Friday, April 1, 2011

Computer Numeric Re-Considerations (V)

Welcome back to this series on the pros and cons of CNC, or Computer Numeric Control. When I set out to write on this topic I had very little idea how deep the mineshaft would go and what curious gems I would find down the various passages. I'm in danger at times of getting lost down this mine! Indeed, today I am sure I will have several posts to write yet so as to cover this topic with any semblance of thoroughness.

So far in this series I have introduced the topic in a general way in post 1, paid some attention to notions of uniformity/sterility/warmth in terms of workmanship both by hand and machine in post 2, considered the joys, or lack thereof, in doing highly repetitious work in post 3, and in the preceding post began to probe the history of automation and how CNC came to be a more widespread method of manufacturing.

It turns out that the history aspect is far more intriguing than one would initially expect. In fact, for the past several days I have been engrossed in a book on that very topic: Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation by David F. Noble. The author, who passed away in December of last year, building on undergraduate degrees in history and chemistry, became a biochemist, then gained a position as assistant professor at MIT. He was refused tenure at MIT and dismissed in 1984 - not too surprising since in Forces of Production, published also in 1984, Noble is highly critical of MIT. MIT Institute Professor Noam Chomsky commented at the time that Noble was “too radical for MIT”. Noble moved next to the Smithsonian, where as curator of industrial automation he was fired again, this time for including the only extant hammer used by the Luddites in the 19th century. I for one would be curious to learn more about that story with his time at the Smithsonian.

Noble later went on to gain a tenured position at York University in Toronto, where he taught until his passing. Noble was a noted critical historian of science, technology and education, and Forces of Production is widely considered his masterwork. I wish I had come across it earlier in life, as it has really reshaped some of my views on a topic which, though at first appearing rather arcane, actually has some profound implications for how society is shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by technological developments. I would put this book with Jacques Ellul's superb work from the 1950's The Technological Society as must-reads for those who have any interest in technology and how it shapes our lives - the human dimensions of technological change in other words. We're all going along for a ride in his boat, as it were, so it seems to me worth standing up once in a while to ask, why are we in this boat and where are we going? Can I get off this boat or do I not really have that choice? Who, if anyone, made the decision that we all ride in this boat?

Another work which I have seen frequently quoted, and which now sits on my table in the reading queue, is Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization, originally published in 1934. As a segue into Noble's work, I quote a passage from Mumford, as it resonated with me:

"Choice manifests itself in society in small increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as loud dramatic struggles, and he who does not see choice in the development of the machine merely betrays his incapacity to observe cumulative effects until they are bunched together so closely that they seem completely external and impersonal.

What we call, in its final results, "the machine" was not...the passive by-product of technics itself, developing through small ingenuities and improvements and finally spreading over the entire field of social effort. On the contrary, the mechanical discipline and many of the primary inventions themselves were the result of deliberate effort to achieve a mechanical way of life: the motive in back of this was not technical efficiency but holiness, or power over other men...Machines have extended these aims and provided a physical vehicle for their fulfillment

In the previous post I mentioned the Jacquard Loom, which relied upon a punch-card system to program the machines to accomplish complex weaving patterns. Now, one can read in any number of history books the development of that loom and how it's design was based on earlier ideas and inventions. One does not often hear though of why the machine was invented, and with what aims in mind. Noble clarifies this matter:

"Joseph-Marie Jacquard built his automatic loom in 1804 at the behest of Lyons manufacturers who were intent upon eliminating the many workers required to operate the complex draw loom, which was used in the weaving of fine, figured fabrics. Building upon the earlier work of a series of French inventors - whose devices had facilitated the work of operatives by rendering it more accurate and less fatiguing - Jacquard completed the visionary but stillborn efforts of Jacques de Vaucanson to do away with the operatives altogether. (Just as Vaucanson's earlier effort had been halted by organized worker hostility, so Jacquard's first looms were burned by the silk workers of Lyons)."

It's interesting how the picture changes when what on the surface may appear to be just a simple development in weaving technology turns out to be a deliberate creation for the purpose of eliminating workers. The burning of the looms reminds me of the Luddites, much maligned in current pop culture, about whom I did a post in 2009.

There are many who would argue that technology is some sort of neutral force and the changes wrought by it are somehow 'inevitable' or 'inescapable'. Practitioners of science and technology have always claimed to be but servants of society as a whole, asking only for autonomy, and a privilege to carry out their work without interference - and yet with support, a share of the social surplus to underwrite their expenses. But upon closer examination however of these ideals of technological progress, so deeply ingrained in American culture by the twentieth century, it becomes clear that scientists and engineers are not really autonomous agents of some disembodied progress at all - in reality they too are members of society and moved, like the rest of us, by a myriad of motivations, including self-interest. That self-interest however, also, and quite inescapably, reflects the interests and concerns of their patrons:

"First and foremost, the very fact that scientists and engineers are in a position to learn about the properties of matter and energy and to use their knowledge for practical ends, to make decisions about the design and even the use of new technologies, indicates their close relationship to social power. Such ties to power afford them access to the social resources that make their achievements possible: capital, time, materials, and people. Thus, it is no accident that technical people are often allied so closely with the owners of capital and the agencies of government; the connection is the necessary prerequisite of scientific and technological development, given the social relations of American capitalism; technical people people strive continuously to anticipate and meet the criteria of those in power simply so that they may be able to practice their calling. It is no wonder that, in subtle and not so subtle ways, they tend to internalize and even consciously adopt the outlook of their patrons, an outlook translated into professional habit through such mechanisms as education, funding, reward-structures, and peer pressure."

Technology and its development therefore is more a manifestation of social relations and power structures than is commonly acknowledged. We tend to idolize, for example, the lone genius inventor in their garage, when in fact that sort of person in reality accounts for an infinitesimally small slice of the technological development picture.

The professional habits of those accustomed to those practicing their calling in a world where support must be gained by those entities in positions of power comes to inform technical and scientific work itself, affecting not only the lives of technical specialists but their imaginations as well, their notion of what is possible or worth pursuing. Noble gives some excellent examples of the social limitations which define what is possible or not in Forces of Production:

"...if an engineer were to come up with a design for a new technical system which required for its optimal functioning considerable control over the behavior of his fellow engineers in the laboratory, the design would perhaps be dismissed as ridiculous, however elegant and up-to-date its components. But, if the same engineer created the same system for an industrial manager or the Air Force and required, for its successful functioning, control over the behavior of industrial workers or soldiers (or even engineers in their employ), the design might be deemed viable, or even downright ingenious. The difference between the two situations is the power of the manger and the military to coerce workers and soldiers (and engineers) and the engineers own lack of power to coerce his fellows. The power relations of society, and the position of the designer within them, define to a considerable extent what is technically possible."

Noble goes on to provide further elaboration of this point, in case the reader was not convinced or clear as to the social nature of technological development:

"If the relationship between technical people and those who wield social power informs their designs and estimates of what is possible, so too, as we have seen, does their relationship with those who must work with, or within, their "systems". Suppose, to take a second example, that an engineer designed a machine for his best friend, for her birthday. When it was completed he offered it to her, saying with true professional pride, "Happy birthday. I have built for you my finest machine; it is so well designed it can be run by an idiot." No doubt his friend, who does not consider herself to be an idiot, would be taken aback, their friendship would for the moment be in doubt, and the engineer would be obliged to try to redesign the machine for someone who was not an idiot. This he would find very difficult, given the orientation of his professional knowledge, and he might not even know where to begin. However, had he presented the same machine to a manufacturer, with the same claim - that it could be run by an idiot - he would have probably encountered no such difficulty. Imbued with the philosophy of work simplification and deskilling, desirous of reducing his labor costs and minimizing his "labor problems" and, because of his rights as an employer, having the power to compel his workers to do idiot work, the manufacturer would probably have found the machine quite satisfactory. Indeed, it is this criteria, embedded in the engineer's "art" that shaped the design in the first place - without the engineer even being aware of it.

Thus it matters a great deal, in terms of what actually gets designed, whether or not the designers and users are the same people, whether or not they know each other, whether or not they view each other as equals, whether or not they have power over one another, whether or not they are friends. On the whole, technical people come to share the perspective of those who wield power rather than those over whom the power is wielded, with managers rather than labor, with officers rather than soldiers. If for no other reason, this happens simply because technical people do their work almost exclusively with the former rather than with the latter, and come to share a world with them. But they have little, if any, contact with the others, about whom they typically remain woefully ignorant.

Noble's point is clearly made I think, with these simple thought experiments in regard to social dynamics. These relationships and peoples actions within them are less a matter of choice, but rather reflect institutionalized tendencies, with many of the actors largely unconscious as to how their patterns of behavior are part of what noble describes as the habit-forming relationship they have to power.

Reflecting back to the Mumford quote above, one of the other myths in our society, if not a staple of current thinking, is that a "successful" technology, having become dominant, must have evolved in some "necessary" way. While anyone looking for more than a moment or two at the story of Betamax vs VHS would quickly become disabused of the notion that the technically superior technology must win out in a "competitive marketplace of ideas", nonetheless the idea that technological innovations compete in some sort of 'Darwinian' context remains a common perception, as Noble points out:

"Implicit in the modern ideology of technological progress is the belief that the process of technological development is analogous to that of natural selection. It is thus assumed that all technological alternatives are always considered, that they are disinterestedly evaluated on their technical merits, and that they are then judged according to the cold calculus of accumulation. Any successful technology, therefore - one which becomes the dominant and ultimately the only solution to a given problem - must, by definition, be the best, for it alone has survived the rigors of engineering experimentation and the trials of the competitive marketplace. And, as the best, it has become the latest, and necessary, step along the uni-linear path of progress.

This dominant "Darwinian" view of technological development rests upon a simple faith in objective science, economic rationality, and the market. It assumes a flow of creative invention passes progressively through three successive filters, each of which further guarantees that only the "best" alternative survive. The first, the objective technical filter, selects the most scientifically sound solutions to a given problem. The second, the pecuniary rationality of the hard-nosed businessman, screens out the more fanciful technical solutions and accepts only those which are practical and economically viable. The third, the self-correcting mechanism of the market, dooms the less savvy businessman and thus ensures that only the best innovations survive.

But this facile faith assumes too much, and explains too little. It portrays technological development as an autonomous and neutral technical process, on the one hand, and a coldly rational and self-regulating economic process, on the other, neither of which accounts for people, power, institutions, competing values, or different dreams. Thus it begs and explains away all important historical questions: The best technology? Best for whom? Best for what? Best according to what criteria, what visions, according to whose criteria, whose visions?

Indeed, Noble goes on to show, through his dissection of the historical developments that led to the current proliferation of NC and later CNC controlled manufacturing processes, that what unfolded was anything but a survival of a fittest approach - the solutions arrived at, and those discarded, were done so largely for political and social/cultural reasons, not economic or technical ones.

In the next post, I'll look a little more closely at the ideals of those who most overtly control which technologies get pushed forward and which do not, an ideal summed up in the Utopian fantasy of the Automatic Factory, a fantasy fast becoming reality in our time, in what is called Lights Out Manufacturing.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.


  1. Wow Chris, I had to take several cooling breaks in this post to prevent brain over heating. Noble resonates with me as well. I thought of an example of technology being forced into a particular channel for the benefit of capital rather than the benefit of humanity.

    Modern corn production has been achieved through the employment of hybridization. The costs of research and development are easy to recoup since the farmer must buy fresh seed every year from the producer who controls the technology. Seeds produced from hybrid plants are useless in the second generation. Soybean on the other hand have been developed over thousands of years of thoughtful, labor intensive selective breeding. We are all beneficiaries of that labor, which of course can never be repaid. Future generations could well benefit from a non-hybrid, high producing corn but who will bear the cost? Technology Darwinism seems as counter factual to me as Social Darwinism.

    My wife's Father was born and raised in an Amish family. We occasionally visit her Amish cousins. I have often admired their determination to look technology in the face and ask "why?" rather than "how?" which seems to be the default question of mainstream american society. It is a custom which will serve them well. Contrary to popular perception they are not opposed to Technology in general, only to its long term effects on family, culture and economics.

    Harlan Barnhart

  2. Harlan,

    sorry about the brain overheating - it was a challenge to condense the information I have been digesting into a manageable chunk for the blog, and I worry at times the subject matter might be getting too academic, esoteric or political even for some readers.

    About corn- have you seen the documentary King Corn? If not, I recommend you check it out. I found it quite illuminating.

    I think the Amish have it right in terms of asking "why" and not "how", and in their openness to technology without being swept up in it. With CNC I'm also trying to ask the "why" questions and consider the matter from a variety of angles.


  3. Chris,
    I haven't seen King Corn but I heard a little about it. It's a topic around which I have some experience. My father's family farm fell victim to the forces of agricultural industrialization and government farm policy. Small producers are being pinched out by artificially low commodity prices and ever increasing production costs. Farming has transitioned from labor intensive to a capital intensive.

    In some ways technology is making it easier for consumers to ask more questions about the production they support. Four years ago I needed work boots. I didn't wish to support the Chinese shoe industry because I have been poorly served by it in the past. By searching the net I was able to find a company in Texas that made work boots in a factory that seemed to be a place I would like to work in. They had videos of the factory floor showing work pacing and how much of the craft was under the control of workers, not machines. I noted that the workers controlled the pace of work by activating machines rather than machines setting the pace by spitting out work automatically. Four years and a re-sole later I am quite happy with my boots. They still have a lot of life in them. We inherit the world we create with our buying habits.

    Harlan Barnhart

  4. The Amish connection to their land is one factor in perpetuating the homogenous social structure evident in their society. Lenin, in his late 19th century writings on the development of capitalism in Russia, cited the rise of mechanization and large scale industry, the transition from hand labor to machine production, as being a fundamental reason for the decline of peasant agriculture. His writings make an interesting read on both the desirable progressive side of advancing industrialization, and the disproportionalities and hardships that the changes to the social organization brought.

  5. Dennis,

    I imagine Lenin was speaking partly at least out of his readings of Marx, and partly out of the confirmation of his own observations. I haven't read anything by Lenin, however the piece you shared seems to echo sentiments of Marx in Volume 1 of "Das Capital":

    "Instruments of labor not only supply a standard of the degree of development which human labor has attained, but they are also indicators of the social conditions under which that labor is carried on."

    Interestingly too, in regards to peasantry, as Ellul points out in his book "Propaganda": the Nazis found the rural peasants were the most difficult subjects to propagandize. The reasonwas that peasants were tied to their village-based lives and the close-knit established social structures anchored them and provided meaning, unlike urban individuals who tended to be un-rooted and looked for that meaning in an impersonal living situation - a psychic void which could be filled most effectively by the state.


  6. Seems like this video is relevant to this thread... Japanese Timber Frame Joinery Machine

    -jamie s


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