Mass Production

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Mass Production

From Iian Neill

Published before 2005


Iian Neill: To preempt Greg [Scheckler], I think the argument could be made that while mass-production has clear utilitarian benefits it is of dubious value when it comes to the production of art, and the cultivation of taste.

Brian Yoder: Actually I think it matters there too. Excellent stuff can now be mass-produced so that you don't have to be a king or aristocrat to have nice things anymore. Of course elitists bemoan the fact that now poor people can have what was once the exclusive privilege of the wealthy, but overall I think that's a good thing.

It's a point that I think you touch on implicitly, but clearly it's a matter of weighing up the gains against the losses. Any improvement in reproduction or communication technology is clearly beneficial because it brings us closer to experiencing the original. Some forms of art would not exist at all - cinema, television - if it weren't for both mass-production (of celluloid, projectors, television sets) and communication technologies (broadcast towers, satellites, fibre optics).

I guess the problem I have is not against mass-reproduction per se - although technological limitations can accustom us to either degraded or unrealistic expectations - but the ethic of mass-production informing creation. Ruskin's real worry concerning the design industry was that it 'enslaved' the imaginations of the artisan into churning out formulaic products. Is this not the same worry of film-goers when it comes to market pressures on the film industry? Board-room butchering of film plots is the mass-production ethic in action.

IN: It does not matter particularly whether a machine produces an object, or whether a workshop of artisans are cutting out a shape to formula - the point is that any kind of inflexibly formulaic process that denies inspiration [...]

BY: It's also worth mentioning that the most modern manufacturing systems don't make the same things over and over again, but instead build customized things to order, and I think that this trend is likely to continue. What happens when you can have a machine knit you a shirt with the yarn you specify, in the style that you select, and fitted perfectly for your body shape? Doesn't that bring back the creativity and control back into a more tangible connection with the user of the product? Won't that be even closer than when the old lady down the street knitted them for a few pennies an hour?

Customized mass-production, like all technological advances, is desirable. The product you purchase meets your needs more closely. And that is great for utilitarian purposes.

IN: [...] (with its concomitant risk of technical imperfection) risks debasing the public's perception of finer aesthetic qualities.

BY: On the other hand, it also means that if one excellent designer can come up with a perfect idea about how to make something, that idea can be replicated a million times over, delivering much more value to people than an old artisan ever could make with his bare hands.

I'll refine my position here. It is better for a great design to be known by millions in reproduction than hundreds in person. It's not like you have to give up the original. Let me clarify. I don't think reproduction itself is the root problem. Technological advances tend to bring higher fidelity. The ethic of mass-production is the villain because it encourages the production of lower-quality work, and can make it difficult for higher quality work to be made.

IN: I mean simply that it accustoms us to accept cheap imitations when we could pay a bit (or a lot, admittedly) more and have a product that at least exhibits human qualities. Of course these qualities imply technical imperfections.

BY: Why do you associate imperfections with humanity? It seems to me that imperfection is associated with primitive humanity, but perfectly created things is something that only man can accomplish. Birds, beavers, and other creatures that make things are more like excellent craftsmen than modern human factories etc.

Slightly ambiguous terminology on my part. By technical perfection I was referring to machine perfection or polish. Human and machine perfection are desirable in their proper places. Machine perfection is essentially achieved through greater precision, reliability, and regularity. Human perfection in technique has more complex aims. The problem arises when human craftsmen imitate machine perfection - formula, mindless regularity, cold precision - instead of perfecting their aesthetic feeling, design powers, and technique. The objection is to the inversion of the proper relationship between these ideals. The machine ideal should strive to imitate the human; not vice versa. The old theme of adapting technology to serve people, and not adapting people to serve technology.

IN: But of course mass-production has demonstrable utilitarian uses, no one I think would deny that.

BY: They shouldn't but a lot of them do, unfortunately. Spending a few nights cold and hungry without those awful manufactured goods might change their minds a little bit, don't you think?

I agree.

-- Iian