The internet was supposed to liberate knowledge, but in fact it buried it, first under a vast sewer of ignorance, laziness, bigotry, superstition and filth and then beneath the cloak of political surveillance. Now...cyberspace exists exclusively to promote commerce, gossip and pornography. And of course to hunt down sedition. Only paper is safe. Books are the key. A book cannot be accessed from afar, you have to hold it, you have to read it.
― Ben Elton, Blind Faith
I'm not a Luddite completely I believe in refrigerators to cool my martinis, and washing machines because I hate to see women smacking their laundry against a rock. When I hear about hardware, I think of pots and pans, and when I hear about software, I think of sheets and towels.
― Studs Terkel
As many of you know, in addition to writing I’m also an artist and woodworker.
I have a very large studio woodshop and when I’m not in front of this keyboard, you can usually find me covered in sawdust with the little ShopKat draped around my neck and purring in my ear.
A few months back I quit consulting work for the government and began writing and woodworking full time.
So far I’m enjoying the heck out of it.
If I had a motto it would be this: Never buy shitty tools, either do without, or save your money until you can afford decent equipment.
I believe in buying only quality tools, a trait I acquired at the knee of my dad who was himself an accomplished woodworker among many other things. And my shop was already well equipped. If you name a woodworking tool, likely I own it – probably several versions of it in fact. And so I was well situated to embark on this new career. But if you’re going to make woodworking an actual paying job, then you have to be able to produce quality products in volume. With that in mind, I bought a very high end CNC (computer numerical controller) milling machine to do much of my prepwork. That machine was expensive, very much so, but it has paid for itself many times over in the months since it arrived. It’s like having a diligent assistant who willingly tackles any job no matter how tedious and works without break or complaint.
Based on my experience with the CNC machine, at the beginning of this week I purchased an automated laser cutting/engraving machine.
It's being shipped from the manufacturer in Nevada and I'm impatiently waiting for it to arrive.
The laser is a 5th generation machine with advanced 4 axis capability and will extend my existing abilities and complement the CNC machine.
In comparison: Where the CNC machine can mill large 3D objects to an accuracy of 1/2500th of an inch and can do things other machines can't, the laser is limited to a bit over a 1/4 inch cutting depth but it can cut/engrave with surgical precision to an order of magnitude beyond the CNC machine (think a laser printer running at 1000DPI vice the usual 300DPI of a standard machine). This will vastly extend my shop's capability and my options as an artist and woodworker.
As an example, the laser will allow me to engrave the hand-turned pens I make, both with my own signature trademark and logo, and with customer personalization. It will also allow me to make very small and highly detailed parts for various projects and to create artwork (such as inscribed rims and patterns on the bowls I turn at the lathe). My artwork will still be handmade, but now they’ll be enhanced by tooling I could not achieve otherwise.
That’s great, Jim, I hear you say in that puzzled tone you use when you have no idea where I’m going, sure. Lasers and robot, who doesn’t like that? But we come here for political commentary, so what gives?
See, I’m technophile, I love shiny things. I’ve got a couple of dusty degrees in technology and computer science and I spent most of my military career immersed in technology that would no doubt boggle your mind. So when it comes to art and woodworking, well, I have no problem crossing the streams. My woodshop likely has more computers in it than your house, and in my house … well, yeah, never mind.
And so I was discussing this purchase, the laser, with somebody I know, another woodworker.
He was appalled.
My friend said that these types machines (semi-automatic computerized systems) "dehumanize" the art.
He also advanced the common idea that machines take away human jobs.
Ah, the light dawns for you, does it? See? I wouldn’t let you down, gentle reader, I know why you’re here.
Machines dehumanize art.
I don't agree.
In fact, I strongly disagree.
First, these machines are tools, nothing more. No different from a pen or a paintbrush.
They don't make art. I make art.
The machines just do what I tell them to do, no more, no less. They extend and enhance my abilities as an artist in exactly the same fashion a word processor complements a writer – something else I have a bit of experience with.
Scribbling down your novel on parchment with a quill and inkpot might make you feel like a "real" writer, but you'd be hard pressed to convince me that you're producing any greater "art" than you would with a laptop and a copy of Microsoft Word. In fact, I think it's just the opposite, without those modern tools, word processors and spell checkers and the infinite knowledge base of the Internet, I suspect you'd miss out on some pretty amazing writing. And it isn't just writing, go check out the Deviantart website sometime, there's a lot of crap there but there's one hell of a lot of utterly fantastic artwork too, stuff that would not exist without modern tools.
Ditto many modern movies, say whatever you like about James Cameron's Avatar as a story, it was an incredible piece of art like nothing that had ever been made before and it wouldn't have happened without computerized tools. Same with Cameron's Titanic. Does that dehumanize Casablanca? Don't make me snort chocolate milk through my nose. It doesn’t even dehumanize Avatar or Titanic, both of which were nothing if not about humanity.
These machines are tools. Nothing more.
Certainly they can be used to dehumanize art.
But then again, so can a quill and inkpot - if somebody chains you to a desk and makes you write 16 hours a day with nib and blotter.
Certainly these types of machines can be used to churn out mass-produced crap, and obviously they do exactly that. But automation also reduces costs to such a degree that a struggling artist can afford to buy the basic mass produced tools (such as an inexpensive laptop and particleboard Ikea desk) in order to make "real" art one painful word at a time – and hopefully be successful enough at it that they can afford better tools in the future as a result.
In my shop, these machines allow me to create things I could never do by hand. Even when I had full use of my left hand and my eyes weren't middle-aged, I doubt that I could create precise patterns at 1000DPI resolution with hand tools. Do I really need to create things at that resolution? That’s for me to decide, as the artist.
These machines also allow me to make more things at greater speed with repeatable results, i.e. they allow me to produce quality products at affordable prices. Just as a word processor allows me to churn out thousands of words a day - because I can assure you that if I had to hold a quill pen in my damaged left hand in order to write, you'd be seeing 10 words per day, tops, and that sentence would most likely be unreadable and consist entirely of profanity because it hurts me to use a pen.
Second, I call shenanigans on the idea that these machines take away human jobs.
They take away some jobs ... and make many others.
Do you know what a farrier is? Or a cooper? Or a miller? Or any of the various flavors of woodwright? These were once common occupations, so common in fact that people like yours truly here nowadays have surnames directly derived from our ancestors’ profession.
Now certainly you can make the argument that automation cost workers their jobs. This is true. When robots took over the assembly lines in Detroit, many human autoworkers became obsolete. But the part you're missing is this: The invention of the automobile itself removed a need for buggy whip makers, but it created thousands of new occupations. And automated manufacturing meant the cars got better - vastly better (anybody remember 12 month or 12,000 mile warranties? When I was growing up, cars didn't routinely last 100,000 miles. Nowadays most high end brake pads last that long. My jeep has nearly 400,000 miles on the odometer and has never even had a ring job or a head gasket replaced. Ever). Better cars, better machines, meant more people could afford them and afford to drive them for greater distances and at higher degrees of reliability. Which gave people more options.
The company that built my CNC machine was a small startup, a few engineers who got together and took advantage of the new technology to create an entirely new thing. They now employ hundreds people directly and indirectly and their machines allow people like me to start our own small businesses. Same thing with the company that made my laser, hell, they began as a Kickstarter - something that would have been utterly impossible without dozens of threads of technology created by hundreds of people merging in new ways.
With the coming maturity of 3D printing technology, this new Maker civilization will become the Tinkers of science fiction.
Are there dangers?
Of course. All technology has both benefit and bane.
But my son will graduate from college in a few years with a business and engineering degree - paid for in no small part by the money I make writing on a word processor and doing woodwork with the help of advanced technology. He wants to make his own extreme sports equipment, he wants to start a company to do that. With the equipment in my shop he can realize that dream – at 22 years old. Could he have done it before the advent of affordable automation? Sure, people made hockey sticks and snowboards long before computerized systems were available. And people still do make art with a quill and inkpot. The world is a big place, there is room for infinite variation. But this technology gives our children options previous generations didn’t have.
These tools expand our ability, not detract from it.
How we use them to shape our human future is up to us.
No, you can't just replace people with machines without regard for the consequences, but you can't stand still either.
The world changes, adapt or die.
How we face this change, in fear or with wonder, is in large part the basis for the political division that exists in America today.
... Luddites were those frenzied traditionalists of the early 19th century who toured England wrecking new weaving machines on the theory that if they were destroyed old jobs and old ways of life could be preserved. At certain times in his life each man is tempted to become a Luddite, for there is always something he would like to go back to. But to be against all change in the abstract is folly.
- James Albert Michener