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 (Please do not quote Africa) There is easily 1500 years of iron making and use in North Europe before the Bearded Axe.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…

  • 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?)

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)

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 :

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.

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

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