Hands and Machines


I’m reading a fairly amazing book called “Living the Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing.  One of several standout quotes from the first section of the book is this one:

“Mankind has worked for ages with hand implements.  Machine tools are a novelty, recently introduced into the realm of human experience.  There can be no question but that machine have more power than humans.  Also there can be no question but that they have watered down or annihilated many of the most ancient, most fascinating and creative human skills, broken up established institutions, pushed masses of ‘hands’ into factories and herded droves of anonymous footloose wanders from urban slum to urban slum.  Only the historian of the future will be able to assess the net effect of the machine age on man’s joy in being and his will to live.

I think about this all the time, as I’m making things by hand in ways that have declined or almost disappeared since the industrial revolution.  And I have watched a similar thing happening lately to my husband Bryan with the explosion in digital photography.

I personally think that while some machines are truly labor-saving, we as humans still need to make things ourselves.  For self-fulfillment – I can’t go more than about a week without physically making something or I start to get unhappy.  And because when we make things, we learn and think about where they come from and what goes into them.  It helps us understand the materials that are available and the amazing creative power we each possess to craft our own ideas and dreams using these materials.

What do you think?

PS: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in living even a little bit outside the box.  Even if you don’t agree with everything the Nearings believe, it’s inspiring to read the story of two people who chose their own path and followed their own hearts and minds.

4 thoughts on “Hands and Machines

  1. I think about this often. In my work I use a screw gun (battery powered drill). And it saves oodles of time. I remember how we did it as a kid – we used a screw driver. On a given day I might drive hundreds of screws – no way would that happen with a hand powered screw driver!

    I think there is in an optimum level of technology, but the nature of humanity is to push through that and to take things too far. For example, in my mind, email is a GREAT advance. But Facebook less so, and Twitter just doesn’t make sense to me.

    A similar argument can be made in the area of taxation – A few decades ago, taxes were to high, and cuts were beneficial to everyone (even people whose rate wasn’t changed). But now one entire political party is dedicated to cutting taxes – when the government can’t even pay its bills!

    We seem destined, at this moment in history, to take things to the extreme. I am in no way a Luddite, but I do value the work of genuine humans, and I foresee much pain as for humanity as we figure out the balance between automation and humanity. Fake vs. genuine. It isn’t always as obvious as pay your taxes and put the Twitter down. Sometimes it is – how long do we extend a person’s life through technological advances. Should we eliminate the drudgery of manual labor involved in building a house (3D printers lead to mobile 3D printers “printing” your next home). Or do we delight in the craftsmanship of construction?

    In many ways, craftsmanship left the building after WWII and the advent of tract housing (suburbia). But the current housing depression is an opportunity to rethink how we do houses and housing.

    Great articles Tasha – thank you for putting the time into this.

  2. So much is stirred in me by your post Tasha and by Tom’s comment.

    When I first began to take myself seriously as a potter I had the loan of a Bernard Leach designed kick wheel. (For those of you who don’t know who Mr Leach was: he spent years in the early 20th century studying folk pottery in China and Japan, and wrote “A Potter’s Book” in 1940) I can still remember the way I felt using that human powered machine: the rhythm of kicking the heavy fly wheel; the gentle power as its weight stayed constant for a time; the slow, steady whirl of the wheel head that helped me give form to each ball of clay; the elegance of the finger marks that were signature on every pot. This “machine” was extraordinary for another reason and that was the almost complete silence that accompanied this potter’s wheel. It was my own movements, my feet kicking the surface of the fly wheel, that made the sound. I remember this time as peaceful, more than any other, because once I gave back the kick wheel I worked solely on an electric wheel that had a hum whether I was throwing or not. With this wheel, I work faster, and the pieces have lost much of what I’d call their personality. I participate physically it’s true, but don’t use most of my body in the work, rather just my upper torso and arms. Thinking about the two ways of working, I have a deeper understanding of those ancient pots, made deliberately and with a function in mind. Their work, though certainly very hard and tiring, must have also contained a good portion of mindfulness.

    Although we are all so connected to our computers, I am grateful that many people are also very involved in creating beauty, renovating a house, reclaiming an old object, digging a garden. I think that our bodies as individuals, as well as a collective, need this “body memory” of creation more than we know.

  3. Pingback: Carving a Handmade Rubber Stamp « Stale Bread into French Toast

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