Laptops and Looms: Decompressing

Inspired by Paul Miller’s great post, here are my thoughts on Laptops and Looms.  It’s very much an initial response – and I would imagine much of this territory has been discussed more astutely by a raft of social commentators. But anyway…

Age of Revolution?
I’m not enough of an historian to draw clear lines between events and offer interpretation, but our visit to Arkwright Mill in particular, made me wonder if we’re living through another revolutionary moment.

1789-1848 is an astonishing period in history, one of those moments when time speeds up: there were political revolutions in France and America and significant changes to shape of the British Empire, and an industrial revolution changed the way we worked and lived and (according to Eric Hobsbawm) set industrial capitalism in place.

Clearly history – the study of the past – needs some distance to be considered, but it seems as if we’re living through similar times now. After the Arab Spring (catalysed and amplified by peoples’ use of social media), we have had riots in the UK, and this morning the radio was cataloguing the uncertainty in Liberty.Libya.*

Against this background, there is a possible new future for manufacturing – a beleaguered and worn-down industry. It seems to good to be true – history repeating itself.

Our Parents’ Children
If our parents lived through the age of convenience, where are we now? I heard someone describe the back-to-luxury-basics crew as “Eco Snobs” the other day, and there is a sheltered middle-class emerging: downshifting, growing tomatoes that (once the terracotta pots and high grade compost have been purchased) probably cost £5 a vine, looking for stories and authenticity in their products. A whole lifestyle defined by this Waitrose advert:

The Eco Snobs (and I would, grudgingly, count myself as one) have cherry-picked from the labour-saving devices championed by our parents – turning up their noses at sliced bread and convenience foods with their iPhone4 in hand. I once went to Whole Foods to make my own peanut butter, FFS.  And I’m fascinated by what this is doing to the role of women in the home and the workplace; the reclamation of domesticity is threatening to make feminism a blip, a fad, as people who can make choices about earnings decide that it would be more authentic if one (female) parent stayed at home. More fascinatingly, this is a taboo subject – a lifestyle choice that can rarely be discussed or questioned.

There is also a connection between these things and our yearning for localism, making, the creation of a hands-on experience. This festishisation isn’t new: it was there during the Industrial Revolution too, Thomas Carlyle commenting: “In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.” Now we can even manipulate games with gestures, the idea of our personal agency is increasing. To be twee for a moment, it’s like we’re reaching out to touch the Information Age – martial it by turning it into objects.

And so 3D printing and personal manufacture emerge. The idea that a small personalisation is an act of creation. But also, the emergence of truly connected objects that personify this yearning. I was thrilled by the idea of the MakieLab’s ‘data freckles’ (random face markings for dolls, that carry information in the same way as dreaded QR codes).

So we are in a time of convenient, or connected, pastoralism. Lots of the attendees at Laptops and Looms owned or worked in small businesses, and we talked a great deal about very localised change – but I’m intrigued by the points in Paul’s blog about large-scale transformation.

To that end, briefly, I went to a talk by Julian Baggini yesterday, at which he outlined the idea of “rad hoc” (or Radical Ad Hoc) interventions, small things that tilt and calibrate the world in a different way. If we are, as Dan Hill proposed, setting out to make suggestions to David Cameron, then I think we should do that with a sense of responsibility: an idea of what those rad hoc changes might be, that will set component parts of the economy on a different course.

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking and thinking about skills lately. Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman (which is next to read on my bedside pile), offered (before Gladwell) the following thought:

By one commonly used measure, about 10,000 hours of experience are required to produce a master carpenter or musician. As skill progresses, it becomes more problem-attuned, such as the lab technician worrying about procedure – whereas people with primitive levels of skill struggle just to get things to work. At its higher reaches, technique is no longer a mechanical activity; people can feel fully and think deeply about what they are doing, once they do it well.

I have a terrible niggle that the combination of the Convenience Economy and the Information Age has changed our attitude to acquiring skills. For me, the constant debate that the Internet is making us stupid seems to fix on the wrong target: if the Internet is changing the intellectual skills we need – we’re analysing information rather than storing it – then what is it doing to our store of physical skills? If you can look-up how to do anything on eHow (and then, possibly, do it slightly badly) you’re on the one hand benefitting from the collective store of information, but on the other you’re losing the necessity to do something more than once or five times (let alone acquire a skill over 10,000-hours of practice).

To develop an instinct that connects your hand and your eye and your gut is an extraordinary thing. It’s something that the Dads of my generation have in spades, and that they have been honing in their sheds over decades. The flipside is that everything seems easy now – so there’s a bullish enthusiasm, less fear that we might get things wrong. We’re all enthusiastic amateurs now. Both Matt Edgar and Phil Gyford made some very thoughtful points about the previous role of the hobby – an outlet for creativity that might be stifled at work, preparation for a long retirement – and we’re blurring those boundaries, engaging in professional hobbyism, expecting to earn money for our doodles.

But how can we progress from being enthusiastic amateurs to manufacturers? Matt Cottam was particularly inspiring and interesting in his discussion of the continuity from hobby through to craft to craftsmanship and industrial design and engineering. I’m wondering if, at a baseline, we want to develop new ways of exploring that continuum – circumvent the 10,000 hours with our stores of collective knowledge and collaborative working practices. “Connected pastoralism” keeps humming through my mind. But this is essentially a move for the middle-classes, and the real responsibility is identifying the “Rad Hoc” interventions that might cascade that change throughout society.

On consideration, that seems an extraordinary agenda for a group of people in a meeting room in a disused mill in the Peak District. But on the other it’s not remarkably different to the change inspired by the kids who were looting outside my door two weeks ago, so perhaps we should think about making it happen?

*horribly revealing Freudian Slip


12 thoughts on “Laptops and Looms: Decompressing

  1. Open up the shuttered High Street shops to the small, craft-skills of individuals and groups who are designing things and who need a shop window for their creativity, ideas and output and who would take on apprentices to train and nurture them.

    Talk to Dyson or Roger Saul and absorb their drive for change and doing things better and then look at towns where this form of creative localism could work towards ending the domination of life-draining big chains.

    A simple starter guide is that every town needs a Marylebone High Street that starts with a Waitrose and and adds arts and technology and a dash of 1960s Carnaby Street plus a performance space. Local communities need to regain a vibrancy and lust for life.

  2. It strikes me that many of us are labouring under a misconception. It is hard to put into words, but we seem to believe that it is possible to become highly skilled without highly skilled teachers and a lot of time.

    For example, being a tailor required an apprenticeship of more than 6 years, yet somehow many seem to think they can hand-make items at a comparable quality to factory produced items. And the tragic thing is that there are people languishing in the shadows that have a lot of skills (and even a factory sewing machinist is a highly skilled job requiring considerable training and practice) who cannot even find work paying the legal minimum wage. For me, the issue is much less about training ourselves as using the skills which are already available to kickstart manufacturing again.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. I spent the whole of L&L going on about my dad, and I’ll do it again now. He’s a highly skilled hydraulics engineer who learnt his skills via an apprenticeship and has honed them over 50 years of work. When I was growing up, he was a part of a network of other skilled people who quietly plied their trade. And he can talk about the decline of manufacturing until the cows come home, but he’s still in business, doing good stuff – and he’s an unusual case.

      I absolutely don’t want to champion any kind of feel-good dilletantism and think your absolutely right. There’s a massive difference between my hobbyism and a skilled professional sewing machinist. One of the things we talked about at L&L a lot was how to engage people outside of our traditional networks: rather than putting a call out on Twitter, it’s about doing the leg work and finding people, and I think that’s one of the next steps.

      I also think that training is really important for the generations of people who’ve been working in a service economy. I absolutely don’t want to romanticise tedious manufacturing labour, but there’s a generational skills gap.

      1. A couple of years back I was working with a group of women machinists who were terribly exploited. In a nutshell, the problem was that they had few social or language skills and they were dependent on subcontract work from textile factories – who themselves were struggling to find a decent market. So they frequently had to survive on work paying less than minimum wage.

        In the end they reorganised themselves as a co-operative to break free from the bounds of the factory owners, but struggle to find work. I learned a lot spending time with them and other textile workers, but was mostly frustrated with my lack of sensible suggestions to bring them work despite my best intentions.

        As you say, the majority of these people are likely to be in networks far outside of those we normally work in. But then I think the real lesson for me was that we need to have imagined a new market and a new solution before approaching vulnerable workers.

  3. Thanks for that, it’s an interesting continuation of the discussions from last week.
    One thought on the 10,000 hour thing: you could argue that machines and mass production have already stolen the opportunity for people to earn a living (as easily) as craftsmen, and laser-cutters, 3D printers, etc. are starting to bring that back to a point where you can do it at small scale. It doesn’t return us to the manual version, but hopefully skews things back towards the smaller-scale firms (which I think tend to be more human).
    That still misses some of the tactile learning that you get from manipulating things by hand, but maybe we don’t need (apart from as an end in itself) the years-of-practise-trade-learning. I’m not sure, is it the rise of the generalist rather than the specialist? (Or maybe I’m just seeing the world through the eyes of a jack-of-all-trades)
    I definitely want us to pick at the bigger-picture, more ambitious stuff more, and hopefully some of my thoughts on that will find their way into a(nother) laptops and looms blog post soon.

    1. Yes! Your comment has unearthed lots of other things I’ve been wondering about, and which I’m eminently unqualified to discuss. Which, obviously, isn’t going to stop me. Also, this is a massively long comment, but I think that shows how many unresolved things I’m wondering about! Sorry. And how good your comment is, obviously.

      Status is a really important component of whether or not people do jobs: if it’s easier, higher status, better paying and more instantly gratifying to get a job in a phone shop than that’s what people will do. Particularly teenagers, who aren’t exactly known for their long-termism. And for lots of people the fact that Primark is cheaper and more convenient than going to a tailor is still going to be the determining factor. One of things we didn’t talk about at all was the consumer – which is funny, considering how many people with interaction design backgrounds were in the room – but we don’t know if there’s a market for this stuff, if people can actually afford it. Yes, People Like Us all want beautiful connected owls, but is there a viable business model that generates jobs and income?

      There’s something interesting too about the amplifying effect of man + machine, so you can do more, more quickly (which I suppose must have been at the heart of the industrial revolution). But I don’t think that obviates the skils thing: on my terms, for instance, if I’d been using my sewing machine, or programming my 3D printer, for 10,000 hours, then I’d be a lot better at it than I am – and my skill and instinct would allow me to start experimenting and improvising, rather than rigidly sticking to the rules, and then I’d maybe make some really cool things. So if you’ve been programming robots for 10,000 hours you’re still going to be operating on a higher plane of robotics, and your robots will make better stuff.

      I’m reading the Richard Sennett book now (which is great – highly recommended), and he makes great play of the idea that people who aren’t very good at things just try to get them to work, whereas people who are good at them tend to do it for the pleasure of engaging in the activity and making the best possible thing. He makes another point that one of our jobs as makers is to make a world we want to live in. So I guess it’s natural that we go to extremes and then ping back from them – choosing which parts of a mechanised world we want to accept.

      For instance, there was a piece in the Guardian the other week about the high number of suicides in the factory in China where they make iPhone components. I seem to remember they’re now looking to automate the process, as there’s literally no upside to having people do it.

      Oh, and – lastly – Jack of All Trades is of great personal interest to me at the moment. But I won’t go into that now…

    2. Mmm, but that implies that machinists are unskilled (‘anyone could do it walking in from the street’), which is clearly not the case. In the case of clothing manufacturing, it is very unlikely that will ever be automated and requires a lot of training and practice to be any good. It is very unlikely that a jack-of-all-trades hobby sewing machinist working with a small sewing machine will ever be able to produce factory-quality clothing (unless they undergo a lot of training and/or were previously trained as a factory machinist, at least).

      I don’t know about other industries, so apologies for talking about clothing. It might be completely different in those. But maybe there is an assumption that you can teach yourself these skills (like you can teach yourself a foreign language, teach yourself html code etc) when you’re actually going to quickly reach a ceiling on your skill level without significant skilled training input.

      On the other hand, maybe there are many production roles which are not like that. I wonder how one can tell the difference.

      1. apologies for my poor grammar, I didn’t mean to suggest that Adrian thought these roles could be done by anyone off the street, just that the general implication of low paid unskilled labour is that anyone could do it with minimal training.

  4. I’ll begin by thanking Rachel for writing the article, and promoting the excellent discussion.

    Then I’d like to take the stance that the 10,000 hours number is perhaps slightly overused; or at least less applicable for modern manufacturing than it used to be. This is a bit uncomfortable, since I firmly believe that skill does require long practice, and that having a gut feeling about your work is extraordinarily valuable. But I think what’s missing from the discussion are two modern abstractions: the abstraction barriers between users and designers of manufacturing tools, and the abstraction of highly-specific skills into more broadly applicable skill categories.

    Of course, materials-specific knowledge is incredibly important and industry specific, but the skills required to use modern computer-controlled machines seem quite transferable. I think the abstractions involved in computer controlled machinery would allow people of more generalized skill to work together, and require no-one to spend 10,000 hours learning to make or use a particular machine.

    Joe, I don’t know much about textiles but I’ll try to use a factory sewing machine as an example: mechanical and electrical engineers design something similar conceptually to other CNC machines; programmers and designers make an interface not so far removed from other interfaces; and machinists using that interface, and that machine, can bring skills from similar machines and interfaces outside of textiles manufacturing.

    That said, I feel like you might’ve both already thought about this and share a conclusion I’ve missed.

    I’ll keep my thoughts on abstracted skills short: basically, I think that the way we think about applying skills learned in one context to another context is a fairly modern development; learning to identify what nuggets of knowledge one can extract from a given task and apply to another is quite valuable, and combined with modern manufacturing’s abstractions can give one a jump-start in many different skills. Rachel, you mentioned ‘Jack-of-all-Trades’, but I think that this sort of framework for skill development doesn’t harm focus in any way. You can get your 10,000 hour mastery, then use it to gain further masteries more easily. And isn’t that sort of integrative manufacturing part of what the excitement’s about?

    1. Ned, thanks for this. You might be right that in theory it would be possible to imagine a clothing-manufacturing machine which worked by simply pressing a button and walking away. If it is possible, I’m not sure why it hasn’t been done – perhaps something to do with the flexible material and the variety of jobs it needs to do..? I’m not an engineer or designer so afraid do not have the vocabulary to speak to that.

      But in every clothing factory I’ve ever seen, sewing together pieces of fabric is always done by skilled machinists with a sharp eye.

    2. Ned – thanks for this.

      I think this is really interesting on two levels.

      Firstly, application and practice (whether it’s 10,000 hours or much less) indisputably helps to make you better at things. However, this only really become dynamite when combined with well-applied logic and reasoning. And it sometimes only gets really good when you use really good tools, things that have been made by an expert: whether that’s the right kind of copper pan for your sauce or the right kind of robot to do your repeatable menial tasks.

      I think my generation – children of the baby boomers – are shaping up to be expert users of tools, rather than expert toolmakers. I think we’re stretching towards the end of certain aspects of super-convenience, and that we’ll start reconnect more with the pleasurable and physical aspect of making things. For instance, you might spend more time cooking dinner when you buy a dishwasher. Same overall effort expended, but more of it is pleasurable (if you like to cook).

      Secondly, to take the sewing machine example, being a great dress maker or a tailor is a technical skill in its own right, and one that you get better and better at. With a little bit of information, anyone can turn on and use a sewing machine but – as anyone who suffered the childhood indignity of homemade clothes will tell you – very few people can do it well or efficiently.

      So there’s a hierarchy there: that designing the sewing machine might be a more difficult job than using a sewing machine. I think is partly because of implicit social norms: the white-collar designer who designs the sewing machine has more status than the mechanical engineer who makes it (or at least, did – the sewing machine is now probably made by a robot), and both of those classes have more status than the – typically – woman who uses the sewing machine. Even if she’s very highly skilled. Dresses vs machines. But i won’t get sidetracked into a woman vs robots thing. Now isn’t the time.

      This is being challenged now that people can use a 3D printer to make another 3D printer. Although that hierarchy isn’t blurring that much yet, because the only people I’ve seen doing that so far have been PhD robotics students and skilled engineers. So the democratisation issue is still fairly moot, I would say.

      So, essentially, I agree that there’s an awesome excitement about the multiplying effects of technology. But I also think that the happiness of the haptic is a vital human feeling, and I’m most intrigued by working out how to reconcile it with the next period of the machine age.

      1. Rachel, I’d like to take your distinction between tool makers and users and tease it out a little bit.

        You note the importance of good tools; do you think that can be abstracted to a connection to the toolmaker? That is, an object is a concretization of a process, and that process is an implementation of a way of thinking. What I find important (and think you’ll agree) is that what’s important about good tools is the way they so cleverly relate all those steps: they way that, by using the tool, you can learn a bit of what their maker thought.

        Of course, this isn’t limited to physical tools; so far in my experience with power electronics, the components and circuits may be given, and the toolmaking rests in the way you analyze your design constraints: put another way, how you get an intuition for something, instead of solving it the hard way or taking it for granted.

        It’s this search for intuition that I would say is a modern lack. The distinction between tool users and makers is often a very fine one in engineering (you can’t get far in programming or machining without needing to modify some tools), and not, in my mind, much of a threshold.

        Instead, I’d classify the modern divide as being between the searching and the button-pushing. Searchers have a model of what they expect to happen when they push the button, that is tested and adapted by what happens, and ultimately driven by a desire to understand what’s happening between the CAD file and the 3d-printed Yoda. Button-pushers might understand how to correct common errors, but don’t explore why, don’t build that mental model.

        I don’t mean that in a bad way: I’m a button-pusher in many areas myself, using, say, blogging software without wondering how it does what it does. But I think that my concern (to bring this back on-topic) is that people use the right pan/robot without caring why it’s right. Haptic feedback can be a great way to get this intuition.

        That went considerably off-topic, and changed in context, but do you think it represents your point correctly?

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