Cultural Amnesia, or Worse?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Stephen Bailey of the Independent writes of the decline in manufacturing in England and makes a profound point -- only to sound like he's exemplifying it himself a few sentences later:

The riveter understands from first-hand-and-eye experience the relationship between function and form. It comes naturally to people who make things. And so, too, does an understanding of the quintessential relationship between effort and reward, lost in the flim-flam of post-industrial sophistry. Riveting is a fastening process that only works in some contexts. It's good, for example, at handling shear rather than tension loads. Got that? Otherwise, you might prefer to glue, screw, bolt, nail or weld. If you do not understand how these different techniques affect the function, character and appearance of the stuff we all use, then you are, as a consumer, the equivalent of illiterate. And it's not just fastenings: there is the matter of fabrication. Do you carve, forge, cast, injection-mould, laser-cut, robo-form or laminate? Don't understand? You are like a savage who stowed away on Captain Cook's HMS Resolution, now blinking in his grass skirt when introduced to Piccadilly. If you know how to make something, you understand everything about it. You appreciate its logic, its beauty and its meaning. And its value. And you can pass on these pleasures and benefits. Never mind an aeroplane, designing and making, say, a stacking chair is at the outer levels of human intellectual capability. Abstract reasoning, spatial awareness, advanced motor skills, a keen aesthetic sense are all required. In comparison, the attainments of a commercial lawyer or a fund manager seem crude and debased. And not very valuable. Design of stacking chairs should be essential to the National Curriculum. [minor format edits]
On the one hand, Bayley is absolutely right: Too many people in our society are too out-of-touch with how the goods and services on which their lives depend work. On the other hand, those last two sentences are a little bit astounding to my ear, coming as they do so soon after Bayley takes so many people to task.

Without rule of law, made possible in part by the work of commercial lawyers, or long-range planning and careful allocation of financial assets, made possible in part by the mental labor of fund managers, an advanced technological civilization in which people from opposite sides of the world trade to mutual advantage daily would be impossible.

Bayley could, of course, be guilty only of rhetorical excess in his desire to help us appreciate what goes into designing stacking chairs, but he does open by stating his desire for a "Ruskin Revival," alluding to the work of Christian socialist John Ruskin. Might Bayley's thinking, influenced by someone Ayn Rand might have called a "mystic of muscle," caused him to underestimate the role of the mind -- the value of abstract thinking -- in the economy? In any event, it is clear that our culture has failed to transmit much of the knowledge -- and is failing to help younger generations acquire the method of thinking -- that make possible so many things we take for granted, from coffee shops to rivets, and from enforceable contracts between businesses to the proper allocation of past savings for future production. But one must generalize across many fields of human endeavor to see that the work of a riveter and that of a lawyer are each interesting and important in their own ways.

-- CAV

----- In Other News -----

The article bemoans what its author sees as a waste of talent. Its title, "This Tech Bubble Is Different," reveals confusion about what a "bubble" really is. (Only a government can cause prolonged, economy-wide mal-investment.) I also wouldn't be so quick to pooh-pooh the study of how people make certain kinds of decisions. Sometimes, the most interesting questions are camouflaged by the mundane context in which they arise.

How does the brain handle the passage of time? David Eagleman, some of whose work I once very briefly commented on here, has made the New Yorker. A quote: [W]e live these short life spans. Why not do the thing that's the coolest thing in the world to do?"

Along the lines of finding wonder in the ordinary, I like this photo, taken near a mall out West. Oh, and I see there's a beer recommendation -- which I strongly second -- at the same blog. Of late, I have been enjoying another beer from the same brewery, St. Victorious dopplebock.


narayan said...

While David Eagleman's work on synaesthesia is very cool, he has also gotten a lot of press (e.g. TED) for being "possibilian". Quite frankly, I see no reason for a scientist of his caliber to say that being open to implausible scientific discoveries & being an atheist are somehow inconsistent positions. Another instance of the popularity of embracing uncertainty for the sake of it.

Gus Van Horn said...

Agreed. I recall learning (or concluding) some time ago (but not from what information) that he has a rather modernist bent, philosophically speaking. This would be an example. too bad I was right.