Friday, February 6, 2009

Choosing the path

I'd like to consider the issue of the Master Builder, in view of the wider topic of holistic practice versus specialization. We have a saying in the West, "Jack of all trades, master of none". Implicit in this trite maxim is the idea that one can only be good at one thing, and by spreading yourself thin over many things, one develops no particular skill in any of them. I think this is definitely true - when taking things to the nth degree. If you want to be the very best, or among the best at anything, it seems that you pretty much need to devote yourself to it 24/7. This is especially true in modern times, where our economic and social systems give disproportionate rewards for tiny differences in performance among competitors.

Take the Olympic Games for instance, and the 100m sprint final in athletics. The winner might cross the line only a few hundredths of a second ahead of the second place finisher (sometimes it is impossible to tell with a naked eye who won the race), and it is the winner, and the winner alone who will be lavished with endorsements, possible prize money back home, and so forth. The second and third place finishers, by comparison, receive next to nothing, despite the fact that their performance may have been 99.99% as good as the winner of the race. A very tiny difference in performance is thus rewarded disproportionate to its superiority. It's a strange allocation of resources when you think about it. The same phenomenon is true in many other fields, like top-of-their-class Law Graduates from certain schools, who receive lavish signing bonuses and perks, while graduates with near-similar high marks and abilities receive considerably reduced opportunities. What results in society then is a frantic, intense competition for these few top spots, and since only a few can occupy these positions, the rest who don't reach the goal are representative of social waste in a form. All that energy expended, to come up just a fraction of a percent short, a virtually identical performance yet with no reward. This is a curious manifestation of our economic system, especially in recent decades, and not altogether healthy. If so many people weren't in a massive struggle for a tiny number of highly-rewarded positions, then to what ends could the energies of these people be put to were they not to compete in this manner? I wonder. This topic is taken up in the book The Winner Take All Society, a pretty good read I think.

Anyhow, it does seem clear though that in most cases, specialization has its rewards. If we need some form of surgery, for example, then we likely go to a specialist in that area of medicine. If we go to multiple specialists, we might find they have different solutions to suggest to us, however, a confusing situation to be in as a prospective patient. I think in highly complex fields, like medicine and law, specialization is really the only possibility since the field itself has become so complex and multi-faceted, its really is not possible any longer to have a reasonably deep generalist background - you'd have to read 24/7 every day of the year just to keep up with new developments. Its impossible of course.

The flip side though of specialization is that in many cases it leads to such a narrowing of focus than I can't help but wonder if the forest is lost for the trees.

As each field of endeavor digs deeper into this or that channel of specialization, the language needed to describe the subject matter also seems to become more and more specific. After awhile, to the non-specialist, discussions in these focused areas can become quite opaque indeed. Anyone who has tried to read a legal or medical document will I'm sure concur - it is all but impenetrable. These documents are the way they are out of need - to be accurate and particular in terms of conveying information, however it does leave the rest of us somewhat in the dark as to the actual meaning conveyed by the words, and often we must rely upon other 'eggheads' or 'experts' to explain it to us. In such a situation then, we are left with trust in the 'egghead' to represent information accurately, and that trust ends up largely resting on faith in the information being factual, and our own emotional responses to the presenter of the information, how they look, how they sound, how they come across to us. due to these factors, the 'experts' are increasingly being replaced by public relations hacks.

Increasingly however, we find out though experience that what was presented to us was often not entirely unbiased, or even remotely factual in some cases (like doctors doing advertisements for cigarette companies), and gradually we begin to question that trust. So in the end, when looking at complex technological issues, with the vast majority of us being non-specialists, we are left with little more than 'gut' responses, or pre-existing biases and beliefs of our own to rely upon when trying to come to a sense of understanding about difficult technological topics which bear upon our society. In example, I could list contentious areas of technological and social endeavor as: nuclear power plants, 'clean' coal technology, stem-cell research, the use of pesticides, decisions about massive government bail-out packages, and so forth.

The problem boils down to, in the end: if I lack the specialized knowledge upon which to make an educated decision - who do I trust to explain the issue to me(and for what reasons?)? How do we make decisions, in a technological society, when so few of us have any significant understanding of that technology? I'd wager that most of the readers here could not explain in detail how their home refrigerator works. Or their cell phone, computer, etc. Or why a space ship gets hot when it re-enters the atmosphere (ans.: adabiatic compression).

The refrigerator is an artifact of 19th century technology, and yet if a large number of today's citizens remain baffled by any number of 19th century technological and scientific feats, how on earth are we supposed to make decisions about current technology, which is exponentially more complex?

Some would say, "leave it to the eggheads/politicians to decide" - but there is a pretty good track record out there of decisions made in that manner, and I cannot say the results are always entirely satisfactory to the rest of us. Also, no matter how results may prove the error in various past decisions reached, those experts, trapped as they are in the cult of Scientific Management, would almost never blame the system they buy into as potential cause of that error. These 'deciders' are often not so 'neutral' as it turns out, and how can one know if their decisions are made in any sort of concordance with one's own values? Also, this position, of leaving it to others to decide, is an abdication of our supposed rights as 'citizens' in a 'democracy' it might be said. When they make decisions about bailing out the financial sector to the tune of $800-billion, whose interests are they taking primarily into account? I don't believe, personally, that 'the public good' is always uppermost in the minds of the 'deciders'.

Some might say, "all technology is bad, it's spinning out of control and is going to cause harm, so let's get rid of technology altogether". Concomitant with this view I suppose is some sort of return to an idealized, pre-industrial state, where we all live in pastoral bliss. Well, anyone can see that such a world simply isn't possible any more, other than for a very tiny fraction of the worlds population. It's simply not a workable option. There are too many folks living on the globe now, too much top soil is gone, too many water sources are polluted, the plant pollinators are in decline, not to mention the consequences of climate change in the form of droughts and other unpredictable weather events which will affect any sort of social/technological planning.

Some might say, "well, this technology is good and that one isn't, so lets keep the good ones, and get rid of the rest and let things stay where they are". A subtractive approach in other words. The problem here is: WHO decides what technologies are good and which are not, and upon which values, and what are their interests in relation to the rest of us? Why should some people presume to make decisions for the rest of us anyhow? Simply because they are specialists or 'experts'? Should we spend our resources on developing improved Botox treatments, or eradicating water-borne illness in Africa? Should we develop electric cars, or hybrid Hummers, or mass public transit, or bicycles, or improved roads, or??? And if we did follow one of those choices, can we really claim to see the downstream effects of those choices? Should we get rid of nuclear weapons because of their horrific potential, or should we keep them as they seem to have promoted a certain amount of deadlock between the great powers? It is all but impossible to guess at all the downstream effects of a given technological innovation.

Another view might be: "Well, okay, we have all this technology, so lets put our energies into developing the only the good ones." This approach contrasts with the one above in that is is additive. This idea has its problems too: if you look at the history of technology, you will be surprised to find that the development path is not nearly so clean a picture as one might suspect - there are all sorts of twists and turns and unexpected outcomes. Sometimes an inventor sets out to invent one thing, and inadvertently comes up with another, and may or may not realize it. Case in point is the Scottish fellow who was looking to develop an improved tar to waterproof ship hulls with, and in the course of brewing up a new batch of oily goop, a mysterious explosion destroyed his shop. Another fellow, reading about this in the paper, wonders about why the shop blew up, and in his investigations of the matter comes to discover natural gas. Another case would be the one involving the discovery of magnetism, one development of which was the compass, which let sailors plot more accurate courses. Then the triangular sail was developed in the Mediterranean, which allowed a sailing ship to tack, thus able to sail against the wind. Benign it would seem. This led to the possibility of sailing across the Atlantic, the results of which were not so benign for the indigenous over here. A few technological developments down this line of development later, and you have B-52 bombers loaded with precision-guided cruise missiles. I'm sure the guy who developed either the compass or the sail wasn't thinking about such downstream results from his invention. I'm sure no one in the US space program would have thought that aluminum foil would be the 'big' consumer product that resulted from all the marshaling of resources towards the goal of landing a man on the moon.

So, how does one decide which technologies to push forward and which to leave behind, in consideration of such knowledge? 'Benevolent' technologies might spur subsequent inventions that are harmful to life, and vice-versa.

So, we live embedded in a technological society, dependent upon it to a greater or lesser extent. It's not really possible to disengage from society completely and be independent of the 'machine'. It's like a ride we've apparently chosen to get on, that we can't - apparently -just jump off of again. It doesn't mean we have no control - if technology was a locomotive screaming down the tracks, no one at the helm, we still can choose whether to keep on throwing coal into the boiler as we've always done. I hope. Choices to break habits aren't always so easy to make for mere mortals, especially if you've been spending most of your life shoveling coal into that boiler in one fashion or another.

The Master Builder tradition is of an age prior to the industrial revolution, and was effectively snuffed out by that industrial revolution. There is really no going back to it, though I can't help but feel that there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. There is value in being a specialist, obviously. In carpentry, to be a timber framer requires a fairly different set of tools, like chisels, large power planers and boring machines (typically), and knowledge of joinery,than it does to work in conventional light framing, with it's reliance upon the nail gun, air compressor and chop saw. And once investments are made in the specialized knowledge and tooling of one's field, this tends to perpetuate the specialization, for after all, the tools 'have to be paid for' by the work, so more work must be drummed up of that nature. And, as one becomes known for one's specialty, people find out about that and approach you to do that specific work for them.

In example, I moved to a new place as a timber framer, got a job with Doctor H to build a reception desk for the clinic, and next thing I knew, people thought of me as a furniture-maker and were coming to see me for more furniture projects. It became harder as result to market myself as a timber framer, since many, once they have put you in a particular 'box', often have a hard time accepting that you can do two different 'trades' even if they are closely related. We do not, after all, go to the veterinarian when we're sick, although he must share a lot of common knowledge with our family doctor. Same for carpentry, some would appear to think.

So, how can we bring something back of the holistic Master Builder tradition when we live in a world that produces, encourages, and rewards specialization? I guess it boils down to a question of balance, of golden means once again on the see-saw between specialization and holistic practice, and a recognition that specialization, when taken to the limits, is not necessarily a positive or healthy development.

I think that the balance point needs to be located in such a place as to give somewhat more weight to the specialization end of things. We can't own every tool to do every kind of work involved in building a house, nor are there enough hours in the day to become skilled at each specialization, but we need to have deep knowledge in one primary area of our craft. without deep knowledge, the possibilities for developing the art are diminished. I think that the greater the exposure the crafts-person has to other related trades can only be beneficial, for that experience allows one to know what is involved in skillful work in another craft, and thus to recognize and support it.

I have had a diverse background myself, having spent more than a little time working in the following fields, as a synopsis of my resumé shows:

-five years of bicycle mechanics
-two years of auto restoration including 600 hours of sheet metal welding
-half a year of stone masonry
-years of landscaping and commercial irrigation (and therefore a certain amount of plumbing and low-voltage electrical work)
-drafting - now computer-aided drafting
-household electrical, from meter socket and load panel install on down
-Japanese swordsmithing (6 months as a helper)
-furniture making
-timber framing and teaching
-log building
-ESL teaching
-martial art teaching

And so forth. For most folks, in our society, having a diverse resume is seen in a negative light, but I think in the constructive arts it is a good thing. I guess I'd have to wouldn't I? -it's not like I can do it all over again, and even if I could, I wouldn't change much. The area of my specialization is timber framing and solid wood joinery, including furniture. This is where the vast bulk of my energies have been directed in recent years. The other areas I have dabbled in by comparison, yet there is something to draw upon from each experience than enriches my perspective in the work. I am not a skilled professional welder, but I know a good weld from a poor one.

If I am building a house, I have a good idea what to look for when assessing the work of the plumber, plasterer, stone mason, or electrician. I can tell if the laborer knows how to work a shovel or rake. From experiences teaching carpentry drawing, I have deepened and solidified my knowledge and abilities in that area in terms of work practice. it is actually possible to teach AND do, contrary to popular opinion.

I have a respect for the trades and some knowledge of what is involved in each of them, and know what to look for when viewing the quality of other peoples work - and this basically comes down to seeing if the other trades-person truly has a 'craftsmanship mentality' in what they do, or if for them it is simply a day job, something to be forgotten about at 5:00 every day. Sadly, it seems to me that the number of people with the 'craftsman approach' to workmanship, and dedication to their art is a rapidly dwindling number in our time. I think this may have a lot to do with society placing such high value on formal 'education' and specialization, so that most of those who go into trades these days, if I were to speculate, are likely those left behind in the scholastic G.P.A. and S.A.T. race, disaffected by the education system and primarily driven by looking for something 'easy' or even 'mindless' to do, hopefully secure in employment prospects, and that pays 'decently'. Nothing so much wrong with these intentions, however the drive to master ones craft seems notably absent. Part of this development is due to a public education system that actively seeks such results - read J. Gatto for more on this issue. This was less true of our society I think, in the 19th century, where, though the overt choices in career path were narrower and less tolerant of shifting, some really motivated and intelligent people went into the trades, and thus the standards set were really the peak. Thus the apprentice also had role models at a high level upon which he could model his approach to his work.

Whenever I read 19th century carpentry texts, English, American or French, I am always struck with the complexity of the art, the depth of knowledge, and general difficulty of the material. And the sad thing is to think of how much is being lost since almost no one builds stuff like that any more, thus none of that sort of work is seen to any significant extent, and hence there is little demand amongst the public for that quality or type of work. If the public hasn't seen truly high class carpentry work, how would they have a basis upon which to ask for it, or judge the quality of work done otherwise? The benchmark has dropped way down, in short. Demand for such things as geometrical staircases, fine 'air-tight' casework, complex and elegant moldings, hand-planed finishes - almost non-existent these days.

And yet, I'd wager that most folks do not associate quality with modern building practice. Not for the most part. Most, I would say, associate quality to the 'good old days' and to a 'bygone' era of craftsmanship. Not necessarily 'gone' in my view - that era could come back, if people really want it and are prepared to bring the resources to bear to make it happen. Clearly, if no one in the public is wanting it since they've never seen it, leading to no one doing it, then something in that equation has to change. I'm confident that once people saw quality work, more would want it. What might start that ball rolling is move from the people who do the making: a commitment as a crafts-person to push your level higher, to seek out knowledge that will benefit and enrich your artisan-ship, and to hold out but one standard of specifications for your work, to paraphrase the great blacksmith-artisan Samuel Yellin:

"That the work shall be carried out to highest possible standard". Period.

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