Sunday 19 March 2017

The Craftsmen and the Chart-Makers

We don't make anything any more.

That lament has followed us through the years as a ghost floats above his killer, never seen with the fullness of the eye but always hovering as a mocking, aggressive reminder of what we've done to ourselves.  We've killed our ability to make things, outsourced it to the non-Western world in return for self-righteousness about the lack of pollutants in our post-industrial lands, while we wring our hands about the plight of the people in those barren places where the machinery has cooled and seized.  Statues of steel and rust in yellow, grey and brown, abandoned as a warning to our children, mnemonics to those of use who saw them in their prime, moving, growling, far too large to ever be killed, or so we thought. 

And who is to blame, cry all? 

The politicians! The corporations! The environmentalists! The unions! The liberals! The elites! 

Each one says, "But, 'tis not us! We only wanted a clean, technologically-advanced land, where people are educated, work is skilled and life is good! Why do you blame us for the best of our intentions?"

And the politicians blame the unions, the corporations blame the environmentalists, the environmentalists blame the market, the unions blame the liberals, the liberals blame the elites, and the elites melt into the ghost that haunts our waking and takes what's best from our sleep.

But many have never seen a post-industrial land, let alone an industrial one.  Their concern for what we make is limited to discussions about tax, custom tariffs, import and export ratios, figures upon figures arranged in industry-approved charts of all kinds, a blanding of the sweat, effort, sacrifices and pain of the makers into black digits in a white cell.  Not for them a life steeped in the stink of manual labour, the ache of muscles from a 12-hour shift, the primal satisfaction of using the power of your body to provide for your family.  These are things that belong to a different age, an age of flat caps worn without irony, holidays to the seaside, outside toilets, knowing your neighbours your whole life, living, dying, generations of people, within the same county border, the same town, the same village, the same factory or mine or mill, the same house. 

A German and his English colleague once talked with horror of man becoming a mere appendage of the machines, workers being no longer the means of production but lowly attendants on those mechanical monsters that have taken over the effort, the sweat, the pride of making things.  A portent of what is to come?  The chart-makers delight in this thought, this hope, for all they see is minimum costs and maximum production, a line on a graph that moves smoothly and predictably in their favour in a mathematically optimal way.  The messy meat variables are being replaced with pristine metal constants.  Is this not utopia?  Is a land built on the cool predictability of the voiceless machines not better than one uncertainly sustained by the chaos and noise of a directionless mass of writhing limbs?  So much chaos.  So much noise.  So much complexity, too much complexity, a rabble of variables that moves the chart further and further away from a prediction and closer and closer to being no more certain than a prophecy.  This is not what the charts should show.

The chart-makers say: These lives are an anachronism!  We don't need them.  We need the figures to balance in our favour, and if they balance in our favour then the anachronisms will have work to do somewhere else.  And eventually the figures always balance in our favour.  Eventually, but always.

All hail the chart-makers, for they shall inherit the earth! 

We don't make anything any more.

But we do.

The chart-makers just can't see it.


When steam relegated the horse to a luxury, the wailing sounded a keen note.  Blacksmiths, tanners, farriers, your services are no longer needed! You shall drive trains, mend engines, cast metal, all to feed the new metal equines!  Things will be more efficient, quicker, more productive.  We can do the work of 10 men with 1 man!  Those who tallied ledgers laughed excitedly at all the black ink they would need for their account books; surely red ink would be the preserve only of those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the wrong side of this revolution?  But red ink continued to be produced, and the crafts that had been practised for a thousand years were slowly forgotten.

Then, a century hence, the wailing begun again.  Steam?  A historical irrelevance! Internal combustion and electricity are far more reliable, efficient and predictable. No more water towers to fill and maintain at every station, no more coal stokers, no more steam engineers!  And these crafts also fell into abeyance, replaced with electricians and mechanics who each did the work of 10 men.  And still the red ink was needed by those who tallied ledgers, their initial excitement gradually worn away as their predecessors' had been, a sour cloud of unfulfilled expectations emanating from accounting rooms everywhere as those messy, unpredictable variables stubbornly refused to yield to the new technological constants that were supposed to do away with the chaos of manned labour.

After another 70 years or so, enough time had passed for those doomed to repeat history to believe that their time had come.  Computerisation meant that the electricians and mechanics, with their specialised training, knowledge of arcane physics and militant unionism, were no longer needed.  The mechanical was becoming the digital.  Slowly, gradually, inexorably, the levers of day-to-day power were moving further away from men whose hands were covered in dirt to men whose hands had never known such indignity.  The blacksmith had become the metal worker, who had become the mechanic, who was becoming the engineer, and soon he would become the developer.  The revolutions were coming ever quicker; even the accountants has started to work more with charts than ledgers, and it was only a matter of time.  The digital revolution was here and the remnants of the old revolutions needed to be purged to make way.  The mine, the mill, the factory, these were legacies from a past time that had no place in the new order.  Again the keening wail, frustrated and helpless in the face of relentless progress, again the inevitable loss of the skills and the communities that formed around them. And as before 1 man did the work of 10 men, and those who were becoming chart-makers thought nothing of this except as it affected the colour of the font in their new digital ledgers.

Now, we stand as our predecessors did 30, 100, 200 years ago, a decade or more after the last revolution and staring the chart-makers squarely in the eye.  We are caught frozen in a moment of calm before we tip one way or another as the momentum of the world shifts to compensate for the weight of the now obsolete craftsmen that have been pushed to the side.

But in their absence a new breed of craftsman has arisen.  The architect, the graphic designer, the UX specialist, the technical writer - these are the modern stone mason, printer, fresco painter, scribe. Plant maintenance is now IT Operations, the mechanic is the developer.  Where once we made horseshoes, now we build containers, where before we listened to our machine to find their problem, now we step through their innards and debug them.  Just as in preceding revolutions, the change has opened as much opportunity for us messy variables as it has closed previous avenues.

Of course the chart-makers would claim this was their certainty all along.  Opportunity for all!  But this time the opportunities can be grasped by people using the very tools that have pushed their existing skills to the side and that's not the doing of those who would measure progress using graphs.  For graphs measure things, but that measurement has meaning only to those who find it meaningful.  To those who measure things not by lines or trends or bars, but integrity, dignity and human relationships, the chart-makers' obsession with these numbers is a measure only of the distance between them and the craftsmen.

The chart-makers glide through white corridors, cradling the magic screens that give them purpose and value, to glass-walled sanctums of design and certainty.  Outside these numerical monasteries the craftsmen toil, designing, sweating, thinking, building, drinking, testing, checking, laughing, smelling, living, messy variables that defy the digital constants to produce the magic that runs the screens.  The craftsmen know that the numbers are malleable, because the craftsmen make the magic that shows the numbers. 

Everything the chart-makers do is allowed only by the craftsmen.  Every trend-line, pie chart, scatter graph, presentation, calculation, prediction and report, everything they drive, everything they wear, everything they use, their entire world is predicated on the craftsmen, because the craftsmen are everywhere and their magic has seeped into every item, object, tool, process, and system. 

We don't make anything any more. We make everything.

But the divide between craftsmen and chart-makers is wide, too wide for either side's truth to bridge. 

So the chart-makers continue, bathing in the sterility of their quiet, calm, rational numbers.   And when the next revolution comes and the digital craftsmen feel the impotent rage of obsolescence, the chart-makers will point proudly to their charts and proclaim "We were right!".  The brave new world will once again forget the skills of the craftsmen from this age but the trend-lines will keep going up.

The charts don't lie.  They never lie, not to the chart-makers.

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