasks people were doing already. It was 3% of extra order snatched out of the grasp of entropy. In the face of the patched and mended cosmos, always crumbling of its own accord, always trying to fall down, it built; it gained 3% more of what humanity wanted, free and clear, just as a reward for thought. Moreover, he thought, its applications did not stop with individual factories, with getting 3% more plywood, or 3% more gun barrels, or 3% more wardrobes. If you could maximise, minimise, optimise the collection of machines at the Plywood Trust, why couldn't you optimise a collection of factories, treating each of them, one level further up, as an equation? you could tune a factory, then tune a group of factories, till they hummed, till they purred. And that meant –

'Watch what you're doing!' cried the short woman. 'Take your head out of your arse and watch what you're doing, why don't you?' The big man had seized the chance, the last time they all shuffled up the tram, to free his hand and light a cigarette. But as it hung at the corner of his mouth, cardboard holder pinched in two dimensions to act as a filter, a jolt from the track had knocked the whole burning load of tobacco out of the paper tube at the end, and it had fallen, smouldering, onto her shoulder. Her arms were pinned.

Excerpted from Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. Copyright © 2012 by Francis Spufford. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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