Luddite Dreams

I couple of posts back, I received the following comment, which I thought was worthy of addressing in a post unto itself:

…reconsider the Hundegger. It does not cut perfect joinery, not even close. In the hands of a sharp designer and master timber framer it can offer up powerful work – no different than other tools that speed our work. Is it the right tool for every job? Absolutely not. I can cut joinery by hand that is tighter. Is it good at certain things? – absolutely. In a world where the master carpenter has migrated from roaming the countryside with his toolbox hiding from the rain under the eaves of his client to one where pressures of putting food on worker’s tables, insurance, workers comp, etc., etc., drive the housing market as much as a client’s desire to live in a masterwork – the master builder has become a shrewd businessman, technician, engineer, designer, and adapter of technology and tools to achieve all sorts of ends – from staying afloat to building works of art to live in. That all said, our tools define us as much as we define them. The challenge in all of these endeavors is to let the tools be tools – and let the mind and the heart do the designing – and the living.
(with a slight edit from me)

The commenter expresses himself well and thoughtfully, and I greatly value such input into this blog. Before I respond though, I suspect that many readers may well be wondering what the heck a Hundegger, an automated timber cutting machine, looks like. Well, here it is in all its glory:

Inside the ‘tent’, the machine features cutting heads like this:

These are fairly expensive machines, and it would not be unusual for a company to sink $250,000 into a machine like that – then add the forklift and other material handling equipment to facilitate feeding this machine with timber. The cutters are controlled by computer, thus a programmer is necessary. Companies that run machines like this have a higher burden of overhead, and thus in order to keep the costs of their product reasonable, the objective is through-put. Mass-production and assembly line manufacturing compensates for high overhead in tooling by producing in great quantities.

The role of people in a shop oriented around a machine like the Hundegger is confined to four basic areas:

1) Programming/product design
2) loading/unloading of material
3) maintenance/service/cleaning
4) sales/management

The Hundegger is really no different than the sorts of equipment one would find in any large factory – places making cars, woodworking machines, tvs, dishwashers, and so forth.

I like machines actually. I like tools in general – ‘gear’. For me though, the Hundegger loses all attractiveness with the observation,

“It does not cut perfect joinery, not even close…I can cut joinery by hand that is tighter.

I am all for equipment that leads to greater precision in my woodwork, oriented as it is to solid wood joinery. Joinery, as I have mentioned previously, has integrity based largely on the quality of the joined connections. That the Hundegger, apparently can NOT cut ‘perfect joinery – not even close” means that the machine must be designed around some other primary purpose. I would suspect that this purpose is to produce joinery quickly, and eliminate the variances typical in joinery cut by the human hand, especially in a shop where employees have varying degrees of skill in cutting joinery.

Reading between the lines somewhat, the commenter justifies such a machine due to a modern world in which, pressures of putting food on worker’s tables, insurance, workers comp. drive the housing market…, and further that these choices have to be made “to achieve all sorts of ends – from staying afloat to building works of art to live in”.

These rationales are quite logical and, well, sound rather familiar. In fact, when I think about every arena in which mechanization has taken over, shoving the artisan to one side and marginalizing their craft and way of life, I have heard similar claims made. The critical shift in the move to a Hundegger, regardless of the justifications, it seems to me, is a move from the craftperson working the material by his hand and choice of tool, to one of a laborer feeding a machine, and efficiencies of labor division. In the former, the material is the subject of the craftsperson; in the latter, the laborer and the material are the subject of the machine. With a Hundegger, and machines like it, you are no longer working wood so much as you are working for a machine. And that machine, besides cheapening the work quality-wise, as noted above, also ultimately kills the craft that spawned it.

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the Luddites, a socio-political movement that happened in the early 1800’s in parts of England. In modern parlance, the term ‘Luddite’ has come to be a term of derision for technophobes, hippies, back-to-the-landers, or as a synonym for futile resistance against the “inevitable march of civilization”.

Well, the modern use of the word ‘Luddite’ is completely erroneous, as it does not describe the original Luddites at all. If I hear someone say that so-and-so is a ‘Luddite’, my next question is, “oh, do they hate technology or technological change?“. If the answer to that is “yes“, then the people under discussion may be a lot of things, but they certainly aren’t Luddites at all. The Luddites embraced technology in fact, and many textile workers of that day had up-to-date quality machines (like looms) in their home shops. That’s where they worked from – home. What the Luddites were against was not ‘technology’ or ‘progress’ as such- they were against the destruction of their way of life by the factory system, and the use of machines which cheapened the work, and allowed for unskilled labor to be used. New on the scene around the turn of the 19th century, the factory approach to production was destroying a proud craft of textile artisanry and turning it into a dumbed-down labor pit, where conditions of work were wretched and exploitative, and the skilled tradespeople were put out of work, to be replaced by un-skilled young women and children. These workers were locked inside 12~14 hours a day. The Luddites staged marches and engaged in industrial sabotage – destroying many loom frames. A few people were killed. The machines they destroyed however were specifically chosen – the machines that cheapened the work. Again, I repeat, the Luddites were not against technology.

Contrasted to today, the Luddites of that day have no exact corollary. The modern sense of technology as some sort of unstoppable machine, malignant to humanity, the ‘Borg’ for those of you familiar with the tv show Star Trek TNG – was not something on the minds of Luddites. Technology such as industrial production machinery, and later the assembly line were very new on the scene at that point, and in the 19th century there was growing public faith in the ideas of ‘progress’ and scientifically-based reasoning, which were thought to be leading to an improved utopian society. The horror of the First World War neatly shattered that illusion of course.

The Luddites were not environmentalists – though the Romantic movement in English literature at the time definitely sympathized with the Luddite cause, as have many in the modern envoronmental movement. I’ll leave it to the interested reader to search out more information on the Luddite movement – there’s plenty out there, both in the local library and on-line.

The seduction of machines like the Hundegger is pretty apparent, especially if one is frustrated by the inconsistencies of the work force, or one’s own work, has means-to-an-end pragmatism, or is motivated by money more strongly than other factors. To give a similar example, the same lure of technology has long been dangled in front of the farmer, and today we have the scene of massive, economically rationalized, multi-thousand acre farms, where the farmhouses and hedges are merely in the way, and the normal sight these days is the lone operator driving the fields in an air-conditioned tractor, working a thousand arces at a go with the harvester or sprayer. The family farm has been largely destroyed.

Curtis K. Stanfield, in his book From the Land and Back: What Life was like on a Family Farm and How Technology Changed It (1972), compared the transition to industrialized farming with a war on the environment. He notes that the transition to the mechanized farming systems was so innocent,

like the social revolution that came inevitably to the farm when isolation ended, the technological revolution was so sudden and complete that no one had time to consider what parts of it were good and which needed a place for the same reasons we go to the moon; we found out we could, and so we thought we must.

Interestingly, it was around 1972 that the US department of Agriculture revamped the farm subsidy system to encourage over-production, leading to crop surpluses, which was really the start of the homogenization of modern agri-business as we know it. Stanfield was already worried by what he was finding, and the apocalyptic changes in US farming practices had not even really begun to get going.

Stanfield also made the following comment based on his investigation and life-long observations, from the central Michigan area in which his father had farmed:

It was soon apparent that in many cases the new combines or choppers, or field tillers were not being bought on the basis of calculated economics. A man with 20 acres of grain to harvest each year has no need for a combine of his own, when he can hire a man to do the work for him…Yet the farmer bought them, along with the big tractors to run them. For years, I thought they were simply bad managers, not aware of, or at least not making use of, simple management techniques. But now I see how alluring machinery is, simply in its nature. A man wanted his own combine, partly because it might give him a sense of independence, but also because it is a universal ego satisfaction to dominate a complicated machine.

An interesting film I saw recently on modern farming practice is King Corn, which certainly opened my eyes. I drove through the ‘breadbasket’ of the US last year, and I had no idea that those miles upon miles of corn fields were not growing corn for direct human consumption – almost all of it goes for either cattle feed or high fructose corn syrup. The corn grown in most fields is not actually edible to a human. All very rational, to a certain way of thinking.

I see the Hundegger in a similar light, as a destroyer of a proud craft tradition, one already heavily debased as it is. And while having such a machine may initially lead to greater productivity for a company, it’s only a matter of time before economic imperatives drive their competitors to acquire similar machines, and then it becomes a race for through-put, which drives pricing. Down to the bottom we go. Bill’s Woodproducts has a Weinig molder that can process 600 linear feet of material per hour; if John’s Woodproducts gets a fancier molder that can do 1000 linear feet per hour, then they can underprice – the race is on! And when you’re competing with machines, you are all producing a similar sort of product, and the natural process then is amalagamation, homogenization, the formation of pricing cartels and so forth. I mean, it’s curious isn’t it, that in this land of ‘innovation’ and ‘enterprise’, there are only three major auto makers. We all know what happens to upstarts in such a system. That’s the direction the Hundegger points towards: giant factories, a big sales department, a few skilled programmers, and on the shop floor mostly unskilled labor, load and unloading, applying plastic wrap. I can see why such a system might be very appealing to a businessman, or someone who primarily designs, but for me, since I design AND build, I have to reject that path. Completely reject it.

In fact, I do not try and produce products that compete in any way against products produced by automated cutting machines. I like the subtlety of the hand-planed surface, the satisfaction of tight joinery with perfect structural integrity, and designs that are informed by more than simply a programming guide and tooling catalog. Let the mind and the heart do the designing, yes, but without the hand doing the making a vital connection is severered, and the stabilty of the creative tripod is lost. When I cut into the wood with a handsaw, or even my circular saw or router, I receive a lot of feedback about the material through the tool – all this is lost in an automated machine. With a Hundegger, wood is simply a commodity to be shoved through the machine, the more the better. Logging is rapidly becoming automated, dimensional lumber production is automated, and now the proposition the Hundegger represents, is to turn the craft of timber framing into an automated process. What of the human – what of the craftsperson deriving satisfaction from his work? What of the logger who might have reverence for the act of cutting down the tree in light of the switch to machine operators running feller-bunchers? It’s the same dehumanization. The further you remove a person from intimacy with process and material, the easier it becomes to exploit. Same in warfare, same in agriculture, same in logging, and same in making things from wood. Once the wedge of disconnection is pushed in, the split begins, and the craftsperson is marginalized, skills are lost, material becomes commodity for exploitation. In time the forests are turned into mere woodlots, the trees planted in neat rows to facillitate fertilizing, pruning and harvest, the workers merely a cog, low in skill and easily replaced. It’s the industrialist’s wildest dream – maybe reality, unfortunately. Perhaps, if computer A.I. becomes a reality, then the programmers can all be replaced too, and hello, ‘Matrix’.

The comment that the Hundegger is, “no different than other tools that speed our work“, I must reject the notion that all tools are alike. The Hundegger isn’t equivalent to other carpentry tools. While technology can be argued to be neutral, the ends to which we put technology are not so neutral. Tools give capacity, and the results of that, down the line, vary widely in effect. A person with an axe and horse-drawn cart can chop in a frenzy all day long and won’t even touch what the operator in the feller buncher can do in minutes in terms of laying waste to the forest. And, if a technology appears that allows a certain thing to be be done, more easily or cheaply, human nature is definitely likely to lead us into doing it, as temptation is awfully hard to resist, and short term gain at the expense of the long view is status quo in modern culture. Greed is easily justified in such a system.

I think we must be like the wise martial artist, with skills and conditioning (the tools) to kill, yet who can keep the sword sheathed in almost all circumstances, quietly confident about their abilities and wise enough not to be easily tempted into using their weapons. I think as humans that our technolgical savvy in many cases has greatly overreached our metal ability to envision the downstream effects of our choices. It’s like we are trying to run the latest software in a chassis designed in the stone age.

Finally, the commenter wrote, “our tools define us as much as we define them”. I agree – that’s my point exactly with the Hundegger and machines like it. The Hundegger defines a way of work and of relating to material that is competely at odds with my personal direction. If the hundegger could produce a greater variety of joints, and most especially, better joints than I could do by other means, then I might have a certain interest. Since that’s not the case, and I can see the path to which the Hundegger points, I can say, after much consideration, no thanks.