Saturday, November 19, 2011

agency, creative power and self...

Bret Victor who created a wonderful rant on pictures under glass asked, "I'm curious what your thoughts are on CNC mills, and designing objects in CAD software instead of working by hand."

There are feelings and values that are lost in automatic making. And there are things on the other hand that carry a sense of personal provenance, a personal narrative of sacrifice and effort. We know that the high-tech world is sold on the promise of once difficult things being made easy, so that anyone who can buy the device can do these tasks without training and without effort. But if anyone can do it without training and without effort, what will its value be? The enabling device will have value but the task to be accomplished little or none. A number of years ago, my mother who would shop at thrift stores on occasion gave me a small pen holder with a laser engraved sailing ship on the front. She bought it for only 50 cents, because it had become meaningless to its previous owner despite being made of fine wood with the intricate engraving on the front. I suspect that if it had more human engagement rather than the attempt to make it appear human through the use of automatic processes, it might not have been sold so cheap and may have had greater value.

I make things that are difficult and require effort of both hand and mind. I compete in selling these things with objects that are impersonal, carry no sense of who made them, and I compete in a marketplace that has very little training to sense the difference. More and more I make my living by training others to witness a different sense of object, that of seeing and feeling it arise through the personal agency of their own hands. There is a sense of personal agency that arises in creating things through difficult means. When you set up a machine to make things, you can watch the machine do its thing. The process is under glass, with no sense of tactile engagement, so just as the small pencil holder given me by my mother had no value, no feelings, and was made without difficulty, the objects made have no greater dimension, no greater intrinsic value. They may have the same use and even the same beauty as something crafted by human hand, and yet be lacking in human qualities.

I have quoted Matti Bergström, Finnish author and brain researcher many times before in the blog:
The density of nerve endings in our fingertips is enormous. Their discrimination is almost as good as that of our eyes. If we don't use our fingers, if in childhood and youth we become "finger-blind " this rich network of nerves is impoverished - which represents a huge loss to the brain and thwarts the individual's all-around development. Such damage may be likened to blindness itself. Perhaps worse, while a blind person may simply not be able to find this or that object, the finger-blind cannot understand its inner meaning and value.

If we neglect to develop and train our children's fingers and the creative form building capacity of their hand muscles, then we neglect to develop their understanding of the unity of things; we thwart their aesthetic and creative powers.

Those who shaped our age-old traditions always understood this. But today, Western civilization, an information-obsessed society that over values science and undervalues true worth, has forgotten it all. We are "values-damaged."

The philosophy of our upbringing is science-centered, and our schools are programmed toward that end.... These schools have no time for the creative potential of the nimble fingers and hand, and that arrests the all-round development of our children and of the whole community.
Another quote having to do with the values of things comes from Otto Salomon:
“...persons not manually trained, generally regard the products of manual labour at less than their real value. They think it much more difficult to solve a mathematical problem than to make a table. It is not an easy thing to make a parcel-pin or a pen-holder with accuracy, and when students have done these things they will be the better able to estimate comparatively the difficulty of making a table or chair; and what perhaps is of still greater importance, they will become qualified to decide between what is good and what is bad work.”
Salomon also noted that the value of the carpenter's work is in the object, but the value of the student's work is in the student. What great benefit is accrued to the individuals within our civilization through the effortless production of vast quantities of meaningless stuff?

The key to having a greater understanding comes from an old saying quoted by Comenius. "We give form to ourselves and to our materials at the same time." In other words, the maker of beautiful and useful objects busily crafts himself or herself in finer form. It is an alchemy of sorts... lead into gold, and if the character of our objects is so lacking in human difficulty, human feeling and dimension, what will that say about ourselves?

Make, fix and create... meaningful things, meaningful lives.


  1. I make things by hand and I also design in 3D CAD and run CNC machines including laser and routers and mills and lathes. I get satisfaction from all of it. Designing in 3D versus using a 2D drafting program is a terrific tool. As you design you have to think about what processes you will be doing to cut the shapes by hand or by machines.

    Actually it is a whole lot easier to design for traditional woodworking than it is to design for CNC equipment.

    Designing parts to be cut on a laser is not a "push a button and go" process. Laser's have to be calibrated for each material type and thickness of material. The width of the kerf the laser makes must be accounted for in the design and that kerf will vary depending on the material being cut and the thickness of the material. The laser does not cut a 90 degree angle so that must also be a design consideration that has to be allowed for. The joint will be tight on one side of the material but can have a gap on the other side.

    Once you have a job setup for a machine you can put someone relatively unskilled on it who loads and unloads material and pushes the buttons to start the cuts. But the complete process of creating the design, choosing materials, calibrating the machine and setting up the cutting tools requires a great deal of knowledge and skill.

    If you actually write the code for the tooling paths you will need a lot of knowledge about cutting speeds and CNC machine operation fundamentals as well as having to learn to write and think a new language to create the programs.

  2. I agree that at the present time it takes a great deal of knowledge to design in CAD and to manufacture with CNC machines. But the overall thrust of digital technology is toward ease of use and the elimination of the need for skilled workers. One of the points made by early advocates of manual training was that craftsmanship was a means to offer dignity and character in the development of overall society. It may feel rather comfortable for a time to be one of those in the know, who can set up machines for others to use without skill, but where does that leave us economically and culturally as a larger society? I would prefer that more people have skill and the sense of self worth that arises with it. I guess that's why I'm a craftsman rather than a small scale manufacturer of wooden objects.