The Smart Machine: Man, Machine, or Man-Machine?

In many cases, machinery was used to re­place humans in supplying the motive power for various subprocesses of production. In most trades, though, labor-saving machinery developed slowly, and many factors inhibited its progress. Sometimes the new machinery, in amplifying the capacity of the human body to perform a given operation and thus increasing output, could also intensify the human participation that was required and thus exacerbate the prob­lems of physical depletion” (39). I can recall tours and visits to my dad’s plant, huge loud machinery. But there were people alongside the machines at different stages of process, people working and repairing the machines, the machines as extensions of people to build.

Proponents of scientific management believed that observing and ex­plicating workers’ activity was nothing less than scientific research. Their goal was to slice to the core of an action, preserving what was necessary and discarding the rest as the sedimentation of tradition or, worse, artifice spawned by laziness” (42). The cushy position of the auto worker is something that is talked about with disdain by some outside of the auto industry; these unskilled laborers are given wages and benefits that their work doesn’t justify. Then I think of the layoffs, the forced shutdowns, the worrying of my mom and dad on and off again that they would be replaced or released in the name of efficiency, production, cost-effectiveness, and progress.

Reading Shoshana Zuboff this week I couldn’t help but think of my family – my mom, dad, and brother all work in auto factories back home in Michigan. My mom and brother work in warehouses and pick parts to be shipped to assembly plants, while my dad is a Tool and Process Engineer (by training in an apprenticeship) in an engine plant; he moves from the office working on the phone/computer to find machines and parts needed for production to the floor of the factory to work on machines and with the people who run the machines. They have each told me stories that illustrate the tension examined by Zuboff in the know-how of the body (implicit) vs. the scientification of work as logically constructed they are subjected to by supervisiors.

My mom and my brother’s work is done by their bodies mostly – that is they hand pick parts (from small washers to much larger components of a car) – they bend, twist, lift, pinch, grab, pull. Recently, my mom was chosen to try a new cart/container design (she drives a buggy with a container attached to the front to put parts she picks in) by supervision that was created to make picking more efficient and safe in the workplace. The cart/container was moved to the back of the machine so that the buggy was towing it like a trailer. She reported that she didn’t like the design because it changed the way that she picked parts, and added extra movement and strain to be turning behind herself all the time. Supervision implemented the new cart design because it, on paper/design, was more efficient for work. Productivity went down in the warehouse because of the change in how my mom and other pickers worked; this turned into a larger and more complicated exchange between workers and supervision that took Union involvement to reconcile.

My dad’s plant was one severely impacted by the auto industry crisis in Michigan/Metro Detroit. Because of this, the number of Tool and Process Engineers my dad used to work with/amongst was greatly reduced. Workers were brought in as replacements for the more skilled labor of the Engineers, but it wasn’t an equal exchange, even though on paper it was. While the workers know how to work with their machines well to do work, they do not know the machines.

I realize this are very specific examples and are limited to auto manufacturing. But I couldn’t ignore the connection Zuboff made not only to the auto industry, but to plants and factories I know well (they’re by my house, my friends and family and neighbors have worked in them, they form the landscape/the architecture of the city(s)) because of growing up around them and through them with my family’s work and the absolute prevalence of the auto manufacturing industry in and around the Motor City. Reading Zuboff sparked a curiosity to find old film footage from around the time automation was becoming the standard in manufacturing. I’m sure there are better examples, but I found two old films that depict automation in ways that echo Zuboff’s argument and the experience of the workers in her research.

(particularly first 1:40 and last 1:00)

(particularly first 1:25 and last 30 seconds)

I’m left questioning automation. It is obvious to me the ways in which it can remove human agency that used to be present in work as a means of translation, but it is equally obvious that machines function as extension. And again, with a personal example, my brother was (and I hope is soon again) going to school to design programs and systems that orchestrate manufacturing processes. Where is craft? What is craft? Is it, in this context, diminished? Translated? Extended? Invented?

And Latour! What of Latour? Is this a matter of either-or? Or can it be a matter of with?

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hand(s) tool

In making this last print, I became aware at how much I used my hands to print:

  • to draw the design with pencil
  • to stir and apply the drawing fluid with paintbrushes of different sizes
  • to touch the fluid to ensure it dried
  • to stir and apply screen filler with a paintbrush
  • to ensure the screen filler is dry to the touch
  • to gauge the temperature of water, cool, to rinse out drawing fluid and to use the fingers as a brush to help remove the drawing fluid
  • to dry the screen while making sure the screen filler is still set
  • to measure and cut papers to print on
  • to mix and apply ink
  • to draw ink over the screen with the squeegee, ensuring thickness is even
  • to hold the paper under the screen in place during the printing
  • to lift the screen steadily while holding the paper in place to prevent smudging
  • to open seals
  • to wipe drips
  • to clean – to apply screen cleaner with a wide paintbrush on both the front and back of the screen; to run hot water while scrubbing to remove screen filler (hot enough to break down the filler, without burning my skin)

Taking inventory allows me to gain perspective on what the process requires of me. Within each of those steps of the printing process is a calculation angle, pressure, a range of motion. And beyond my hands, how I position my arms, how I hold my elbows, how I bend over my kitchen table to print and over my bathtub to clean the screen. Pulling, pushing, scrubbing, sketching – each a small process unto itself. The movement, the actions of the process are wonder(ful) to me as someone who is learning to screen print through the process of screen printing – the cultivation of technique through embodied learning. I still make mistakes, I still lack precision, but I am printing in so far as I am making products.

Technique has a bad name; it can seem soulless. That’s not how people whose hands become highly trained view technique” (Sennett 149). Technique is intimately linked to expression. Richard Sennett’s chapter on “The Hand” is something I returned to as I felt a stasis in my printing – no visible development from the second to the third print. I questioned what, in the drawing fluid technique, didn’t produce a more skilled print. And while it is difficult to isolate a singular aspect of the process (too much ink, paper that isn’t porous enough to hold the print well), I can think about what I did or did not do. This is learning from the technique of printing – the looking at process and product as isolated and in unison to determine what seems to be “off”. A techniquing of technique.

Transitional objects”, material things that themselves change, what can engage curiosity: an uncertain or unstable experience…In developing technique, we resolve transitional objects into definitions, and we make decisions based on such definitions” (158-59). The materials, despite being the “same” as far as the state that they are in, still have great variance. Thickness, how long something dries, proportion of mixing materials – these keep the process of printing from being “same”. They are always unstable, and have potential for variance, which keeps technique in making in developing – in the process of.

Technique develops, then, by a dialectic between the correct way to do something and the willingness to experiment through error” (160). Despite variance, experience and growing knowledge of properties and actions permit technique. Though I have watched videos and read text directions on the web, I have not learned the “correct” way of printing from a printer in terms of apprenticeship. It is the combination of these web instructions with the material conditions and my (in)capability that foster technique.

We have become the thing on which we are working” (174). This seems odd to me that I don’t think of myself in terms of being a screenprinter, an identity as a craftswoman, but in terms of my screenprints – what I am making as process and product. My movements, my work, are situated in my body by what I am doing. I think about what is possible and limitations in my prints in the making of them; what results, what yields is because of a physical working.

Craft Connections: Plastic Bonds

Friday I attended a critical connections mini seminar at special collections in SU’s Bird Library (which is incredible, I’m discovering) – “Is it Real? Imitation and Style in the First Plastics” with Dr. Robert Friedel on a section of his book Pioneer Plastic.

From books about pens dot com

From books about pens dot com

It was a last minute decision after beginning to explore the richness that is material resources at Syrcause University. Registering last minute, I just made it on the guest list. Aside from Dr. Friedel, there were representatives of the plastic industry, collectors of celluloid pieces, students and faculty of studio arts, engineering students and faculty, history students and faculty, chemists, and me: a composition student. Though people were welcoming, I had the feeling people wondered what my connection/interest to plastic was. Luckily we had the opportunity to introduce ourselves, and I spoke of my interest in materiality and its implications for making, craftsmanship, the arts and crafts movement, the rhetorics of craft, and rhetoric of science and technology. This litany of interests, which is how I always feel my research interests come out, captured the attention of my seminar peers. I left the seminar with connections to SU’s studio arts department, the history department, and a history of science and technology faculty all interested in further interdisciplinary conversations on materials, craftsmanship, the arts and crafts movement, invention and imitation, the rhetoric of science and technology in the sociology of knowledge (network studies to me), and the production and circulation of products. It was really exciting to be able to connect with people on a shared interest from different disciplines and it permitted space to talk about our field as being more than writing about writing texts (singular); it also lent me another opportunity to try to articulate thinking through composition as craft – moving beyond craft as a romantic metaphor for composing.

“While appeals were consistently made to considerations of economy and practicality, imitation remained celluloid’s primary virtue in most of its applications. While the imitative role was natural for the materials when it was new, the persistence of that role throughout its history suggested the uneasy and ambiguous status of the first synthetic plastic. The first important function of this plastic was to look and behave like something it was not. The identification of plastics as cheap imitation is still with us” (Freidel 89).

Scraps of the Seminar:

  • history of new materials – new materials are a product of opportunity, not necessity
  • Friedel said “whenever you do something and faily, you’ve done something else. So what have you done?”
  • originality vs. imitation
    • sincerity vs. imitation – honesty (Ruskin connection): the finest compliment a craftsman can make is imitation
    • celluloid was not a cheaper (cost) material at the time to produce, but low in cost in terms of investment – economically (would not need replacement like other natural materials might wear)
    • wasn’t trying to “fool” anyone by masquerading as another material – it was brought into market as something new and novel; not imitation (not pretending to be horn in eyeglass frames), nor plastic as plastic – plastic as celluloid
    • emphasis was on creating inexpensive, durable products (plastic) – attempted practicality with fashion
  • celluloid could take on color, but often was left uncolored so that it looked as it was – celluloid (a sort of opaque off-white, well, like ivory)
  • celluloid products pushed by the patents of John Wesley Hyatt
    • companies and factories had to be built to manufacture products (machines, process, skilled workers)
  • celluloid upset the craft of combmaking – tension between hand crafting and machine crafting
  • celluloid appealed to nativism/pride in the craft of US manufacturing
  • question/reference to Ruskin: the finest compliment a craftsman can make is imitation
  • question: does industry (machinery as tools of craft) bring in a new craft? does it eliminate craft?
  • question: did materials like celluloid make available the middle class lifestyle that arts and crafts promised but could not deliver?
  • celluloid was not molded by machine, but had to be hand shaped and heated. Machines and tools had to be created to work with material properties.
  • Friedel explains that “it began as imitation, and as a material for everyday objects, it remained imitation” (88)
  • celluloid was designed “to look and behave like something it was not” and never lost that image; today the only celluloid products made are ping pong balls and guitar picks

The Craftsman: Material Consciousness and The Hand

While I have been enjoying reading Sennett as a whole, I was excited to read this section of the book given my own area of interest, but found that in this moment of thinking through, I have what I can best call “material scraps” of thoughts.

Material Scraps:

I couldn’t help but think about this Gorillaz song (the track layers masterful hip hop beats with audio of what sounds like someone practicing playing the violin – in the process of learning) in reading Richard Sennett’s chapter on “The Hand”. Sennett describes the Suzuki Method for teaching children to play music – habit as ingrained accuracy (and in the method, applying forms to the children’s fingers in order to get the feel of playing):

“What exactly did I do? How can I do it again? Instead of the fingertip acting as a mere servant, this kind of touching moves backward from sensation to procedure. The principle here is reasoning backward from consequence to cause” (157).

Left Hand Suzuki Method Lyrics

“The most important thing, is listening the recording of the music.
It makes them get um musical sense – and, uh – this is the point of the… fast progress!

“And also, everyday, every lesson
We have to make sure
They’re not lying about tunization!”

In recognizing the name Suzuki, I looked up Shin’ichi Suzuki and the Suzuki method and was surprised at the parallels between the philosophy of the method and the description of the guild apprenticeships Sennett describes in “The Workshop”.

In reading, I found myself trying to think of all the metaphors we use that focus on the hands as a means of making meaning. Hands allow us to learn “hands on”, to “get a grip”, to “get a feel” of things we’re doing. These metaphors then broadened to think of procedural metaphors for learning/obtaining knowledge or a skill – “we learn by doing”. These metaphors show a connection between head and hand, which is then absent in metaphors of rote learning, repetition, and mechanization in learning. I wonder if these were only possible after process and procedure changed with Fordist means of production that distanced/expanded the relationship between hand and head as the process of making something in total.