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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Screen Printing: Experimenting with Layers

I decided to experiment with technique before committing to designing and making a new print that relied on layering, in case it failed. I tried to divide my screen this time to utilize the space, and consequently time it takes to print. The screen is much larger than any of the prints I’ve made, so I thought for a multi-layered print, I would lay out each of the components on one screen. I’ve seen this division of the screen surface before in images and video of people printing, but they use painter’s tape, which I didn’t have. I tried using Scotch brand washi tape, which didn’t quite do the job of painter’s tape (which I’ve subsequently bought). I made a pond design (really an oval) on one part of the screen and simple tree shapes on the other part using drawing fluid. This was the first time I used my new brush set, and while it gave me better variance to choose from, ultimately, the medium of the drawing fluid is difficult to control (it is sort of like painting with Elmer’s white glue – it oozes and doesn’t allow for very fine detail). I printed the pond base on paper using red ink and printed my first layer of trees using black ink. I let this dry and put on another layer of the pond print, but this time I mixed transparent base in with the ink so that the first layer of black trees would show through. After the second pond layer (with transparency) dried, I added another layer of trees in between the first layer.

The transparency kind of worked, that is, the first layer of trees can be seen through the red pond layer, but the experiment print looked rough in the sense that I didn’t have control over what I was doing while making the print. I feel conflicted about this, especially realizing at the Salt Market that I am comparing my prints to prints made with another technique that is not dictated by the precision (or lack thereof) of one’s design capabilities done by hand. I have no doubt that people who are skilled graphic artists can create fine detailed prints with drawing fluid by hand, but it feels a little like comparing a handmade (and thus rough for lacking machine controlled “perfection”) thing with something that has been largely made by machine, though still handmade. Screen prints using the photo emulsion technique still need to be designed on the computer or whatever before they are set onto a screen to be printer, but they use tools and techniques (photo programs or photo images) that I cannot make on my own. My lacking design skills are keeping me from making the prints I want; my designing must improve. I found myself thinking of Ruskin and the imagination of the craftsman – maybe I need to be in an environment where I can be inspired by nature. Instead of trying to develop design skills of hand that work with computer programs, I need to find material that I can represent (and appreciate it as having charm in its roughness).

While this print brought new perspective to my process, it also killed my screen. This is my fault entirely as a neglect for my tools; I let the screen sit an entire busy day without cleaning it. I worked on it, but to no avail. The ghost of my last print lingers on he screen. I thought about continuing to print with it, but this screen is now “art” for the apartment. As a means of laying out a design, it obscures too much. And as is evident in the field of the pond, taking it to the car wash destroyed the network of the screen leaving gaps that disrupted the even distribution of ink. I bought a different screen at The Art Store that I look forward to using in making my midterm project. I’m still looking into what makes it feel different – it is not a Speedball brand, the screen is of different mesh size, is yellow, and seems to have a more rigid taut nylon feel (more like plastic) than the soft screen I was using. While purchasing the new screen, I asked advice of an artist there that printed on how to clean screens, since I continue to have trouble. She seemed baffled by this, as seems to be the attitude of seeking answers to this issue, responding that she’s never had trouble cleaning screens. I’m left in the dark. I don’t know what the mystery is behind cleaning a screen, but I’m at a loss for any other elements I can change in my work and material environment. This makes me feel a different type of failure than that of my design capabilities – who would have thought that cleaning up would be the most difficult part of making? It leaves me wondering what I don’t understand about my materials, primarily time it takes for them to set, how long they can sit, and how long it should take to care for them in cleaning. What I wouldn’t give to be able to observe a master printer in their own workshop and washtub.

Rhetorics of Craft: Final Project Proposal Scraps

For my final project in the course, I would like to explore the relationship between human and machine through Latour’s concept of hybrids (which I have yet to do much reading on, so this is rather cursory understanding: the seamless being between nature and culture) to consider the connection between techne and technology. This seems a rather large undertaking, though, but I have yet to decide on a material or process artifact. But I think I want it to be a digital.

EDITION: I started thinking about tools in terms of programs, like Photoshop as the focus for this project. But I then realized what I wanted to look at is information architecture  (craftsmanship) on the web. I initially thought about GUIs, but I a now thinking in terms of tools, or add-ons, to the web browser as a way of crafting information we encounter on the web. Maybe through the metaphor of carpentry, thinking back to Ian Bogost’s carpentry in Alien Phenomenology.

The Nature and Art of Workmanship

from Barnes and Noble dot com

from Barnes and Noble dot com

This week, we begin David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship. As we move forward, I am curious to see how this work relates to what we have been discussing about craftsmanship. To me, the move from the root of craft to work is intriguing, and I wonder about the implications of such a focus in term and what this might mean for the process of making and the product made. To provide a really broad gloss, Pye seems to be working to distinguish the difference between design and workmanship, differentiates workmanship of risk vs. certainty on the basis of whether or not “the result is predetermined and unalterable once production begins” (22), the concept of handwork and its meaningless distinction from machine work, and the contrasting qualities of workmanship – precision and approximation, regulation and freedom. This is rather reductionist, as Pye is careful, slow, and deliberate in his prose.

Traces/Scraps of Work

“Design is what, for practical purpose, can be conveyed in words and by drawing; workmanship is what, for practical purposes, can not. In practice the designer hopes the workmanship will be good, but the workman decides whether it shall be good or not” (17).

This was of interest to me because I saw a connection to our conversations in reading Richard Sennett’s work and dwelling in the embodied and tacit knowledge of the craftsman, or now, worksman (I’m really curious as to this shift in terminology and what it meant for identity and making). In this section, “Design Proposes, Workmanship Disposes”, Pye focuses on materials and the dependency of the design on the worksman in what the worksman can make from materials; as Pye describes it, “Material in the raw is nothing much” (18). This seems to continue our focus on a product that is good in quality and in function. The title of this section though has me wondering about material concerns – proposes vs. disposes – and the relationship between designing and making; here, they seem distinct from one another, in two different bodies and processes.

“If I must ascribe a meaning to the word craftsmanship, I shall say as a first approximation that it means simply workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works” (20).

I find this interesting because I question if Pye’s explanation of a craftsman as a worksman + technique or apparatus works in the opposite – is a craftsman a worksman? Does his vision differ from Sennett? Does Sennett’s craftsman embody design as seen as somewhat removed from Pye’s worksman?  I also feel more of an emphasis on tools or apparatus emerging in Pye…What significance might these have on workmanship?

“To distinguish between the different ways of carrying out an operation by classifying them as hand or machine work is, as we shall see, all but meaningless” (25).

In the section “Is Anything Done by Hand?”, Pye works to dissolve the distinction between handwork and work done with tools. He states that “very few things can properly be said to have been made by hand” (29) and that “Handi-craft and Hand-made are historical terms, not technical ones” (26). I continue to be fascinated by the role of machines in making and the tensions that exist between human and thing. After reading Pye, and Sennett as well, the relationship between human and machine is complex, and I’m starting to subdivide machine to explore this relationship.

Work Potential

What I was drawn to in reading is not only Pye’s discussion of techn- and machines/machinery, but how he is defining these concepts and their relationship to making. A goal for reading this text, for me, is to take inventory of all the tech- root words and their iterations through tools, production, and workmanship. This is sort of an obsessive side interest in the use of techn- as techne, technique, technology, technic, and so on and the relationship to the conception of materials and making.

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: Machines

In reading about Jacques de Vaucanson’s robots, or automata (from Greek “acting of one’s own will”) I was absolutely captivated by the complex relationship(s) between man and machine. Richard Sennett talks at length about the craftsman relationship with and against the machine. He coins the term “mirror-tool” to describe an implement that invites us to think about ourselves (84); these take the forms of the replicant and the robot. Replicants are copies of human beings that mirror us by mimicking us. A pacemaker, for example, allows the heart to function like it ought to biologically (85). Robots are human beings enlarged: stronger, faster, tireless, efficient. Sennett describes the iPod as robotic memory; it is capable of holding music, the sums exceeding totals of musician (human) output in entire lifetimes. This huge memory though is organized to serve humans – one could never use the full memory of the iPod at any given moment. Sennett goes on to make this distinction, “the replicant shows us as we are, the robot as we might be” (85).

Automaton figure of a monk, South Germany or Spain, c. 1560; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. From Blackbird Archive.

Automaton figure of a monk, South Germany or Spain, c. 1560; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. From Blackbird Archive.

Right before reading this chapter, I was cooking, listening to Radiolab podcasts. Perhaps serendipitously, one of the episodes, Ghost Stories, featured the tale of the Monkbot. While I highly suggest listening to this section of the podcast, I’ll try to tell the story in redux:

1562, Spain: King Phillip II’s son, Don Carlos, falls, hitting his head (exposing skull), causing grave injury. He is struck blind, his head swells, and it is determined the young boy will die. All the doctors Phillip brings cannot stop what seems inevitable.  Needing a miracle, it is said that the King asks for the remains of San Diego de Alcala, local Franciscan monk, to be brought in bed with the boy while he sleeps. The King’s prayer and appeals to God seem to be answered, as the boy miraculously recovers to health. As a signifier of his gratitude, the King creates the praying monk automaton – prayer perfection.

Elizabeth King, of The Smithsonian, writes about this monk in Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk at length.

Her history begins with the quote “”El movimiento se demuestra andando,” we say in Spanish: You demonstrate movement by moving.” She describes the monk’s movements:

the monk walks in a square, striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it.

Within King’s detailed history, she raises questions as to what the monk would have represented to the time

And when the child did indeed recover, Philip kept his bargain by having Turriano construct a miniature penitent homunculus. Looking at this object in the museum today, one wonders: what did a person see and believe who witnessed it in motion in 1560? The uninterrupted repetitive gestures, to us the dead giveaway of a robot, correspond exactly in this case to the movements of disciplined prayer and trance.

King is featured in the Radiolab podcast (as she is writing a book on the monk) and with the hosts, they try to get closer to what the monk represents. In Spain at the time, if one had enough money, one could pay for prayer repetition. They raise the question: What did it mean at the time to be a Catholic? After describing the ritualistic manner of Catholic worhsip that was valued, they isolate what counted as prayer to time, action, and place – method mattered. These ritualistic actions, motions, are articulated tirelessly by the monk. The monk embodied “the perfect prayer”.