Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Internet and The Death of Craft


Last month I took a trip up to Saratoga Springs NY for the Northeastern Woodworkers Association Annual meeting. It was the first woodworking event and it was very interesting in many ways reasons. 
Firstly, I was clearly in the minority age-wise. I wouldn’t venture to guess what the average age of the attendees but the predominant hair color was grey. Secondly, I saw with mine own two eyes a handful of woodworking personalities that had previously only existed as photonic apparitions of pixels or merely in printed matter. Yes, Peter Follansbee does exist and his beard is glorious!
Thirdly, I got to hear a firsthand account of the state of craft and the gospel according to Chris Schwarz (who, I was also pleased to confirm actually exists). Chris’s talk on “The Anarchist Toolchest” was certainly the highlight the weekend (Follansbee’s beard being a close second). Chris touched on a wide range of subjects, many of which resonated very strongly with me and that I that I have been mulling over in the past weeks.  In addition to the practical aspects of designing and building a toolchest, Chris delved into the philosophical and subversive aspects of tool storage (I love that sentence!). More specifically what tools do you really need, what you will make with these tools, and what these tools will mean to future generations. Anybody who has responsibly enjoyed beverages with me in the last year knows that one of my favorite topics of discussion is “toolchests and the apocalypse” (fyi: that’s one topic not two) Sufficed to say, this talk (and his upcoming book on the subject) was right up my alley. I’ll get into the apocalypse in the near future, but for the subject of this blog post want to speak to some of Chris’s points about tools for future generations and the state of learning craft.

In spite of only having met him briefly, Schwarz is a person I greatly respect. Ever since got he into the trade of writing about woodworking he has been a champion of craft, handwork, small business, resurrecting “obsolete” methods and the work of important dead-woodworking-writers.  Some people deride this guy as a false prophet, and I’m certainly not comparing him to a Messiah. All I’m saying is that if Jesus had a blog, it would also be plagued by an incessant stream of woodworking malcontents (he was a carpenter after all, haha). I think it is fair to say that he is one of the many people responsible the revival of handwork and hand tools that we enjoy today. Chris’s commitment to education is admirable.  This guy is all about information- gobbling it up and spitting it back out (the basic action of teachers, babies, and cheerleaders).  He’s been regurgitating faster and with more volume than almost anybody else out there, and the effect has been profound.  I largely credit (blame) his blog my obsession with handcraft’s entry into woodworking and this silly blog which you have found yourself reading. That being said, I did disagree with some of his sentiments about the impending demise of woodworking. Although I must say I don’t remember the particulars of the statistics, Chris sited that recent survey indicated a steady decline in woodworkers over the past decade(s?) toward oblivion. He charged that that the imperative for us to binge and purge as much information so that the next generations would still know which end of the plane was forward (not a Japanese woodworking joke!). While I agree, everyone should gobbling up as much info as possible, I sincerely doubt that woodworking is in an danger of going anywhere any time soon. Why? Well I’ll tell you.

Twelve years ago, I started blowing glass. If you think about the crafts that you would think would be on the verge of extinction, glass would be right up there with sexually-disinterested panda bears. Yet it isn’t- not even close! Yes, the industry of glassblowing has been death-throws for many decades, as evident in the decline of great (former) glassblowing capitols of the world.  Seems that Swedish factories are always closing or being bought and sold (to foreign companies), or that production is being undercut by the Czech or Chinese. Even in the birthplace of modern glassblowing, Murano, the problem is perhaps the most severe. Years of Muranese isolationism and myopia are catching up with them, as old masters grow old and the next generation is abandoning the trade moving to the cities. The industry is in trouble, BUT the studio movement is still alive, well, and thriving. A situation make seemingly more absurd given the craft also is inextricably bound to fossil fuels (natural gas). Sure the economic recession has hurt glassblowers, but it’s hurt everyone else too. However, I’m not talking about sales, I’m talking about skills. This generation has access to better tools, better material, more techniques, more skills, and better foundations in conceptual thinking. Also all of thus isn’t bound by antiquated paradigms of production or proprietary. Even stranger is the fact glassmaking is still grounded almost completely in tacit knowledge. That is to say that you generally learn it directly from one person to another. Which makes “information” about the craft pretty hard to come by (especially to those outside the field). Sure there has been some content published on the craft of glass, but the sources are few and far between and of equally variable quality.  Then when you consider a more obscure aspect of glassworking like coldworking or engraving, there is really only one or two books-period. That’s it. Ironically some of the most valuable (video) documentation of glassblowing in the last 20+ has been horded by a handful of institutions and its distribution ist verboten! If you compare this to the infinite supply of free/commercially available materials related to say “sharpening chisels” or “cutting dovetails” it makes me laugh. *single tear*

I should be more thankful, if you want to talk about sparse resources, ask Peter Follansbee (as seen below demonstrating 17th century convention center woodworking techniques) about finding information about his type of work. I'll give you a hint: it involves a camera and a flashlight.

I feel like most people who have been interested in say coldworking, like myself, have cobbled techniques together through scattered sources, trial and error, seeking out like-minded people and frantically pumping them for as much information when you can. Of course, this knife cuts both ways. As a result of having struggled through learning something like glass making and having gained some sort of material insight, I feel compelled to share these things with others. It’s not that I consider myself a master or think my experiences are better or worse than anybody else’s, it just seems like the natural thing to do. I can’t keep track of all the energy the times when I wish I could have traveled back to the past and say “why don’t you try it like this” or “have you ever seen this tool”. Fortunately, I have had the privilege of having met and worked with people who have been so generous with their knowledge and willing to entertain and nurture the likes of me. The list is of people is too long, and there aren’t the words to express my sincere gratitude. However actions speak louder than words, and I can’t think more appropriate action than to pay it forward and do the same for others.  Which brings me to the whole Internet thing.

In addition to place to being the best place to download music, pay your bills, and stalk high-school acquaintances, the Internet is the latest and greatest tool to preserve craft for future generations. And just like you’ll never (unintentionally) fall out of touch with anybody you’ve ever met (and their babies) because of Facebook, no tool will every be lost because of eBay and every technique from Joseph Moxon will soon be a google search away. As for tacit knowledge, between the forums and YouTube, any Tom, Dick and Harriet can learn to use and sharpen a handplane or chop a mortise my hand from Frank Klausz (I did). The idea of being self-taught is almost anachronistic these days. I would say that because probably 65% of what I have learned about woodworking was from (not published) user-generated content or from forum discussions (person to person) on the freely available on the Internet. One might say, "well that's like learning history from Wikipedia". But it's not the same thing. Most blogs and forums are far from anonymous, and most folks speak from experience, not speculation. In fact, I would say it's almost like a "peer-review" process, and if the thread runs on for pages you know their is some controversy or divergent thinking happening (or good old fashion trolling). Also more importantly, it is an ACTIVE process, a conversation. You can ask questions, answer questions, and crack a joke or three.

I think that as long as the Internet is around, craft isn’t going anywhere. Of course, that assumes that the Internet will always be around, which brings us back to the whole thing about the apocalypse and toolchests. :)

On related topic (the internet, not the apocalypse), for the past weeks, I have been falling asleep watching old video lectures from 3.091 (Intro to Material Science). These lectures from roughly the same time I was an undergrad at MIT, are made available via MIT's Open Courseware. It’s ironic that when I was a first semester freshmen, I recall that going to lecture (and staying awake) to be the biggest hassle. In fact, it was such hassle that I would frequently skip it which subsequently led to me bombing this class the first time around. That is all irrelevant because now that I am very interested, I can go to lecture whenever I want! Go figure.

I love you, Internet! Don’t ever change!

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