Technology and the Artisan

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The place of technology in our lives is a complex issue. I look at the topic in two ways: how communication devices such as smart phones impact the time we have to think quietly about something and how the use of technology has become part of the way we make things.

On the first point there is a very good article by Matthew B. Crawford called “The Cost Of Paying Attention” published in the New York Times, in which the author explains how our attention is really a resource in short supply that has become heavily monetized, thus placing constant demands on us to look at products and other marketing messages.

We struggle just to be left alone long enough to finish a thought. As he puts it

“just as clean air makes it possible to breath, silence makes it possible to think.”

Constant distractions and noise impede our ability to be self-aware and aware of our environment in any meaningful way. We need peace and quite in order to think creatively and this is why so many artisans prefer to cloister themselves in their studio to work. It’s not that they are all introverts or shy, they simply need to be able to think.

Pilots are surrounded by gauges, meters, lights and switches and they get voice messages both in person, from members of their flight crew, and on their radios, from air traffic controllers. Viktor Hachmang Child using a card machine

That being said, technology if often part of how we make things. After all, woodworking would be difficult without tools – as would just about every other craft. Not all tools are considered technology of course. I doubt a weaver would think of their loom as a piece of technology. Technology used in the hands of an artisan to help them “create” is very different from technology used in an assembly-line fashion where the person is merely the operator of a machine, which is in fact, driving the process.

However I could never explain this as well as Ursula Franklin does in her 1989 Massey Lecture “The Real World Of Technology” (the Massey Lectures have been broadcast by the CBC Radio show Ideas since 1965). Ursula Franklin is a Canadian metallurgist, research physicist, author and University of Toronto professor who is best known for her writings on the political and social effects of technology.

Ursula talks about how machines can be useful tools for creative people or simply used to enslave them. The sewing machine is an example. Used by someone to design and create clothing, it is a wonderful tool, but when they end up in sweatshops used to create cheap clothing they are nothing more than a tool for exploitation that destroys any opportunity for creativity.

Ursula Franklin The printing press

She distinguishes between holistic technologies used by craft workers or artisans and prescriptive ones associated with a division of labour in large-scale production. Holistic technologies allow artisans to control their own work from start to finish. Prescriptive technologies organize work as a sequence of steps. Franklin argues that the dominance of prescriptive technologies in modern society discourages critical thinking and promotes “a culture of compliance”.

Luddites smashing a power loom in 1812 Franklin writes that household sewing on machines such as this gave way to the industrial production of cheap clothing in sweatshops that exploited female labour.

On the CBC online, you can listen to The Real World of Technology – Part 1

“Technology has always been a part of human existence. Today though, says the experimental physicist, Ursula M. Franklin, technology has large-scale effects on culture itself.”

CBC Massey Series: Ursula Franklin   An early wheel made of a solid piece of wood. The wheel was invented circa 4000


I’m not putting down technology – after all where would we be without the wheel. I’m only saying that maybe we should put it down sometimes, and just look out the window for a while!

A spoked wheel on display at The National Museum of Iran, in Tehran. The wheel is dated to the late 2nd millennium BC and was excavated at Choqa Zanbil.