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
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