Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Trojan Horse and the Great Gasp

Generally speaking, digital manufacturing (3D printing) is seen as a benign development. People may be bewildered – how can it possibly work? – but underneath they accept that in some way they do not understand clever people will make it work and that it will be, somehow, liberating for ‘ordinary’ people.

What threatens our liberty, our autonomy, our ease with the world and its objects now is not so much the methods of manufacture as the economic and commercial structures of society within which those methods are set.

So our attitude to digital fabrication is at odds with public attitudes to new methods of manufacture – machine manufacturing – a century and a half ago when machines were seen as the new way in which ordinary people’s lives and livelihoods would be constrained and destroyed.

The tide has turned. It has turned already in the sense that few people now have much direct or meaningful involvement with the processes of manufacture. The machines won decades ago. As far as people now are involved in manufacture they are likely to be a minority of the population, their roles probably confined to tedious and uncomprehending assembly, probably not in our society but in third-world countries. In our own countries those who are meaningfully involved in manufacturing, those who actually produce objects, are likely to be marginal relicts – like furniture ‘designer-makers’.

So the 3D printer will set us free – one in everyone’s basement. It is a sign of the slight unreality of the debate that we think of basements, when few, in our country, have one. But, never mind, the general thought is valid.

How will we use them? Some people can, and are using them already, but the horizons are limited. Some part on your toaster, say, breaks. If you have another you can 3D scan it and print a replacement. Very useful, but essentially housekeeping – the duplication of trivial objects.

If it is a more substantial or larger object it is likely to require a design made available to you and your machine, which you can download. It may be available for free and thus begin to threaten commercial interests. It may enable you to vary in particular ways – size, additional elements for example – but essentially you are constrained by the design you have been ‘given’ – or maybe bought.

You may have the skills to create your own design from scratch to feed into your printer, but there is little sign that any but a small minority of the population are being educated to the level of computer skills necessary for that.

Nevertheless, manufacturing has come to our basement. You have choice. You can even choose your material – to some extent – including, if your machine is advanced enough, the manufacturing medium. It could even be wood, but it must be ‘engineered’ wood. Essentially, as I understand it, the manufacturing process requires that the material be mashed up, or melted, or dissolved so that it can be extruded or laid down in thin layers. So the connection with the material is lost not just by the fact that there is no hand involvement in the manufacturing. The process requires that the material, if it is not plastic or something similar in its properties, be denatured.

Manufacturing, fabrication, hitherto has largely evolved from the consideration of the particular properties of materials – wood, brass, stone, glass – and the invention of tools and methods to manipulate them. It is staggering to consider that such a vast array might be swept aside in digital manufacturing.

Amongst those larger and more substantial objects that might be considered for this new process, furniture plays a leading role. Substantial, universally required, various in appearance and not very complex in structure. What could be better? And perhaps the prime candidate amongst furniture types would be the chair. Essentially we would be making our chairs out of MDF. Not unprecedented but perhaps not ideal in use. The most extreme – and crudest – stage in the development of engineered timber whereby pieces of material that would formerly have been too small or substandard to be used are combined in manufacturing processes and with machines of staggering accuracy and complexity that hand skills, no matter how highly developed, could possibly emulate – thus covering our extinction of material of higher quality.

The chair is the Trojan Horse of furniture. Designers and architects have elevated its status to art object, design paragon or moral exemplar. Amongst furniture it has unique requirements for structural strength and, desirably if not essentially, ergonomic correspondence. All the rest of furniture – cupboards, tables, shelves – has relatively modest requirements in those directions and the qualities that shape its appearance and our relationship with it concern more the choice of form and pre-eminently the nature of the material, to the extent that material properties govern structure. Material properties, at least in wood, struggle to keep up with the engineering demands of the chair. The chair demands so many joints and joints are wood’s point of weakness.

The chair is a Johnny-come-lately in the world of furniture – there were tables and cupboards and benches long before it appeared and allowed the pretensions of designers, engineers and architects to find their expression, crowding out the skills and knowledge of mere furniture-makers – humble carpenters (who also built houses in the days when their engineering requirements were simple) and relegating them to an inferior or outdated status. We don’t have books published titles the Cupboard or even, I think, The Table, but there must be many books called The Chair (or perhaps 100 Chairs).It is ironic, but not of course contradictory, that the chair becomes the supreme example of ergonomic design and is also the piece of furniture that does most damage to our bodies: it is not desirable to spend much of one’s life sitting in even the most ergonomically designed chair.

Digital fabrication is the latest stage in that process. As yet it produces objects with a low quality of finish but one can be sure that will rapidly change and this will be another mechanised and automated process of manufacture that achieves things impossible for even the best tooled hand. In this respect also the chair has become the supreme furniture type for showing off such achievements. Often in contradiction to the ergonomic chair, the virtuoso maker’s chair, sumptuous and fantastical, clamours for our attention and bankrolls the reputation and status of the star craftsman in a way in which mere tables and cupboards struggle to keep up – though in this case they make the attempt.

Much has been achieved in the pursuit of the immaculate object by hand skills in the past twenty or thirty years (and of course in earlier times and cultures) but one suspects that, once the human hand is firmly excluded from the computerised machine’s operating cabinet, new heights will be reached by methods incomprehensible to most men.

When the reaction is the gasp of incomprehension or disbelief rather than the murmur of informed understanding what shall we have lost? What will be the point?

Wheelbarrow 3

Wednesday, 26 June 2013


"In some strange way we devalue things as soon as we give utterance to them. We believe we have dived tt the uttermost depths of the abyss, and yet when we reurn to the surface the drop of water on our pallid finger-tips no longer resembles the sea from which it came. We think we have discovered a hoard of wonderful treasure-trove, yet when we emerge again into the light of day we see that all we have brought back with us is false stones and chips of glass. But for all this, the treasure goes on glimmering in the darkness, unchanged."

Maeterlinck: the epigraph to Young Torless by Robert Musil

Saturday, 22 June 2013


Amongst the newspaper revelations of the truly vast quantities of personal communications that are hoovered up electronically by the US National Security Agency and by our very own GCHQ at Cheltenham (neighbours of the Ladies' College and no slouch at these things) comes, almost predictably, first the official assurance that our GCHQ "scrupulously" observes the law and secondly the unofficial insider's assurance that the "analysts" are not actually sitting down with a cup of tea and a biscuit to listen in on your two-hour conversation with your granny. No, this monument of electronic data is sifted by computers for tell-tale signs of suspect terrorists or serious criminals who are about to blow up your granny, rob her of her life savings and radicalise her pussycat.

Nevertheless the stuff is there, cosily within the security service's reach and any individual in the future who for any reason became the object of the state's ssupicion or dislike could find themselves hideously exposed.

Elsewhere in the same newspaper is the revelation of the fact that yet another long-term police insider mole, who penetrated an environmental protest group, in this case Greenpeace London, in between fathering a few children in his relationships with female activists, had a major role in writing the pamphlet for which McDonald's spent years and millions in the famous McLibel case prosecuting the two other authors and therby trashing their own reputation.

One remembers other instances where police or perhaps security surveillance has been focussed on apparently harmless individuals (never mind that they were also innocent ones) in the most doggedly persistent and trivialising manner. It would seem that the characteristics of the Stasi are the natural tendency when the state begins to spy on its own citizens. Why should it be any different when it is done with computers rather than hidden microphones and binoculars?

Meanwhile, in this topsy-turvy world, we hear that the arch spy has filed espionage charges against Edward Snowden.

Postscript - information gathering:

Peter Francis, a former undercover police officer turned whistleblower, said his superiors wanted him to find "dirt" that could be used against members of the Lawrence family, in the period shortly after Lawrence's racist murder in April 1993.

He also said senior officers deliberately chose to withhold his role spying on the Lawrence campaign from Sir William Macpherson, who headed a public inquiry to examine the police investigation into the death.

Francis said he had come under "huge and constant pressure" from superiors to "hunt for disinformation" that might be used to undermine those arguing for a better investigation into the murder. He posed as an anti-racist activist in the mid-1990s in his search for intelligence.

"I had to get any information on what was happening in the Stephen Lawrence campaign," Francis said. "They wanted the campaign to stop. It was felt it was going to turn into an elephant.

"Throughout my deployment there was almost constant pressure on me personally to find out anything I could that would discredit these campaigns."

Postscript 2:

Beyond the detail of the operation of the programme, there is a larger, long-term anxiety, clearly expressed by the UK source: "If there was the wrong political change, it could be very dangerous. All you need is to have the wrong government in place. It is capable of abuse because there is no independent scrutiny."

Friday, 7 June 2013

World domination in Watford

What newspaper do participants in the Bilderberg conference favour?

Terrorist, terrorism, terror, security

“The collection is broad in scope, because more narrow collection would limit our ability to protect the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it may assist counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities.”

Jame Clapper, United States Director of National Security

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The great Shout

Margaret is staying at Shottesbrooke Hall now, in this grey November, when The Wedge has suddenly  come into my possession.

I note that when I first set down my Story, I speculated that there may have been more than one Beginning to it. I suggested indeed Five Beginnings. For I understood then that no life begins only when it begins, but has many additional inceptions, and each of these determines the course of what is to come.

And now I see with equal clarity that a man's life may have more than one Ending. But alas, the endings I may have earned present themselves to me, each and every one, in a sombre light. If there are five, as there were Five Beginnings, then these must surely be they.

An Ending through loneliness...

An Ending through Poverty...

An Ending through Poisoning...

An Ending from Suicide...

An Ending through Meaninglessness. This, I think, is the prospective ending that most dismays me. Despite a most almighty Struggle with God and my Vocation, endeavouring always (as once exhorted by the King) to discover my own Usefullness and Purpose, I arrive very frequently at the suspicion that my life is a trifling thing, ill-lived, full of Misjudgement, Indulgence and Sloth, leading me only deeper and deeper into an abyss of Confusion and Emptiness, in which I no loner recall why I am alive. And a man who has lost this particular recall must surely be destined soon to Ultimate Oblivion.

Today, Margaret is returning to Bidnold.

He managed to lift himself up a little. But when he looked up at me his gaze was all bewildered, and then, on a sudden, as I had him sitting up, he gave a great Shout, which sounded almost like a clap of laughter. And there was such a wild and vibrant Echo to the Shout that I seemed to hear it carried out of my window into the air and fly westwards along the river, past the boats crowded at Southwark Steps, past the commerce milling at Black Friars' past the gates of the Temple, and sounding on and on and on above the water, until at Whitehall it faded and was heard no more.

And he was gone in that instant of the Shout. It was his last sound on earth.

I closed his eyes and laid my head next to his, and held him to me and wept. The steam from the boiling Coppers shrouded us and made all the air around us white.

I could ardently have wished that he had not passed away so sprawled as he was upon a heap of dirty Laundry, but there I could do nothing. The World is as it chooses to be and he was one who knew it well.

from Merivel: a Man of his Time by Rose Tremain, chapter 2 and epilogue