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Category Archives: Tools

The Human

Facebook, texts and e-mail optional. Actual conversation recommended.

Greeting [Hug, handshake, secret society signal]

Them: Hey [Bro, Buddy, Honey, My Man, Sweetheart, Sweetcheeks, Hot Stuff or actual name if recalled]. How are you?

You: Meh.

Them: So, my [wife, significant other, family, coffee klatch, coven, paramilitary group, Illuminati subcommittee, tribe, friends, colleagues etc.] and I are headed to [the shore, our camp, Chautauqua, music festival, etc.] next week/weekend/August. It’s a pretty low key interesting crowd. Would like like to come along? You’d be welcome.

You: That sounds nice.

Them: It comes out to about $200-$300 a person. Do you mind sleeping on a sofa?’

You: Sure, I can swing that. No problem.

Them: There’s a hammock out back and canoe/kayak rental and cycling nearby. We’ll cook most of our meals. We might go out to eat once or twice.

Me: Sounds nice. I can bring some groceries and a bottle of wine to share. I can help cook and clean up. I would enjoy that.

Them: We may have some plans. You’re welcome to join us for some or just chill on your own. I know it’s been a rough month/year/life/millenium.

You: Sounds like what I need. I may do some writing if I feel like it, and bring my harmonicas.

Them: Um, yeah. That’d be good to do while we’re out. We’re leaving [date]. We’ll carpool split gas/taking our own cars. Coming back [date].

You: Sounds good. I’ve got plenty of vacation time. Plus I need the break. Feel like I’m going to lose it some days. I’ll go ahead and schedule the time.

Them: Great. Give you call to touch base.

You: Thanks. Looking forward to it.

Parting hug, handshake, fist bump, what-have-you.

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Attachment & Being Human

I’ve seen a lot of advice lately against getting ‘too attached’ — to people, desires, hopes. Is there’s a gauge like a radiation badge to measure how much is enough, or too much? Is our chief end to control our unruly natures and turn our emotions on and off like robots.1)

Emily Dickinson on Hope

Emily Says —

Something bugs me about non-attachment as a blanket answer to all human desire for connection, never mind the notion of karma. These can become unthinking dogma like anything else. The following nails something self-evident, however much we try to deny it, about our desire to connect:

… It is in our biology, in the fabric of us, to connect to other human beings, and anything which tries to insert shame and doubt into that instinct is bound to always twist us… If the thought, “I am happy right now”, can never occur without an accompanying, “And I am just delaying my ultimate fulfillment in being so”, then what, essentially, has life become? I’ve seen it in action – people reaching out for connection, and then pulling back reflexively, forever caught in a life of half-gestures that can’t ever quite settle down to pure contemplation or gain a moment of genuine absolute enjoyment.Dale DeBakcsy, New Humanist

The idea of non-attachment is useful in the right context. But we are human. We do grow attached to kids, loved ones, hopes, pleasures, ideas, beliefs pursuits large and small.2 Also toxic things. There are a lot of mixed messages in the Buddhist, Christian and New Age traditions. Maybe our goal should be to be more choosy about holding on and letting go and how. And savoring and enjoying worthwhile attachments while we’re here. And not putting so much energy and effort into stupid and harmful ones. — DA

1See most religion, utopian experiments, contemporary psychology, scientific futurism, psychotropic medication, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

2E.g. Wallace Shawn’s appreciation of a cold cup of coffee in My Dinner With Andre

‘The Office’ Inspired by Sade?

An excerpt from an essay by Lucy Ives in Lapham’s Quarterly:

“…Office work sets into tension, in close quarters, the ambitions of the individual and the destiny of the group. Office workers rub elbows with one another and gather at the water (or kombucha) cooler, rolling chairs collide and become entangled, sweaty softball tournaments are organized. It is possible that the success of the individual can become the success of the group, but it is more likely that in order for an office to succeed, individuality must be undermined, in that it must always directly serve the plural. Here is a rationale for the current vogue for open-plan work spaces, in which one has little privacy unless urinating, defecating, or making coffee. The open-plan-office worker must progress from a state of hyperconsciousness of the effect of her fleshly presence on her coworkers to total numbness in order to get any work done. In such work spaces, the sensitive are likely to spend their days endeavoring to stop unconsciously fidgeting or touching their faces or hair. Open-plan offices also stymie the unusually creative and independent, reducing them into collaborators. Management likes this. Accountability and credit can circulate in offices and even temporarily land, but there should be no authors in offices, only positions. Meanwhile, offices are not just places. Offices are not merely locations, nor are they particularly egalitarian. There are “office politics.” The office has a will of its own, yet, paradoxically, it is not exactly collective.

Setting aside for a moment the annoying behavior to which we must become inured if we are to survive the office (inane chats, baffling email communications, multipage budgets), we must also learn to cherish less our personal specificity. This soft injunction to conform often has a funny way of meaning that we must also become inured to our colleagues’ specific personalities. We do not fully choose or even desire our coworkers, no matter how intentional or progressive the workplace. At the office, we need one another to fulfill certain tasks by means of certain skills. We have less need, inevitably, of our coworkers’ personal histories, the deep reasons why they are the way they are or need whatever is needed. Nor do we have much use for our coworkers’ bodies, in all their ample particularity. We must, with our coworkers, develop forms of dependency and attachment that are risible and fungible, but not too risible and not too fungible. The legend emblazoned above most office doors should be “Try Not to Harm One Another When Convenient but, Above All, Don’t Love One Another.” Far worse than insulting one’s office mate or stepping on a colleague’s toe would be to recognize her or him as one’s soul mate. In such a scenario, all work would cease.”

— Submitted by DA

N.B.:

1. The appearance, quotation or reference to work from other authors and publications on this site does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies.

2. For an interesting and early exploration of the relationship between automation and the de-personalization (not to say de-humanization) of work and life, please see Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine. More recently, see Andrew Sullivan’s I Used to be a Human Being in New York Magazine.

Received Wisdom: Return to Sender

A few years ago I bought a bicycle carrier for the car. The carrier was made in Sweden and well-designed. The Swedish generally seem to know what they’re doing: See Volvo, Ikea, Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman.

I’m not an engineer, nor do I play one on TV. I’ve worked as a business analyst and technical writer. I’m pretty good at figuring out how at least most non-human things work. The carrier never seemed to fit quite right. The bike stayed on the car and didn’t end up under the wheels of an eighteen-wheeler or in a ditch. But it scraped paint off parts of the car and off parts of my psyche it shouldn’t have. I fussed with the straps and adjusted various angles. I read the instructions – both online and printed. Tears were shed. Curse words were said. I passed from denial through bargaining to acceptance. Bitching and moaning gave way to muttering under my breath. I used the rack only now and then, anyway. We rarely experience the ideal in life, and I had done the best I could. Still, I cringed every time I put the carrier on.

179013_sized_930x1400

in March of this year I joined the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The group’s regional and international goals are to get water and other necessities of life to people who don’t have them. EWB projects are self-funded. Volunteer members work in partnership with domestic and overseas communities to dig holes, pour concrete and lay pipelines. Disciplines range from mechanical and civil to electrical, nuclear and software engineering. A fair number of women serve as members. Perhaps their estrogen-inspired desire to measure twice, cut once balances male members’ testosterone-fueled impulse to to ‘get ‘er done.’ But that’s a generalization. Since spending time with them, I’ve learned about elevations, hydraulic pressure (including ‘water hammer’), water treatment and local whiskey distilleries. The chapter holds periodic happy hours and fundraisers at local watering holes and other establishments.

Maybe some of that engineering expertise rubbed off on me. The next time I hauled out my bike carrier, I looked at it — I mean looked at it — and said, ‘Hold on, this just can’t be right. I’m going to find out what it is.

The cult of presumed expertise and received wisdom increasingly monopolizes our society: the notion that someone else always knows better than we do. I won’t say it’s making us stupid1, but the accoutrements we must master to live our lives grow daily more complicated (or so we tell ourselves). The sheer cognitive and emotional overhead of everything from keeping track of our ‘friends” exploits on Facebook to deciding what car to buy threatens to overwhelm us, resulting in a loss of confidence in ourselves and our abilities. This in turn undermines the self-reliance and individual liberty that democracy depends upon. There used to be a quaint expression called Yankee Ingenuity for taking the initiative and making things better ourselves rather than passively accepting the status quo or deferring to someone else. In the global marketplace this could now now just as easily include Southern Ingenuity, Goth Ingenuity, Muslim Ingenuity, LGBT Ingenuity or Indian Ingenuity.

When I took the dirty carrier off the car and laid it on the bedroom carpet (which I covered with newspapers), I found whoever assembled it at the factory or the store reversed two parts, putting them on opposite sides. I had simply accepted the state of affairs (or been too worn down to change it), assuming whoever put it together knew what they were doing. I scrounged for some metric wrenches. I disassembled the offending parts and carefully put them back together again (watching out for leftovers). This was no small task, and I shouldn’t have had to do it.2 But when I was done, the carrier fit properly on the car the way it should be.

What caused the ‘Hold on, here’, the ‘ah ha’ moment (which wasn’t that sudden, really) that caused me to go to the factory web site once more and compare what I saw to what was on the screen?

I like to think spending time with my engineering colleagues helped inspire me. Putting the carrier on the carpet allowed me to step back and reframe the problem (even if it left a smudge or two to clean up). Problem-solving is not (and cannot) simply be the domain of experts –- who themselves can get it wrong. We can all be victims of passivity or of received wisdom and arrogance: consequences simply of being human. When things don’t go according to plan, we must reserve the prerogative to try and figure out problems for ourselves. This realization can threaten the status quo and involves risk3, but can also empower us. — CDL

# # #

1Others do that. See recent references to Google, Wikipedia and other recent phenomena supposedly making us stupid. See also deskilling.
2Whatever sense of accomplishment I experienced was mitigated by frustration and the damage done to the car.
3Of failure, transgression and accountability.

 

Appropriate Technology

Since becoming involved with the Pittsburgh chapter of Engineers Without Borders, I’ve become intrigued by the notion of appropriate technology. EWB is kind of like Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), except members carry a slide rule (well, handheld calculator) instead of a stethoscope.

I’m not an engineer (nor do I play on on TV). I am interested in novice-expert learning, problem-solving, storytelling and how we share what we know. I have written before on the right tool for the job, and techniques and technology that fit particular needs within constraints of time, money and resources. This includes older technologies that can be re-purposed for modern needs. For example, Crankies , aka moving panoramas, offer a form of visual storytelling dating to before the 19th Century that does not require PowerPoint or electricity. (Carbide lamp, anybody?)

Image courtesy of The Crankie Factory. Pittsburgh’s first Crankie Fest is slated for 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Wilkins School Community Center in Swissvale.

Although it is 365 miles (587 kilometers) from the ocean, Pittsburgh is not entirely landlocked. Whatever is tossed into our region’s three rivers flows to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, included the plastic bags and other trash that end up in the oceans. Now an idea originally developed by a 16-year old Dutch kid named Boyan Slat may help provide a low-tech answer to removing it.

We’ve certainly been sold the notion that technology can meet our every need, from medications to self-driving cars. But there’s usually a tradeoff, as Sherry Turkle and others have recently written.

In assessing the appropriateness of any technology, we would do best to keep in mind the question Neil Postman asked: What problem does this technology solve? What problem(s) does it create?1 — CDL

1Please see a 1998 posting and appreciation of Neil Postman and his questions at Yale Engineering.

 

 

 

 

Cost-Benefit

I have mentioned David Noble’s book The Religion of Technology1 previously. Recent films like The Martian celebrate human ingenuity and our ability to prevail as individuals and as a species.

On the other hand, if we need any more ways to put our brains on hold and excuse ourselves from the burden of thinking and interacting with others, Google, Facebook and other companies are pouring enormous amounts of money and talent into helping us do just that. IBM is working to debut Sherlock (modeled after a fictitious high-functioning sociopath2 and cocaine addict). Google will try to anticipate your destination, even if you have no clue. Mark Zuckerberg announced that he charged his minions in 2016 with developing an AI-based personal digital assistant to help him navigate the complex rules of human interaction. As the December 31 NYT article about a wearable device called MyMe put it —

‘One of the most interesting potential applications will be MyMe’s ability to generate a “word cloud” from a conversation without actually recording the conversation itself. The idea is that you would be able to later gather insights to your interactions with people in a less invasive and more useful manner.’3

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, India is struggling to distribute functional toilets to its population, and in Equador, Fundacion in Terris has developed dry composting toilets. To give them credit, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the latter. Engineers without Borders (EWB), which I have just recently been introduced to in Pittsburgh, is building water systems in Ecuador.

EWB Pittsburgh Curingue Water Treatment

EWB Pittsburgh Members Discuss Water Supply Project with Residents in Curingue, Ecuador

 

Which of these are more important? We are all confronted in our lives and work with opportunities and constraints on our time, money, and attention. Every one of us has talent and ability to contribute.”4 Where do you want to put yours? Or, to paraphrase Bill, where do we want to go today? — CDL

1David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology, the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention.

2Though this label has been convincingly disputed.

3An example of emotional deskilling, not to mention the notion that our uniquely human selves are commodities that can simply be reduced to an algorithm.

4Which unfortunately can be wasted in vain pursuits or taken for granted by individuals and institutions who don’t value them.

Art & Artificiality: Selfies & Dandies

As background for our ongoing oral history on technology in literature and popular culture, I just finished reading David Hughes’ The Shock of the New . Hughes describes dandyism and art in the 19th century, along with the eponymous figure of pop art and Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol.

Writing in the Paris Review on February 20th [1], Tara Isabella Burton compares the cult of 19th-century dandyism with our 21st-century predilection for taking cell phone portraits of ourselves (aka ‘selfies’). She quotes Charles Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet, who describes the dandy as:

…transcending his humanity—by choosing and creating his own identity, he remains splendidly aloof, unaffected by others or by the world at large.

Oscar Wilde, Dandy Extraordinaire (Wikipedia Commons)

She also quotes 19th-century French writer Jean Richepin:

“…the true dandy evokes surprise, emotion, and passion in others, but remains entirely insensible himself, producing an effect to which he alone remains immune.” And is: 

“… brilliant and bored;  he lives in terror of being pigeonholed by others. “Having dabbled in nearly everything—arts, letters, pleasures—he had forged for himself an ideal, that consisted in being unpredictable in everything.” … he applies false hair and makeup to alter his appearance and confound his peers.

Hughes writes about Andy Warhol, a 20th-century dandy by any other name, whose:

… ‘autistic stare was  the same for heroes and heroines as for death and disaster… the shallow painter who understood more about the mechanisms of celebrity than any of his colleagues, whose entire sense of reality was shaped… by the television tube.”

Andy Warhol
Poul Webb, Art & Artists

The period of 19th-century dandyism that Burton and Hughes cite between roughly the 1840s and 1900  coincides with the appearance of photography,  which allowed for endlessly reproducible images.

Anyone who has seen portraits of Warhol, who famously ‘liked to watch’, instantly recognizes the carefully constructed image: fright wig, the glasses, the stare. And of course Warhol utilized the replicated, mass-produced industrialized image in reframing everyday objects and celebrities as objects worthy of attention and art all the way to the bank.  As Hughes writes:

“Warhol did more than any other painter alive to turn the art world into the art business. By turning himself into pure product, he dissolved the traditional ambitions and tensions of the avante garde.

Burton quotes Jennifer O’Connel[2] in the Irish Times: “We are living in an age of narcissism, an age in which only our best, most attractive, most carefully constructed selves are presented to the world.”  Paradoxically, O’Connel also writes about the increasing prevalence of loneliness in our lives.[3] In the 1970s, when I was in college, Christopher Lasch warned (or at least pointed out the consequence) of this direction in our culture in The Culture of Narcissism.

In addition to mass media of television, film, advertising and the web, consumer culture gives us cell phones, helmet cams, Google glasses and personal monitoring devices. These technologies purportedly give us the freedom and power to define ourselves, endlessly watching, refining, redefining and creating our image. But where is the line between the freedom to create our own identity and the demand that we do this incessantly (and exclusively) for the consumption of others ?

In Ken Gergen’s ‘The Self in the Age of Information’ the cult of narcissism calls into question the whole idea of self, in the sense of immutable character. Gergen proposes that modern technology (including now Facebook, Twitter, and evolving forms of social networking) make the plastic personality, the chameleon self, a primary asset in creating and presenting a public persona. Image is all. Warhol also creepily said ‘I want to be a machine’. But if we are all busily  creating digital versions of ourselves for public consumption, whatever our private struggles and personal joys (if these count for anything), who is the audience we are doing this for? And what happens when they move on to the next trend, or if we need a human connection beyond people just watching? – CDL


[1] Keep Smiling, Tara Isabella Burton, The Paris Review

[2] Selfie, word of 2013, sums up our age of narcissism  Jennifer O’Connel, The Irish Times

‘The Smart Machine’ Twenty-five Years Later

In this time of year to reflect on the past and look forward to our future, we often display a curious amnesia when it comes to events that predicate the present. Twenty five years ago Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power appeared. We proposed a retrospective to several publications. Those we approached were not interested or did not have room. Even while citing her work, many people in industry and academia have no notion or appreciation of its prescient nature or profound insights.

Zuboff’s contribution (besides having great hair) was to capture the thoughts and voices of people in the midst of change — in their jobs, in the way they thought, in the way work was defined. In a synthesis of history, psychology, anthropology and oral history, her book anticipated the impact of computer technology in the workplace and in our daily lives today.

In clear, articulate prose, Zuboff captures the voices of those confronting new technology in paper mills, insurance agencies and other industries. She explores the laboring body vs. the laboring mind; the skill in acting on materials vs. with people and ones and zeros; the abstraction of labor and making decisions based on ephemeral data and working with people one never sees.

There has been a lot of discussion since then of the virtual office, the global economy and social networking. The Internet is now a fait accompli. E-mail is old hat. The world wide web gave rise to Facebook, which begat Twitter,which begat instagram. But at the time the book appeared the IBM PC had only recently debuted. The Macintosh was a revolutionary machine with a graphical interface. WindowsTM(version 2.0) was barely beyond a gleam in Bill Gates’ eye. Technology for the world wide web (TC/IP protocol and hypertext linked database) was a work in progress at CERN1. Online networking was the domain of dedicated services such as Compuserve and Prodigy.

In an argument as old as the 19th-century factory system and early 20th century Taylorism2, Zuboff quotes managers and technologists who extol the virtues of separating people from the skills and experience that give their work value in the interest of efficiency and predictability.

Zuboff illustrates the cost as well as the benefits of this dynamic and the human side of the equation. At the time of her research in the 1980s most efforts focused on automating repetitious or dangerous physical tasks (e.g., mixing toxic chemicals in a paper mill) and clerical skills involving data entry.

Since then computer algorithms have invaded functions previously thought the exclusive cognitive domain of humans. Examples include data modeling, pattern recognition and predictive analysis used in engineering, medicine and the financial industries. Some of these result in calculations so complex that those who created them don’t understand their meaning and limitations. Trading instruments created by the human mentats3  of Wall Street (aka quants) to calculate derivatives helped precipitate the 2008 financial crises.

In 1988 there was still reason to feel that the benign aspects of computer automation would prevail – relieving us from tedium and danger of the workplace and opening up unlimited vistas for human beings to collaborate, share knowledge and solve problems.

You can lead people to knowledge, but you can’t make them think. The dream of finding universal laws and finding ways to create a better world (or at least workplace) and ‘improve’ human existence is as old as civilization – beginning with simple machines, followed by water power, steam, electricity and nuclear energy. Zuboff’s genius was to recognize and record a time in history when the power to do this seemed suddenly (and again) within reach. Her findings anticipate — and also warn –against the world we live in today.

Before the NSA and YouTube, she anticipates issues of privacy, autonomy and deskilling. The workers Zuboff interviews take pride in doing their jobs with a degree of autonomy — rather than simply dancing to the computer’s tune. This is no different than workers we have interviewed in the new millennium who demonstrate value and problem-solving in working around system’s limitations or to fulfill unexpected demands — even at risk of censure. In one vivid example Zuboff cites, workers in the paper mill impatient with waiting force open the Star-Trek-like doors designed to protect them from the toxic fumes.

The issues of human deskilling and the abstraction of labor (not just in performing labor, but of emotional and social interaction) from its meaning and value, still loom before us. Unchecked, the Utopian impulse may not just reform, but divorce us from our own humanity. Led by visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Ray Kurzweil, technology insinuates itself our lives more and more each day – with the goal replacing the human frailty and idiosyncracies with supposedly more efficient algorithms. Zuboff’s mindful approach to exploring technology and change has been overtaken by ever more creative ways to monetize the web and offer deals to consumers that seem increasingly Faustian. We take videos of ourselves, tweet our most innocuous and profound beliefs. Others follow us without knowing a thing about our lives. Our buying habits and selections follow us as well – whispering new product suggestions in our ear based on our lifestyle.

Fitbit Wireless Sleep & Activity Monitor

Some of these now allow us to monitor and share our sleep, our weight, and our exercise routine minute-by-minute, under the assumption that data provides connection and meaning. As writer and essayist Mathew Crawford e-mailed one of us, ‘We are coming to know ourselves too well, I fear.’ Too often technology simply enables us to clothe our old behaviors in shiny new raiment, rather than providing useful insight to understand or change them. 

After Age of the Smart Machine, Zuboff wrote The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism with her husband James Maxmin. She lectured at Harvard and wrote articles for Scientific American, Business Week and Fast Company Magazine. Most of these focus on the need for businesses to empower workers and consumers through technology, rather than exploiting them. Along with her work at Harvard, Zuboff, now just in her early 60s, founded the executive education program “ODYSSEY: School for the Second Half of Life”. A discussion board at Fast Company carries her entries through 2005 and 2006. After that they cease. One gets the impression that, having fought the good fight, Zuboff leaves it up to the rest of us to carry the banner now.

Computer technology is always waiting for a new paradigm around the corner to fully realize its potential: From ‘scientific management’ to knowledge-management; from crowd-sourcing and the wisdom of crowds to social networking. But in the workplace or on the web, in government or industry, for the most the technology is still used almost exclusively to improve efficiency by automating tasks and reducing the expertise and skill required to perform them to the lowest common denominator – often by eliminating the human element or forcing individuals to adapt to misconceived business goals and processes.

The machines may be smarter, but the human beings who create them demonstrate the same hubris and flawed thinking they have throughout history. — DA & CDL

# # #

David Abramoff Ph.D. is director emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies.  For Chuck Lanigan, director of events and outreach, a previous career developing Lotus Notes workflow applications means never having to say he’s sorry.  He  writes and consults on workflow and collaborative computing and holds an M.A. in educational communication with a focus on literacy, critical thinking and computer-mediated work.  His creative work includes spoken-word presentations and live events.

1Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research)

2 Also known as scientific management, and characterized by time-motion studies applied to find ‘the one best way’ of performing physical labor and tasks. This approach is still used today in many workplaces.

3 From Frank Herbert’s Dune: A human specially trained to mimic the cognitive and analytical ability of a computer. (Wikipedia)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Related:

Thinking & Computers, by David Auerbach in Nautilus 

Saving Conversation, by Megan Garber in The Atlantic

Hard Work and Leisure, by Steven Poole in the New Statesman

The Religion of Technology, Geoff Shullenberger in Dissent

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies is embarking on an oral history project on technology in literature, popular culture and the creative arts.  Starting the first quarter of 2014, we will schedule interviews to gather peoples’ reminiscences  and first-hand stories on the  role  technology has played in their work, leisure and daily life.  For questions or if you are interested in participating,  please e-mail outreach@alcstudies.org or call  (412) 353-3756. You can also use our handy contact form.

An Alloy of Past & Present

A number of years ago I attended a meeting of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The focus of the event was on making Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania more marketable to investors. Implicit (and explicit) in this goal was rebranding the  region’s image from its history of coal mining and steel manufacturing.

'Burgh Bus Guy

‘Burgh Bus Guy

Terms like knowledge work, intellectual capital, and global marketplace were dangled like trendy and amorphous shiny baubles before the audience. The main speakers derided the history of the region and the legacy of work performed here as superfluous for a new generation and new century.

Ironically, the conference coincided with the anniversary of the 1805-1806 Lewis & Clark expedition. The expedition’s boat was built near Pittsburgh (actually Elizabeth, PA) before sailing down the Monongahela river to the Ohio and Mississippi, then up the Missouri and into history. While dismissing important industrial innovations and struggles for worker rights, the event  sought to capitalize on the historical connection to an event in our nation’s history of which the region is justly proud.

You can’t get here without going there first. Some of the most significant innovations in steel manufacturing and labor struggles occurred in Homestead, site of the Carnegie Steel works. Situated along the Mon’, the site saw thousands of Americans and immigrants flock in the 19th early 20th centuries to work in the mills to produce steel that built the railroads in this country and others, ships for the U.S. navy and armaments for the U.S. Great Britain and the allies to help them defeat Hitler and the fascists in World War II.

'Industry' by Vincent Nesbert

Detail from ‘Industry’ by Vincent Nesbert (Allegheny County Courthouse)

The week of June 10th I will be one of several presenters for the Alloy Project, a visual and performing arts residency developed by my artist buddy Chris McGinnis and his colleague Sean Derry. Supported by, Rivers of Steel and the Kipp Gallery of IUP, the project centers around the site of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, now an historic heritage site. As Chris and Sean say on their web site, the massive furnaces have cooled. The work for which they were built no longer exists, but their energy — and the energy of the men and women who labored in the mills and the households — remains. The nature of work itself has changed, of course. That sense of identity remains.

In the middle ages, people used to be named according to the work their families did.  Does the work that your family did stay with you? Whether a mill hunky and his family in the 19th century or 20-somethings attracted by what Pittsburgh has to offer today, I am interested in their history, their songs and their stories, and the stories of workers like them. The present does not invalidate the past.  I have colleagues who have evolved with the times. Maybe you are one of them. One has worked in the steel, the aerospace and the banking industries. Another welded steel plates to build barges on the Mon’ before going to business school. Some of the most skilled and undervalued work goes into seemingly mundane jobs:  plumber, electrician, waitress daycare worker. These jobs still exist and serve valuable functions today, global marketplace or no. The distinction between physical and intellectual labor is not a simple dichotomy of mind and body. Whether the work you do involves your head or your hands, your heart or your soul, stop on by. CDL

Stories of Labor & Identity in Southwestern Pennsylvania
Presented by Chuck Lanigan for the Alloy Pittsburgh Project
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
7:00pm
The Pump House
880 E Waterfront Drive, Homestead, PA 15120
Free

Please see the Alloy Pittsburgh site for lectures by other presenters the week of June 10th.

The World of Tomorrow, Yesterday & Today

Based on some of the sceptical posts here, you may think we are closet Luddites at Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies. However, if we don’t always embrace the latest technology, many of us use it. For instance I finally upgraded my Jitterbug wannabe to a new Android phone.

Out With the Old

This has not been without cost; not only in spending money for the upgrade, but learning to navigate a new device and interface. In the past two weeks, I’ve figured out how to download e-mail, sync with my online calendar and downloaded an app to track tasks; all coordinated with my laptop running Ubuntu Linux.

As my wife will attest, I’m more of a closet geek than a Luddite. I’ve built several desktop pcs and assembled my own touring bike from parts. In my consulting work, I’ve figured out what makes shiny new computing toys tick and how people can use them to accomplish tasks. Even still (or because of this), I have to make an effort not to get distracted from my own tasks — assuming I remember what they are – by the vast plethora of virtual possibilities. It’s easy to get sucked down one rabbit hole of technological extensions of our psyche and will and emerge somewhere entirely different in cyberspace, if at all. There be dragons.

I am a fan of the mindful use of technology. I resist having it preoccupy my

Separated at Birth?

existence. Thoreau warned. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Still, I am seduced like most of us by the siren song that technology can lead to a better world. This is not a new tune, and one not the sole domain of the present.

I recently made a presentation on technology in literature and popular culture. This was to a group ranging in age from their seventies to their nineties. Many of them used e-mail to stay in touch with families and friends. One woman had a Facebook page. Another maintained a web site for her church. A professional in his eighties I know has no use for computers, but downloads books like The Three Musketeers on his Kindle to read in his native French.

During my presentation, I talked about the 1939 World’s Fair, which took place in New York during the Depression on the eve of World War II. Ironically, the theme was ‘Building the World of Tomorrow’1. On a whim, I asked if anyone had a relative or parent who had attended Several people raised their hands.

One attentive woman said ‘I was there.”

“How old were you, if you don’t mind sharing.” I asked.

She smiled. “I was fifteen. We visited the GM exhibit and saw Futurama.”

I thought a minute. She had witnessed the first demonstration of television, florescent lighting, fax machines and streamlined design.

PA RR S1 Locomotive Demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair

Earlier when I listed the technology that emerged during World War I, a man with a heavily-accented voice stood up in back.

“You forgot one! My father fought in World War I on the side of the Germans. He said the British tanks scared the hell out of them.”

In a moment I had gone from talking about a subject to being with people who had lived it. This kind of interaction is gold. It’s why I enjoy giving live presentations.

Other members of the group mentioned Nicholas Tesla, who worked for Edison, followed by Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh.

One woman said, “It sounds like a small thing, but when Corningware came out [in the 1950s], it made cooking and fixing meals so much easier.”

So the future arrives accompanied not only by nebulous, overhyped concepts like the cloud or insanely great devices, but by simpler ways to get supper on the table. — CDL

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1See my friend and colleague Chris McCinnis’s Progress and the Great Productive Machine for an insightful look at the ’39 World’s Fair and the portrayal of industrialization and technology in America.
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