Finding Humans

Any discussion concerning the differences between craft and manufacturing is one probably not worth having, but in the spirit of continuing curiosity… I’m still trying to find the Venn overlaps between the Olde Aesthetic and the artifacts of mass production, particularly of electronic objects.

To summarise:

Olde Aesthetic: Manufacturing discrepancies. Signature elements. Natural finishes. Regional differentiation

Mass Production: Manufacturing consistency. Maker agnostic. Machined finishes. Global consistency

Of the many criticisms leveled at companies such as Foxconn, that which resonates most vividly is the treatment of its staff. Products of mass production tend towards the anonymous, and attempts to remove human evidence are made at every opportunity. Fingerprints are prevented with white gloves, breath and spittle are captured with facemasks, nets prevent stray hairs and nylon coveralls keep dust from entering the finished product. These protective elements do their individual jobs well, but together they also serve as a uniform, removing any individuality from the workforce. The humans become prosthetic extensions to the machine, replete with machine-ethics of consistency and speed. Foxconn employs 1.2 million people, yet we can learn nothing about them from the products they create. As consumers, the concept of treating other humans like machines sits uncomfortably with us, yet we demand products which appear to have no evidence of human involvement.

(movie clip from Baraka, ©Ron Fricke)

Now I’m no sentimentalist, and there are clear technical requirements to remove rogue elements from electronic assemblies, but is there space for a little more provenance in mass produced electronics? In the face of a market shift, the mass food industry began adding the name of the farmer to its milk packaging. Is there a simple equivalent in technology production? I’m not interested in a world of ‘artisanal’ or ‘fair trade’ technology, but is there room for a nod of acknowledgement that these things are the products of human beings, not simply of machines?

I keep coming back to those signatures on the inside of the Mac casing, and stories of hidden signatures behind carpeting in vehicles. This secret messaging is lovely, but the accidental forensic evidence of human involvement is particularly interesting. Even in the world of consumer electronics, that most consistent of industries, it’s possible to find such evidence if you look hard enough. Under the surface are handmade magic marker scribbles, human-placed glue blobs, checking marks and if you’re lucky – a fingerprint. One peculiar human forensic is the QC (quality control) sticker, which asks the prickly question: has the role of the human been reduced to checking if the work of machines is up to human standards? That seems perverse.

I’ve started a tumblr to collect these pieces of evidence, the link for which is above. It has opened a small debate about exactly what constitutes ‘Finding Humans’. If you find any examples where the human is evidenced in the mass production of objects, please do send them along, hopefully we can build a consensus.