Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Technology, progress, and creativity

I spent the last two-days in a workshop intended to give an overview of a complex new technology the unit I direct just purchased. I've been to these kinds of workshops before and knew it was more than likely the content was going to be either too basic to interest me, or too irrelevant to my own role relative to the project and it was equally likely that the workshop would be very dry. So I knew I was going to have to find some way to stay engaged but also busy. 

so of course I decided to bring knitting. The knitting would keep me busy, and in a very satisfying and productive way, but it wouldn't demand so much attention that I wouldn't be able to follow what was happening in the workshop providing, of course, that I chose the right knitting project.  So I stuck a ball of cotton sock yarn and 5x2mm dpns and armed with Knitty's basic sock recipe, headed off into the workshop. 

I stuck out the first 60-90 minutes, noticed I was getting distracted by email and Twitter and my computer in general and barely paying attention so I pulled out my knitting and very briefly mentioned to the three colleagues in the room with me, that it was my plan to knit so I could keep busy but stay attuned to what was happening all around me. 

Oh yeah? said one. What are you going to knit? 

A sock, I replied. It's easy and fast so I can still pay attention to the workshop. 

A sock! he said. And how long would it take you to just go down and buy one instead of knitting one? 

Well that stumped me a bit. He seemed to be suggesting that time was a factor here. I wasn't knitting a sock because I wanted one quickly. I wasn't even knitting a sock because I had any urgent need for a sock! Though I will someday need a sock and when I do, I'll be glad I have this one. Or it may end up going to someone else, at this point I don't know. I'm knitting a sock because I like to knit. Because I enjoy the craft. Because I far prefer putting on a sock I made than putting on one some factory churned out. 

I tried to articulate that a bit. I pointed out that it felt good to wear a sock I made rather than one made by a factory. That I was more aware of the sockiness of socks because I knew what was involved in the construction. To me it's still something of an astounding bit of history that we humans figured out how to turn one long piece of yarn into something that has a cuff, a perfectly turned heel, and a smoothly grafted toe. I love to knit at least in part because it makes me feel connected to human beings through time and space, it gives me a sense of being grounded and rooted. And it's such an amazingly creative craft. Not that I think we should tear down all factories and force people to knit their own any more than I think everyone needs to write their own code or fix their own cars or sew their own quilts. We each of us have things we find more fascinating than others. The diversity in passion is good!

Well I didn't say all that to my colleague. Just a couple sentences along those lines. 

He nodded. Seemed to get the gist of it. But several hours later he glanced over to see my progress just as I was just about to start the heel flap. 

Well I guess you don't knit those instead of doing laundry, he noted. 

And of course, he's quite right. I don't. I don't knit a pair of socks because I'm too lazy to wash the ones I already own. That would require my going sockless for more days than living in a climate of -14 celcius would make reasonable. Washing socks when I need a clean pair is so much quicker than knitting a whole new set. There is no denying that. 

And again today, just as I finished the first sock only some 20 minutes before the two-day workshop ended, he peered over, looked at my finished sock and said "That still the first one?" 

It was.  One sock during the boring bits of a two-day workshop. Not bad. Especially considering that I didn't think to bring a tapestry needle with me and so had to do the kitchener stitch without one, which I'm sure is no problem for more experienced kitcheners, but this being only my second time kitchenering... 

I just need to pause here for a minute to say something about my colleague because I don't want anyone to get me wrong. My colleague is a very intelligent, witty, and like-able man. I have nothing against him. He speaks out of a set of assumptions that many others who are just as intelligent and knowledgeable and as like-able as he is... our exchange was light-hearted and I took no offense, though as you can tell, it got me to thinking....


It got me thinking about why I knit, not just socks, but also sweaters, shawls, mittens, hats, scarves, and why I prefer complex cables, and lace, and using multiple colours because I really enjoy the craft of those techniques involve, I especially enjoy watching patterns emerge, seeing something recognizable forming at the end of my needles. As I thought about that I was reminded of how I felt after visiting a museum in Boston that housed some victorian gentleman's collection of scientific apparatus. (I wish I could remember either the name of the museum or the gentleman, but I can't though I will see if I can find out). Each piece, no matter how large or how small, was unique. Each piece represented amazing craftsmanship: beautiful carvings, inlay, stonework. Each piece was not only functional in terms of what it was intended to do, but it was a piece of art in it's own right. Using those tools would bring the handler a double joy: not only were they clearly well-constructed and efficient at the task they were intended to fulfil, but they were beautiful to hold, amazing to look at. They were, to my more modern sensibilities, rather ornate for my taste and even while admiring it I recognized why more streamlined and clean lines became so appealing to us all. 

But steamlined and clean and efficient doesn't have to mean that there is no room for craft, for art, for beauty, for creativity. 

And this is what modern technology and the resulting predominance of factories and mass production often deprives us of. Each time I knit a sock I marvel at how someone somewhere figured out how to do the whole heel so that the sock conformed to the foot more naturally. And how that better fit probably resulted in greater comfort inside of boots and shoes. In my minds eye I see a knitter sitting, perhaps in front of a fire or out in her garden somewhere, puzzling over the challenge of how to turn a tube into something foot-shaped, about an tiny eureka about some part of the process and trying it out, then sharing it with others, and those others pondering over some bit of it that's just not quite right, not yet, until he, too, has his own eureka moment. 

I'm glad that knitting has not been stamped out by all those machines that do it so much faster. They might do it faster, but they do it noisier, dirtier, and often, for worker and for wearer, with much more uniformity. And we take both that technology and the things it produces quite for granted so that instead of having adequate amounts of clothes and taking good care of the ones we do have, we have closets full of things, some of which we barely look at let alone appreciate. 

Don't get me wrong. I work in information technology, can't imagine what I'd do without my computers and am never ever very far away from my iPhone. I'm online pretty much all day because the web provides me with the steady stream of information and connection with others that I keep me going on both the professional and personal fronts. When my laptop needed to be worked on for two hours last week right smack-dab in the middle of the work-day, I was completely lost. I'm no luddite. 

Knitting is a technology. And one we should keep for those who want to engage with it. 

But I do not subscribe to the concept that more and faster is better. Technology doesn't simply free us up so we can do more creative and significant things. There's a trade-off. Socks and sweaters, jeans and jackets, shoes, phones, computers, most toxic to one degree or another, and all so easily produced, so disposable, so undervalued that we now have so damn much of it we're burying ourselves and the planet under all our discarded piles of it. 'Progress' is never quite that straightforward ... 

... which reminds me of Sir Walter Scott and his novel _Rob_Roy_ where the young hero of the story looks over a huge lake nestled in the midst of a forested mountain range in the highlands. As he admires it's rugged beauty,  Bailie Nicol Jarvie (yep, the very namesake of that famous scotch) stands beside him rubbing his hands as he contemplates dams and irrigation techniques and the riches that will fall in the lap of the one who harnesses it all ... but that's another post ;-)

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