farmer_field_humblefacture (by dmuren)
There is a persistent dream (or self delusion) among eco-minded product designers that somehow, manufacturing before the industrial revolution was "better"; Cottage industry was safer, or cleaner, or fairer, or used fewer resources -- or all of the above. Often, this ideal is backed up with anecdotes of textile mills replacing home-spinners, or IKEA replacing cabinet makers. Certainly, these stories of machinery displacing or invalidating jobs (The British still use the mechanistic term "made redundant" to describe layoffs) are true -- but does this mean that a socially sustainable future must involve some return to pre-agricultural cave dwelling? Of course not. But charting a path to such a future requires a re-examination of the human difference between a tool and a machine.

As we have discussed previously, humankind's greatest asset has been our tool use. Tools were essential to our development of flexible, dexterous hands and bodies (since we were so vulnerable without claws or large teeth, and yet would not be so capable of complex speech or manipulation with them). Similarly, they were the evolutionary trait that allowed us to gather enough food to fuel ever larger brains, and make ever better tools. Separation of humankind from tools is a ridiculous notion, something like breeding the stripes off of a zebra.

But if tools are so central to our rise to humanity, how can machines be so culpable in our fall? In a word, humanity, or more clearly, the relationship to humanity. While machines and tools both involve humans, and are even referred to interchangeably (as tool or machine, or even machine tool), it is how each device affects the group of humans within which it operates that matters.

Wendell Berry, in "The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture" wrote:

"...It seems to me that the way [to our mechanistic fossil-fueled agricultural system] was prepared when the specialized shapers or makers of agriculture began to treat current, living, biological energy as if it were a store of energy extractable by machinery. At that point, the living part of technology began to be over powered by the mechanical. The machine was on its own, to follow its own logic of elaboration and growth apart from life, the standard that had previously defined it's purpose, and hence its limits."

Though Berry is primarily concerned with the detachment of mechanistic agricultural practices from ecological and cultural impacts, his arguments apply so easily to manufacturing that it is uncanny. As in agriculture, tool use initially began as a way to increase certainty of success in a task. Hunting and gathering was unpredictable, especially in areas of dense population. Saving and planting seeds gave a greater likelihood of successful gathering, just as the use of a bone or stone knife to hunt deer gave a greater likelihood of a kill. For a time, most tools can be seen to work toward this goal of greater success -- a human goal, one deeply embedded in the human culture. Though competition was a given, the cooperative tendencies of humans meant that new tools were not developed with the intention of replacing people, but with the intention of allowing for larger numbers of human participants. So tools grew in complexity and power to a point where a farmer could produce food for a family, and sell a surplus, and a spinner might make enough cloth for 10 households. Certainly, this meant that fewer spinners and farmers were needed, but it opened the way for the diversification of crafts and work, and created a world where newspapers, and poets, and musicians, and artists could make a real living, despite providing intangible goods. In short, better tools create richer culture.

Then, at some point (I'm not sure where, but certainly it was some time before the invention of injection molding machines which can produce thousands of parts per hour) as Mr. Berry noticed happening to agriculture, something happened to our tools. They became de-coupled from the cultures they enhanced. Rather than acknowledging that culture is a living then which must be nurtured by the systems operating within it, these things making our stuff started being measured purely in terms of their output; their efficiency. This cruel word, efficiency, is the thin line that separates the machine from the tool. Once freed to advance themselves based solely on efficiency, machines had less and less need for humans at all -- why use something so unreliable, so variable as a human operator. Indeed, why not pursue entire robotic factories, free from the drag of sick days and vacations. Efficiency is to be gained at any cost.

And the cost is great. Again, to quote Mr. Berry:
"The digging stick, for example, brought in a profound technological revolution: it made agriculture possible. Its use required skill. But its effect also required skill, and this kind of skill was higher and more complex than the first, for it involved restraint and responsibility. The digging stick made it possible to grow food; that was one thing. It also made it possible and necessary to disturb the earth; that was another thing. The first skill required others that were its moral elaboration: the skill used in disturbing the earth called directly for other skills that would preserve the earth and restore its fertility.

...It was only with the introduction of self-powered machines, and machine-extracted energy, into the fields that something really new happened to agricultural skills...It is more difficult to learn to manage an animal than a machine; it takes longer. Two minds and two wills are involved. A relationship between a person and a work animal is analogous to a relationship between two people. Success depends upon the animal's willingness and upon its health; certain moral imperatives and restraints are therefore pragmatically essential. No such relationship is either necessary or possible with a machine."

The transformation of tools (which, as extensions of human will, have the capacity to fulfill both functional and moral goals) into machines (which, as constructs fueled and feed from outside of the flows of nature or culture, and gauged only by the speed, efficiency, accuracy, or quantity of their output, cannot be expected to have moral behavior) has a similarly deleterious effect on the cultures in which they are used. Freedom from having to care for land (because of the availability of artificial fertilizers) makes the land weaker over time. In the same way, the disconnection of manufacturing from the communities and suppliers that feed it weakens everyone.

How, then, can Humblefacture advocate the use of flexible fabricators (pillar #1) in making? In order to make fabricators tools, rather than machines, a few guidelines are necessary, and though Mr. Berry might not agree completely, I believe that they address his largest concerns.

1) Makers need to be their own mechanics. Analogous to a farmer caring for oxen, a maker should know how to service, and ideally, how to fabricate the pieces necessary to fix their own fabricators. Yes, this is more complicated. Yes, it requires more skill, and different skill than simply pressing print. However, it is precisely this skill -- the understanding of what it takes, not only to make something work, but to keep it working. This literal definition of sustainability -- the ability to sustain something -- is crucial to the successful humbling of fabricators.

2) Feedstocks must be brought into maker control. Just as Mr. Berry advocates against artificial fertilizer, and gas-powered farm equipment, we cannot be fully connected with our making unless we can bring the energy and material needs of our tools within our control (this is pillar #2). This is no easy task. It means we need to explore different types of feedstock (perhaps beginning with reclaimed wastes, and later moving to farmable materials). It also means that we need to explore different means of fabrication which perhaps use less electricity, or use different forms of human power, in combination with small amounts of electrical computation. Such hybrid systems would be much more flexible in case of interruption of electrical service; Current fabricators would all fail in the event of a disaster.

3) Communities need reinforcing. Just as farmers had to make connections with millers to make them flour, farriers to shoe their horses, and carpenters to build them barns, Makers need to connect with one another, but also with those who might become part of their networks of making. Humblefactories will be made up of more flexible workers, yes, but these workers will also have more varied connections to suppliers, sellers, and people who might benefit from the use or knowledge of their creations. Community, both online, and offline, must be redefined as fabrication returns to it.

It has been at least 100 years since the first tools morphed into machines. We cannot expect to be free from them quickly, or without effort. But we can work to make fewer machines, and better tools. We can seek out, and encourage tool-makers and tool users where we find them. We can break the grip of mechanistic manufacture from around our culture. If you have examples of tools you think deserve mentioning, or tool use you think is culture-enhancing, we would love to hear about it in the comments.


Sam said... @ August 27, 2009 at 2:15 PM

I found this fascinating.

I would take the line that if a job can be automated in a sound way, why would any human want to do that job? I say let agriculture or whatever process be automated, as long as there is some educated moral person in the feedback loop.

Give people more time to attend to things other than work.

Matt said... @ October 27, 2009 at 3:25 PM

"I say let agriculture or whatever process be automated, as long as there is some educated moral person in the feedback loop."

There is a two-fold problem in this; first, educated moral people are in short supply; and second, this is the scheme that has brought us to where we are today.

When we don't have to think about where our goods come from, we give no thought to the true price of those goods. This is exactly what has led to massive over-consumption in the western world. Because everything is in such easy supply, we feel free to be careless in our usage of those things. The greater problem isn't that the people who run and manage industrial agriculture (or other processes) are not educated or moral, it is that the goals of our society center around money and profit. The focus of our economy is on growth, rather than meeting needs.

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