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JOEL Joel's Blog

Blade Runner vs News From Nowhere


Blade Runner vs News From Nowhere 1
Since we have been open we have seen a noticeable change in our customers as a group. While retirees who are finally getting a chance to devote themselves to their interests are still an important part of our customer base, increasingly we are also seeing younger people who are looking to make things. The younger crowd is the first generation of new makers that was for the most part not exposed to woodworking during their school days. That doesn't mean they don't have the same urge to make things as past generations did, but it does mean that they have less practice, and less interest in "wood" as their only material.

The growth of young makers prompted me to revisit what the futurists predicted about the role of craft in society. "Blade Runner" the seminal 1982 movie is based on a book by Philip K. Dick, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep." The story is a dystopian work based in a future in which the cities have fallen into disrepair. While some excellent examples of craft are valued, the overwhelming population seems to be pure consumers. The theme of a future coasting on the craft of the past - and a society consuming, rather than producing - is pretty common throughout the world of science fiction.

Let's contrast that with Art's & Crafts pioneer William Morris's 1890 utopian story, "News from Nowhere". A man falls asleep in his house on the Thames in 1890's and wakes up in the 21st century only to find that the ugly smoke- spewing factories and pollution of his time have been replaced by villages of craftspeople. The workday is very short, and adults go to university when there are older and can appreciate it.

From the viewpoint of 2019 it seems that neither author's perspective is 100% right or wrong. Certainly the dominance of global brands and ready availability of cheap goods easily have really lessened the demand for craft products. And the factories are all gone from the banks of the River Thames. Most importantly, most governments (at least until very recently) understood the need to regulate pollution, making rivers like the Thames or Hudson nowhere near the cesspools they used to be. The average workweek in the United States is far shorter than it was in the 19th century, although it has been creeping up in the last 30 years. Most items of consumption are factory made and many are very inexpensive, but there is a large appreciation for craft, and pride in both being able to make stuff and patronize the makers. We all make fun of the number of times the word "artisanal" shows up in marketing but we all still love the idea of something hand made.

The frustrating aspect of modern craft for amateurs is how limited everyone's free time is. We work longer hours than people did in the 1950's, and we also have the distractions of always-on social media and the internet. Consequently so many of the hobby activities that adults used to enjoy have greatly declined. Simple stuff like card games, board games and dinner parties have all declined in popularity. Gardening is not as popular as it was and neither is DIY. Although in both cases certainly part of the issue is that we can now buy fresh vegetables or flowers (of ok if not great quality) for very little money as we need it, and buy furniture for very little too. One original motivator of both of these hobbies has therefore been removed.

With both spouses usually working out of the home, family life has certainly suffered too.

On the professional level the biggest frustration I see is that with factory furniture being so inexpensive to buy, the leap of faith to support low volume custom work means making a living as a furniture maker is tough.

But and here is the good news, the very fact you are reading this blog, it seems that there is almost a parallel world building up with mass consumption on one side and makers on the other.

There is a link above to an on-line copy of Morris's book. Sadly while the concept and ideas of the book are wonderful, Morris was no H.G. Wells and large sections are preachy and unengaging.

In the long run, I want William Morris's view of the future to succeed. And like many people, I am worried about a future in which we are continually under the eyes of Big Brother. Fortunately I think the instinct to make things is pretty strong and the impersonal world of the Cyberpunks is mostly a function of economics. If you need me I will be in the workshop.

In other news: Free Seminar: Spoon Carving: The Scandinavian Tradition with Erik Buchakian

This Saturday September 28th, 2019 12:00PM. Click here for more information about the free seminar

Join the conversation
09/25/2019 Elaine
Joel, You write very well, thank you! Your article reminds me of the Catch 22 going on in the NC mountains. Artists locate to a relatively inexpensive area, it draws in consumers who also move into the area. This spurs medical facilities and more business all making the area unaffordable for the artists.
09/25/2019 Alan
Hi Joel - any chance you can take a video of the spoon class and post it online. I am in Oregon and will not make it. Thanks
09/26/2019 Derreck Bryans
Great article Joel. My family and I moved from a larger town to a cottage/house on the lake last year just for the simple fact of trying to reduce the stress of the rat race. Theres no better place for me for my woodworking.
09/26/2019 Jim Dillon
Over 20 years of teaching classes to (mostly beginning) woodworkers, I have noticed the same shift you mention in your customer base. I find the de-graying of the avocational woodworking community encouraging and invigorating.
What really got my attention in your excellent blog entry is the reference to the decline in free time. There is some wonderful work done by the anthropologist David Graeber on the proliferation of what he calls "bullsh*t jobs," which entail lots of unnecessary work, with the result that most people spend more time at work, on the clock, than is necessary, apparently so that the very leisure time that would allow us to pursue crafts, or arts, or writing, or producing our own food, is not available. How can this happen in a capitalism-dominated economy, which supposedly rewards efficiency? Why does everybody play along when we all know much of what we do isn't strictly necessary? Graeber's essay, and the book that grew out of tremendous response to it, explore these and many other ramifications. Eye-opening, and it has inspired me to seek out and take opportunities to reclaim time I might use on pursuits that please me. If I may be so bold, I suggest peeking at Graeber's essay, a quick and invigorating read.
09/26/2019 Doug Brown
Sounds like the same experience with typewriters, we old folks may still use them (I have 15), but the younger people are discovering the pleasure of composing a letter, or poem, or song, on a real mechanical device. I send typewritten letters to all the grandchildren.

Re woodworking: I still have the workbench made for me when I was 12, I'm 73 now, woodshop in junior high, making things of wood ever since. I'm not a troglodyte, or Luddite, I've used laser cutters, 3D printers, and CNC mills to make things when appropriate, but always return to the pleasure of hand-work.
10/01/2019 Gordon (Meacham)
Excellent thought provoking piece. Thank you. Question: is one defined by what they consume or by what they create? I think we live in a culture that promotes the former and are witnessing a cultural shift brought on by individuals seeking the latter. But the latter is a vehicle to attain 'agency' in one's life. If these thoughts resonate with you, reader, may I suggest a book titled "Shop Class as Soulcraft". It can, at times be a tough read, but just like hand work, it's worth the effort in the end. - Kind Regards
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.