Saturday, 7 December 2013


Among the items on Lena's Christmas wishlist this year is a snowball maker.  I've pointed out to her that she already has two snowball makers on the ends of her arms but she'll have none of that claiming a dedicated maker will speed both production and precision.  While her desire to brain her friends with the ideal snowball is admirable, this issue is just one more link in a chain of observations that lead me to believe human kind will devolve into a species of useless lumps of flesh unable to perform the most mundane manual task requiring even modest amounts of skill.

I am a (very) novice woodworker and the deskilling of the craft through mechanization has certainly democratized the trade and made it more accessible to all, including the hobbyist.  Still, I can't help but feel some of the spirit of the work has been removed.  I marvel at what pre-industrial craftsmen were able to achieve with a collection of hand tools.  The power jointer and planer have made milling stock - a drudgery to many - a comparatively simple job because the machines reduce the exercise to a simple mechanical, low-skill exercise.  I think a lot fewer people would choose cabinetmaking as a career or hobby if they had to rip boards with a handsaw. 

Still, even with mechanization, most trades and crafts still require a certain amount of manual skill.  What's driving me a little nuts is the day-to-day activities, like making snowballs, that help keep our hands and minds sharp and life fun and interesting, that are being dumbed down.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the automobile:  ABS brakes, proximity sensors, parking assist, paddle shifters - all take control away from the driver and minimizes the need to learn good driving skills.  Matthew B. Crawford, in his excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, further points out the electronification of cars and the use of consolidated parts (e.g. the head light is now one single component, not a collection of individual parts that can be disassembled) has put home repair of cars and, really any home appliance, far out of reach of the average Joe and Jane.

Other examples abound:  handwriting has all but disappeared from school curricula in North America as the keyboard has become ubiquitous.  My father started his a career as a draughtsman and I used to love watching him deftly make technical drawings with a wonderful set of complex drafting tools all of which have been replaced by a mouse and CAD software. Even spell-checkers and autocorrects have eliminated the need to really learn proper grammar and how to spell properly.  And don't get me started on how calculators are being integrated into school curricula earlier and earlier. 

Is all this important?  I tend to think it is.  For one, we are giving up a lot of our autonomy and self-sufficiency and banking on the perceived omniscience and omnipotence of technology to survive.  In our reliance on technology, we are also transferring a lot of wealth to those who make and sell the technology.  As Crawford argues in his book, this all comes with a large spiritual cost as well - subtly but steadily eroding our sense of usefulness and purpose.

I have begun to try to incorporate more traditional methods of doing things into my own life even going so far as to trim my cedar hedges with manual clippers, cutting down a tree mostly with hand tools.  I am trying to use more hand tools in my woodworking.  Despite rather thin training for Lena in handwriting at school, her mother and I have made sure she has a good grounding in cursive writing (she writes far nicer at ten than I do after 40 years of practice) and I do feel better for making the effort.

1 comment:

  1. This is a topic I've been thinking about a lot, too. I know there are all kinds of advancements that are meant to help us out, but are they really helping?