On the fall and rise of hands

Unraveling our ties to technology to remember the art of making things—By Elisabeth Bennett / Photography by Curtis James

When we characterize younger generations today, perhaps what most differentiates them from others is their nativity and literacy in the digital age. We make much of this difference and contemplate how it affects and reflects language, brain development, and future innovation in technology. But what seems left out of these types of conversations is something that may be lost—or is relegated to dormancy—with these shifts. As someone who has worked with my hands in the design field for much of my life, in recent years I’ve been ruminating on some of the more negative cultural, social and personal effects of entire generations having little daily experience and expertise associated with making, fixing, and manipulating or interacting with artifacts and the built environment. It seems an inevitable consequence of today’s technology, being ever-more of the digital variety, that how we value and qualify ‘ability’ is increasingly in reference to how one relates to and exploits this technology. Meanwhile, understanding the mechanical world is only for the expert few, rather than the everyman. Of course, technological developments have shaped and characterized human culture through the ages, but perhaps never have we been so all-encompassingly reliant on it, with digital technology and it’s many conveniences aiming to meet needs in all corners of our lives.

The impact of this may be further reaching than is clearly apparent at this point in history, having significant effects on an individual’s sense of identity and their connection to the world around them, both physical and social. Working with one’s hands is often felt as restorative, even essential. But in a world where so few enjoy the experiential fullness of manual work, whether in pleasure or professional practice, I can’t help but feel something very human is lost. Do we not have a deeply embedded, practical and perhaps even evolutionary need to create and work with our hands—to nurture the ‘hard’ skills characteristic of generations past? After all, it’s been but a blip in history that our prime engagement seems to be with screens of all kinds rather than tools in a more traditional sense.

In my grandparents’ generation and before, virtually everyone partook in mechanical and making activities. My maternal grandparents, for example, grew up as farm kids; ploughing fields, milking cows, and learning to build, sew, hunt and fix just about everything, all at tender young ages. My grandmother made every item of clothing my mother and her sister wore, and yearly preserved so much food it would last them a winter—all while working full time as a schoolteacher. My grandfather designed and built, by himself, the first two homes my mother grew up in; there wasn’t a car problem he couldn’t fix; and I have fond childhood memories of exploring (and messing with) the workshop that took up his entire basement, and from which he made everything from leather goods to hunting knives to jewellery boxes for the grandkids. None of this was exceptional in their time.

Today, these types of mechanical skills are namely the domains of skilled practitioners. What once had to be made for oneself is now available to purchase. What was once fixed or mended is now easily replaced with mass produced and inexpensive alternatives. Our relationship to our own things has vastly changed. In some ways, as consumers we have greater agency—being less attached to our goods. And yet, we’ve never been so reliant on (and had such an abundance of) goods and technology to meet needs in our lives, all while the agency we have with respect to a specific object itself—to manipulate, fix, change, and ultimately make it useful (again)—lacks.

I try not to idealize a time past. Life was a struggle for my grandparents, to be sure. But thinking about the differences between then and now raises several questions about our future:

Have we reached a threshold in which our relationship
to technology compels us away from it?

In my work, I’ve seen increasing unease emerge in our relationship to digital technology: ‘Technology is meant to simplify our life… but does it always? Technology helps me work smarter… but does it make me less smart or capable? I can’t live without my smart phone … Oh my god, I can’t live without my smartphone!’ These anxieties often come to the fore when we are reminded of the role that technology tends to play in the background—typically occurring when it fails to do its job and leaves us stranded. Suddenly, the sense that these things are both a luxury and a tie that binds becomes unnervingly apparent.

In the West, the feelings of both freedom and enslavement that technology engenders appear to have been particularly invigorated in the wake of the economic crisis in the past several years. As opting out isn’t on the table for most, adapting within the system, personalization and localization, and efforts at self-sufficiency abound. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement, the sharing economy and the associated decline in markets such as new car purchases, artisanal or slow-food cooking, and the success of marketplaces such Etsy—where at least if one isn’t quite ready for ‘doing handmade’, it’s easy to support the passion economy and gain something one-of-a-kind; revealing tensions towards technology’s global reach and grip, the giving of such gifts is imagined to be more authentic and worthy of regard than something mass-produced. It also creates a connection to something tangible, as opposed to the abstract world of the digital.

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What is the role and value of ‘hard’ vs. ‘soft’
skills in our modern economy?

Children are inherently fascinated with in the inner workings of things, wanting to take them apart and unearth what lies beneath the cover. But through education today, the world is often taught in the abstract, and this curiosity is dissuaded and appears to be eventually made latent. This is not surprising given that it is ‘soft’ skills that are most relevant to the work of the knowledge and information economy. These skills have been celebrated and nurtured with the expectation that the jobs of today and tomorrow will demand them. With the rise of knowledge work, the status of blue-collar jobs has declined, considered representative of a past way of doing things.

We’ve come to a point where we no longer know how the things around us work. We don’t have to anymore. Or do we? Will we more so in future? The sustainability of our consumption and economic realities suggest that the answer may be yes—at least we had better start trying. As the predominantly overeducated and underemployed Millennial generation continues to struggle, perhaps more investment in early and postsecondary training in the trades and vocational work will grow—along with the social capital of such work. With this, at the individual level we may also see ideas such as DIY shift from a trend to simply ‘how it’s done’ and manual self-sufficiency (once again) an expectation rather than the exception.

Might a balance of the digital and manual in our lives provide a sense
of agency, accomplishment and interconnectedness?

A current drive towards self-sufficiency betrays a sort of disease of our time; many feel disconnected from one another and the world around them, and find truth and calm in the noise of the everyday slippery to grasp, in spite of (or because of) our 24/7 digital connectedness. It has also become increasingly clear that those who more singularly possess ‘soft’ skills often suffer a sense of precarity with respect to their role in society, namely given contemporary economic realities. On the contrary, manual work can afford one a deep sense of agency, connection to the world, and great capacity for a holistic human growth and fulfillment. The satisfaction that comes with the tangible evidence of a day’s work is tough to compare to knowledge work, whereby measurement and achievement is highly subjective, fleeting and almost always ambiguous in some way.

The rise of the passion economy, whereby many are taking their loved hobby or skill and transforming it into a business, sees this combination of economic precarity in traditional markets with a desire to activate passions at play. Whether it’s craft brewing, running a YouTube channel with makeup application tips, or offering specialty handmade sweaters, many of these entrepreneurs have global online reach at their fingertips with local, small scale productions as their bedrock. In terms of social change on the horizon, the kinds of work that people continue to pursue, whether paid or hobby in nature, may increasingly reflect these urges towards meaning and connectedness—and be of the analog variety.

Further, we seem to be increasingly aware of—and uncomfortable with—our complicity in atrocities such as environmental degradation and human labour/rights violations that the mass production of goods often contribute to. While these concerns remain in the background for a large portion of society (i.e. they may not stop everyone from resisting that $4 t-shirt from Joe Fresh), I’ve nonetheless seen a deep anxiety here, brewing. The emerging concern with self-sufficiency seems to reveal an urge to disassociate from impersonal global markets, in turn bringing us closer to our more tangible, local world and solidifying our role and responsibility within it.

As new technologies proliferate, we will surely see a continuing embrace of the new, and there continues to be a role for innovation in digital technology in many facets of our lives. But a counter-effect has also been triggered in our culture, and we see evidence of many rejecting these developments, whether subtly or outright, in favour of doing things the ‘old fashioned way’ in greater measure. Indeed, much may be gained as these early social shifts evolve and mature: not only a more sustainable future, but a flowering of self-agency, holistic thinking capabilities and greater manual self-sufficiency, and a revitalization of deeply human elements of our nature and culture. I expect that circumstances and phenomena likely to persist in our future, such as digital information overload, increasing income inequality and environmental instability, may further drive many of us ‘back’ to this place. And through our hands we may even find our hearts and minds, and even connections to one another, invigorated.

Elisabeth Bennett is currently a Cultural Strategist working at a Toronto consultancy specializing in research, strategy and innovation.

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