Friday, April 09, 2021

Death of the Expert

 

Death of the Expert

(a bit ? of a rant !)

This is a slightly reduced / edited version of a commentary piece prepared for the current issue of the Ontario Artisan Blacksmith Association quarterly newsletter, the Iron Trillium.This segment follows directly from 'Life on a 3 x 6 inch screen'. If you have not done so, also read the initial background piece in a previous blog posting.

 

As Artisan Blacksmiths, Just who are we?

And what exactly is it that we do?


There are a number of reasons, personally, why this all has been at the forefront of my mind over the last couple of months. With the restrictions imposed by COVID, coupled with my own individual risk factors, the ability to (safely!) offer workshop courses at the Wareham Forge had simply ended. I turned 65 in November 2020, so have entered some kind of fuzzy ‘retirement’, (with at least OAS coming in to keep the lights on). Increasingly, I find myself looking back on to over 40 years at a forge at this point: from student, to hobbyist, to ‘artisan interpreter’, into a full time business (over 30 years).

I do appreciate that there will be a wide range of perspectives held by those reading this commentary (sorry, but mostly based on generational age).

So here are some things I’ve seen over March 2021 (!!) and why they concern me:

 

The spark (that set me off) was this. Honestly, not so much what this is - but how it was reported, and spread around.

This is a video, with no commentary, of some guy (from Sweden it turns out) who forged out a (not very good) Viking Age styled bearded axe. All working on a stone block and using hand held stones as hammers.

For why would you do this?

This video was distributed through a number of topic specific groups over Facebook that I see : Axes, Hatchets / Viking Blacksmithing / Viking News / Iron Smelters. Every time with a description like ‘Look! So Cool!!’. That last bit was the final straw for me. My comment to the Iron Smelters of the World group :

Look at ME! I did something!!' : Sorry, there is just too much historical distortion going on here. NEVER would have actually happened. (Please do not quote Africa) There is easily 1500 years of iron making and use in North Europe before the Bearded Axe. “

Here is the link to that video - go take a look and come back…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI6l2WqIlD0

  • He starts with what looks like a roughly two foot long piece, of mild steel, a 1 x 1” bar. (As if this was available historically?)

  • It certainly looks to me like he has metallurgical coke as his forge fuel (Not used in the same time period as the axe.)

  • It also is clear he has an electric blower air source. (Electric blower - and rocks??)

It was pointed out to me : ‘He is just having fun.’ 

Ok - that is true, perhaps.

But that at core is not my problem here. It is the way this bit of silliness has been promoted, both from himself and most certainly by others. On quick examination, this fellow has over a dozen similar content videos (steel forged with stones) posted since November 2019.

This kind of presentation is entirely about a ‘cult of personality’. There is no information presented about What or Why, the details of How obscured. (1)

 

About two years back, there had been some discussions inside the OABA Executive about expanding our visibility on Facebook. This partially in light of the level of activity on this group Canadian Blacksmiths and Bladesmiths, which started in 2015. I do regularly check the additions there, and try (??) to be a ‘wise voice’ contributor.

Now, I have every reason to support the original intent of those who undertook the effort of starting this open 'discussion' group. Over the last two years however, I have seen a dramatic shift in both the offered content, and the level of discourse, exhibited there.

The joint impact of ‘Forged in Fire’ and the effect of COVID derived free time is clear. The group has become totally dominated by knife grinders. Deliberately chosen to distinguish those who cut and grind alloy bars and put handles on them. At this point about 50% of the contributions are illustrating this kind of work. (2) Further, more and more of the ‘contributions’ are little more than thinly disguised advertisements for direct selling.

This image was presented with the caption ‘One day’s production’. (2)

Think on this.

One. Day.

  • There is absolutely no black smithing involved.

  • There is almost no blade smithing involved. The only application of heat (implied) is through the heat treating cycle, which is suggested will be undertaken by the maker (at least not sent off to a commercial company).

  • There is clearly considerable knife making (grinding) involved.

  • But what is the *scale* of production? Where is the line that crosses between *hand* and *machine* made?

Is there any significant difference between a single person using industrial methods, or a larger factory with dozens of workers employing larger, but essentially the same, machines? Especially when the end product is a series of virtually identical objects? (Yes, I do understand there will be variations in handle materials, although those profiles are likely to be identical as well.)


Back to my starting premise : ‘The Death of Expertise’

I point you to a commentary by Tom Nichols, dated January 17, 2021. This posted to ‘the Federalist’, obviously a Right Wing slanted publication out of the USA. (bias in this article noted, ok?)

https://thefederalist.com/2014/01/17/the-death-of-expertise/

The main thrust of this piece is related to, admittedly, American democracy. But take this statement :

To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.”

When I first made reference to that article, I happily got back a link to another commentary - one that points exactly to a shared involvement in blacksmithing. This is a video presentation by Allen ’Ronin’ Rozon, of Lames Original / Origin Blades from Saint Patrice de Beaurivage Quebec, a blacksmith and bladesmith. (3)

https://www.facebook.com/OriginBlades/videos/2596577493990874

Here is a discussion of roughly the same topic, but nicely broken down to : ‘those that watch from a distance’ (armchair expert), ‘those who directly experience’ (via demonstrations or courses), and ‘those who know’ (skills developed through massive repetition).


Now as blacksmiths ourselves, we all know (or should know) the difference between the ‘doer and the thinker’. How often have we all seen someone demonstrate a technique or an object, yet when attempting this ourselves suddenly realize just how difficult it is to accomplish? (Honestly, this has become an important guide for me. Any time I see someone doing something that looks ‘easy’, I attribute this to long hours spent acquiring skills - NOT to the simplicity of the task!)

Or is what is seen on YouTube (increasingly) just good video editing?


I’m going to follow this up with a trend I see increasingly with web sites recently : All Flash - No Substance.

The most recent trend on web sites is to bend entirely to the whims of the ‘lowest common denominator’.

  • Minimalist layouts.

  • Virtually no text.

  • Obviously designed for that 3 x 6 inch phone screen.

  • Business names, but the individual not identified (or name buried down into the site someplace at best).

  • Lack of any description of related experience

Additionally, I see the use of a few, admittedly professionally photographed, objects being presented, instead of any attempt at detailing a large body of work.

I see ‘courses’ defined as being not teaching, but as ‘experiences’, with little description of the content, no mention of the facilities used, or who the instructor even is, much less what background they might have.

I personally have enough experience that I can see the huge distortions from what is intentionally not being made clear, allowing viewers to draw conclusions that do not represent the truth.

Look, I do understand I am a dinosaur (or at least remember seeing them). My concept of the internet comes from the period of it’s birth and development, when the fledgling web sites were mainly text with few (poor quality) images. When the intent of the whole thing was about sharing information. Before it all became about driving sales, or even worse, data mining personal details to allow individually targeted marketing. Increasingly it is clear that those endless ’SEO Specialists’ are driving the whole internet into mindless commercialism.


Just who are we?

And what exactly is it that we do?

And how do we explain this? 

 It is clear that the public perception of ‘value’ has become determined by effective visuals, and ‘authority’ by volume as indicated either ‘number of views’ or ‘frequency of posting’. It is also apparent that this perception has extended beyond the superficial glance of the general public, increasingly to those who have a more direct interest in our specific topic and area of work.

I’m going to suggest, from the perspective of 30 years involvement in the ‘Arts and Crafts’ sector, that this dumbing down of presenting work, a drive to ‘capture market’, is going to result in the general public also devaluing the work we all undertake.


What can we all, individually or as members of an Artisan Community, do about this?

Is it far too late to have any impact?

Or, do we even care?


Note : Many of the viewpoints here are presented in a dramatic fashion. This done intentionally to spark discussion. Feel free to criticize and offer alternatives.

The images seen here were pulled directly off open public postings on Facebook, Identifying names have been removed - for obvious reasons.


Notes / References

1) A deeper search revealed that this is all part of a doctoral thesis at the University of Gothenburg :

https://www.gu.se/en/about/find-staff/gustavthane

In my ongoing research, I make blacksmith tools; start with the tools given by nature, my own hands, stones and sticks, and then use the tools to make other tools, use those to make others etc. in four generations. “

He describes his experience as ‘making objects professionally for 10 years’.

Although I well understand the concept of what is now called ‘sole authorship’ in Fine Arts, I suggest that this kind of mixing of modern and ancient process as if this was some kind of valuable research is self indulgent (at best). The stated premise for this study is so full of holes, I can’t realistically understand how it was ever accepted as a formal thesis.

2) A (small) apology to the owner of this image. This intentionally un-named individual actually also does also create his own layered steel billets (via hydraulic press) and forge those (power hammer) into blade blanks, which he then finishes into knives. This is all top quality work, with excellent attention to detail.

3) Like an increasing number of people ‘Ronin’ choses to separate his Facebook identity from his professional / business identity.

https://www.facebook.com/OriginBlades

https://originblades.com

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Life on a 3 x 6 Inch Screen

 
This is a slightly reduced / edited version of a commentary piece prepared for the current issue of the Ontario Artisan Blacksmith Association quarterly newsletter, the Iron Trillium.
If you have not done so, also read the background piece in the previous blog posting.



' Life via a 3 x 6 inch screen '


That the culture that surrounds us changes with time is a truth we all live with. 

The impact of this constantly accelerating rate of change was expounded by Alvin Toffler in 1970 (!) under the term ‘Future Shock’. (A) Another significant element described by Toffler was accelerating ‘information overload’. This in the year IBM introduced the first computer using semiconductor memory (instead of large magnetic tapes). A computer that still pretty much filled a room (and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars). (1)
As Marshall McLuhan famously said (in 1964!) ‘the Medium is the Message’. (B) Our current culture in Canada (and increasingly the whole world) is dominated, and being defined by, Social Media.

Our current situation of COVID required isolation is ‘accelerating the acceleration’. With face to face interactions so reduced as to be almost completely absent, any view of the outside world has become framed by a computer monitor, or even less effectively, by a 3 x 6 inch phone screen. Over my own life (see above) personal communications have been reduced from spoken phone calls (1970’s & 80’s), to written email paragraphs exchanged over hours (1990’s), to snapped out single line comments on Facebook or the ‘home movies’ on YouTube (mid 2000’s), to the instant phone camera photographs of Instagram, or ’140 characters’ of Twitter (both before 2010). The narrowing of the viewing window to the world is clear, with all that (should) represent in terms of limiting our view. (2)

When I was looking for an illustration for this issue’s cover, I came across the video commentary you see. This was only attributed to ‘Black Bear Forge’. Digging around, I was able to find a link back to the business web site. This gives the location as Beulah (Southern) Colorado. Going over most of the web site (including the contact information) I could not find an actual name for the individual involved, John Switzer. (Name supplied later by one of the proof readers of the initial version of this article.)


This is the description provided for that commentary :

“ These days, most of us have a smart phone or tablet of some sort. Are these simply time wasters? Or do they have value in our journey into blacksmithing? Today lets look at some cell phone hacks for blacksmithing.“
Watching the 19 minute long piece, you will see that the speaker found he could use smart phone as a replacement for a desktop computer (which he had used free at work until he retired). He states he is able to undertake all sorts of web searching, video watching, even necessary business functions, on that 3 x 6  phone screen.

He suggests a few ‘useful apps’.
One of which is illustrated here : ‘The Heat Treater’s Companion’ (which is free, but turns out is not available in Canada)


The illustration shown is what it would look like on a typical 3 x 6 phone screen.

Convenient? Well maybe.
Useful at that viewing size? Leave that up to you.

My point here is that work that requires a full sized computer screen to properly undertake will just not fit on to that 3 x 6 screen. Consider that the trend with computer monitors for decades has been to larger and larger screens.

Sure, you could spread and zoom that small image.
•    Do you even get wifi reception inside that giant metal cage that is the typical blacksmith shop? (I sure do not!).
•    Do you really want to take a $1000 dollar electronic device, with a (fragile) glass screen, into the metal dust and chaos of the workshop?
•    What about the raw cost involved in ‘surfing the web’ - via a phone data plan, while you are trying to actually undertake (time demanding) forge work?


This is an actual, recent, posting on the ‘Canadian Blacksmiths and Bladesmiths’ group on Facebook (identity deliberately removed).


“ HELP !  Looking for a blacksmith, from Canada, on YouTube. ”

Go ahead. Plug the two words ‘Canada Blacksmith’ into the search box on YouTube :
For comparison (since this was for OABA) plug in ‘Ontario Blacksmith’ (3)

Did anyone have any trouble finding, oh, 8 out of the 10 choices being actual working blacksmith’s contributions?
(And with those from Ontario, easy half link back to OABA itself. That includes David Robertson, Robb Martin, and myself - all of us have a slate of ‘work in progress’ videos available on YouTube.)

Increasingly, most especially over the last (COVID) year, I am finding more and more of this same ‘level’ of request. I can not imagine I am alone in this.

Beyond a level of personal whining, how does this relate to the current state of Blacksmithing?
Take a look at the (following) opinion piece ‘Death of the Expert’...


References / Notes

A) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock

B) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_medium_is_the_message

1) As a working comparison : In 1969 (the year I started high school), the Apollo 11 Command Module Guidance Computer weighed 70 lbs and had 64 KILO bytes memory. My first computer (which I still have) was a Mac 812 (kilobyte!), acquired about 1985, so it is safe to say I have been part of ‘home computing’ since well before there was an internet. The 2014 (!) computer I’m writing this on has almost 8 MILLION times more memory storage than that Apollo machine (at roughly the size of of a thick hardcover book). That same capability is available on current cell ‘phones’.

2) Honestly, there are now dozens more, increasingly specialized (and intentionally segregated, and thus viewpoint limited) ‘sharing’ platforms. As time progresses, the users are becoming more and more hidden behind pseudonyms and outright false identities. Again, stating bias, I launched my Wareham Forge web site in about 1995, started blogging in 2006. I have had no desire to progress past YouTube and Facebook (I started both in 2008)

3) Note the use of ‘Duck, Duck, GO’ here. Unlike Google, you can not buy your way to the top of the listings there. This search site also does not compile your personal search history, then sell that back to advertisers (You all might consider this)

Monday, April 05, 2021

A set up for what will follow...

 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about Evolving Technologies :

Anything existing during the first third of your life, is normal and just part of the usual way things work.
Anything invented during the second third of your life, is new and exciting (and something maybe you can get a career in !)
Anything invented during the last third of your life, is disruptive and against the natural order of things. (1)


There is clearly generational thing at work here.

I'm really at core a late 60's kid, and was framed by parents who grew up at the end of the Depression / during the 2nd War. I'm technically the last year of 'post war' (b. 1955), that very real 10 year bulge in births.
If I had taken a very definite fork of choice in 1978, I would have ended up with my own children in the early 1980’s. Which would put them about 40, (and likely also make me a grandfather now).
I always considered a 'generation' to be defined by ‘birth to child making’, so at best 20 - 25 years. This has been massively compressed of late, with every cohort passing university age wanting to have their own ‘special and distinctive’ label (2):


I also grew up well below the poverty line. A 'ward of the state' since about 1968 (at 13). Over my entire working life, my very best income year was 1991, when my income was roughly twice that current minimum wage. Since that year, I have never had enough income to put me over the ‘minimum for income tax’ amount. (3) So the escalation of 'consumer culture' has had limited impact on me.
Even television, since in '68 we still owned my parent's roughly 1960 b&w set, which often did not work because of failing tubes (and cost of replacements.) (4)

Different times, different shaping and pressures.

This all is a pre-amble to the next two commentaries I will be posting here.
These are edited versions of a pair of articles I wrote for the Ontario Artisan Blacksmiths Association newsletter, the Iron Trillium (5)

Many readers will find these next two pieces quite opinionated, and certainly I will be expecting ‘younger’ readers (especially Millennials, who have never known a world without ‘smart’ phones) to have quite different viewpoints.



Notes

1) Originally by Douglas Adams - Strongly paraphrased, from memory (!)
I have the original set of 26 BBC radio episodes of Hitchhiker’s Guide stuck inside my iPod, set on random play. (A). This specific reference is buried in there some place. It comes up (unpredictably) every so often.

2) Obviously not so simple. For the background preparation, I found a number of quite different divisions and names being proposed. Some use age blocks, some use events, some define (what they chose) as cultural / attitude descriptions. (So no wonder I can’t keep it straight either.)
https://parentingalpha.com/generation-years-chart-20th-to-21st-century-generations/
image source : https://static.vecteezy.com/system/resources/previews/000/098/290/original/generations-vector.jpg 

3) Ok, I admit that as a self employed artisan I get to deduct a big chunk of expenses most reading do not. About 90 % of vehicle costs are ‘business’ related. The workshop comprises 2/3 of the footage here, so also allows 2/3 of house operation expenses to be deducted.
Balance this against the fact that the first real ‘holiday’ I had from 1989 onwards was only in 2019 (one week in Cuba). Any other trips away from Central Ontario for the last 30 years have been working ‘holidays’, most at least partially paid for by contracts undertaken.

4) Also because of economics and this lack of media exposure, I joined the Canadian Army Reserves in Fall of 1972 - I had never ‘seen the War in my living room’.

5) I serve as Editor for this quarterly. Normally I limit myself to only one ‘editorial’ commentary per issue. I frequently will contributed a second article, normally something related to ironworking history or current project work. This last issue (January - March 2021) I did not receive very many submissions, and so was really short on content.

Notes on the notes

A) This of itself pretty much proves the point. Bias here described:

I did not own a computer until about 1985 (so I would have been 30, just at the cusp of 'the second third') There was no internet at that point. I have twice had to replace computers, not because they failed or did not adequately perform all the tasks I require to run my business, web sites, or research. But because required 'official' internet sites would not accept access from 'older and slower' machines. My current desktop is a Mac Mini, 2014 issue (bought in 2016) working OS 10.10 (top end for that machine). I work a LOT on this machine, normally mornings from (average) 7 am through to lunch time. (see this blog, the web site)

Popular Mp3 players date to roughly the mid 1990’s (I would have been about 35 - ‘in the second third’.) My first player was an off brand, purchased about a decade later (which I never was that happy with). Some point (about 2008?)  I would buy a second hand iPod Shuffle 1 (issued 2005). This was followed by a second hand iPod Mini (issued 2004). I currently have a Shuffle 3 (used, issued 2009) and a Touch 1 (issued 2007, new about 2014). This would place my use of all this still ‘in the second third’. All these replacements were made on the failure of the previous object (not for ‘style’).

I did not own a cellular phone of any kind until after 2005 +. This was certainly just a phone, and was purchased and used for travel emergencies and to call in credit card authorizations at craft shows. Only. (It was never switched on if I was not traveling). I did not purchase a 'smart' phone until about 2015, and even then only because I could no longer buy a replacement battery for that older cell phone (which did everything I needed anyway). I do not have any kind of data plan, and have never used the phone as a teeny tiny replacement for a computer. 

I do have an iPad Mini, (OS 9, about 2016). (This also a generous gift.) It allows me a small 'computer' device when traveling: internet access, work and research images, copies of lectures, and certainly holding book files. It gets used at home primarily for fast internet searches to check facts while watching (previously downloaded) documentaries or films, simple games. 


 

February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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