Friday, February 03, 2012

What we do next...

If you've been reading what I've been reading, you will know that manufacturing in America is not what it once was and will never become again what it once was. For a long time we had watched manufacturing shift overseas in search of cheaper unskilled labor, but as machine tools have become more capable and complex, and the human hands-on labor contribution to the value of the product has diminished, some manufacturing is returning to the US where the stable political and social environment offers greater safety for the investment required. But this manufacturing that is making its comeback takes far fewer workers than ever before. While in my own work as a craftsman, the labor component to the value of my work is approximately 70%, the labor component of more modern manufactured products is only 5-7%. That level of efficiency is a boon for investors, but not great when you think of providing meaningful employment opportunities within a diverse community.

And so, the question becomes, "What are we all to do?" Will just a few workers and a set of fast and accurate machines make everything while the bulk of society twiddles their thumbs, grows obese, mindless and lazy in front of the boob tube while being dependent on food stamps to survive? I think it is time to chart a better course. I refer to Jane Addams' 1902 quote from yesterday's post:
"The schools do so little really to interest the child in the life of production, or to excite his ambition in the line of industrial occupation, that the ideal of life, almost from the beginning, becomes not an absorbing interest in one's work and consciousness of its value and social relations but a desire for money with which unmeaning purchases may be made and an unmeaning social standing obtained."
I want to draw a distinction between the consumer society Addams predicted, and the culture of craftsmanship which had long been our human heritage. We can each surround ourselves with meaningless things made thoughtlessly and without human care, or we can adapt to a new and more meaningful age with roots sunk deep in a heritage of human creative craftsmanship. We get to choose.

When the industrial revolution hit Sweden, a nation of small towns, villages and farms, the traditional objects that the common folk made during the winters to add economic value to their lives were no longer of value in relation to the well-crafted objects made by machines and imported from Germany and the UK. People stopped making their handcrafted items for sale and exchange, and suffered a significant loss of self-esteem within their communities as a result. It seems the pride we feel in ourselves is closely linked to our capacity to create. And so leaders in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries understood crafts in schools to be the path forward toward the restoration of human dignity.

There are things and will always be things that are best made by real folks. The challenge therefore is to find ways of helping all citizens find meaningful lives through the exercise of skill, and to lead them toward making choices in their acquisition of the objects that fill their lives that also fulfill their own aspirations for community and self.

David Katz in Israel, sent me a book called Working Knowledge Skill and Community in a Small Shop, by Douglas Harper. It is currently out of print but used copies can be found. It appears a gold mine on this subject. For instance as follows:
"The general transformation of technique in a society is part of an ever-widening split between the envisioning of a thing (engineering) and its production. With each stage of production the complexity of knowledge increases with the role of the single individual in relation to the overall task of engineering and production decreases. The result has been, as explained in many familiar analyses, the alienation of the worker--his or her separation from a sense of purpose, separation from self as well as community. This process of alienation can, from one perspective be summed up as the separation of the worker from the knowledge that once guided the work.

"The result of the ever-increasing division of labor, wrote Max Weber, is rationalization. Rationalization describes the process through which social organization becomes more systematized as the division of labor becomes more elaborate. Rationalization makes the worker an ever-smaller cog in an ever-larger social organization. Although the organization of a rationalized society is more efficient, the human experience becomes every more routinized... While all work is touched by rationalization, certain kinds of work are more easily made routine than others. Making for example, evolves to mass production, a fully rationalized system. Making the machines that guide and control the mass production (the work of the millwright), however, depends on the method and mind of the artisan, and thus it preserves that earlier method. Fixing in a general sense, extends a yet earlier mind and method, that of the original fashioner.

"Making and Fixing are eventually guided by different kinds of knowledge, making being dominated by the limited knowledge of the machine tender and fixing by the knowledge of the earlier mind that stood in the same relation. as its inventor to the technique."
Interesting stuff, and I am looking forward to the whole book. But there is an interesting and engaging path forward that will lead each man and woman toward more meaningful and prosperous lives in spite of our being overwhelmed with manufactured goods. Choose a path of artistry and craftsmanship and...

Make, fix and create...

It is best not to over romanticize manufacturing. In many cases, the plight of the workingman was intense and destructive of physical health. One of the places I visited in Sweden in 2006 was Olofsfors south of UmeĆ„. Google Earth resolution there is very poor, but the location is: 63°34'53.77N, 19°26'39.51E

The building shown in the photo above housed the furnace. The blocks used in building the foundation were made of slag, a by-product of the making of iron. Today, a small adjacent building is the studio of a blacksmith who demonstrates his techniques, making tools and decorative objects and sells his work through a small gallery. Another building nearby holds a water powered hammer and anvil. To see it in operation is amazing. If you are lucky enough to be there for a demonstration be sure to wear ear plugs. The noise is deafening. Most of the men who worked there were deaf and disabled within just a few years. The water driven hammer is huge. The old school house in the community houses a museum, and gift store. The other buildings are used as studios by artists.

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