Braverman - Degradation of WorkOne of the surprises in reading the first chapters of Tim Ingold’s Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description is how much Karl Marx appears. Marx and Engels are partly foils, part of an argument against the traditional separation of mental from material, as later elaborated by Maurice Godelier (see previous Materials Against Materiality). But Marx also provides lucid ways to think anew about the process of production and human skills.

In the section on “Clearing the Ground” Ingold works toward a chapter titled “Walking the plank: Meditations on a process of skill.” The purpose of the chapter is to talk about how sawing a plank can illustrate three often overlooked aspects of technical skill: “(i) the processional quality of tool use, (ii) the synergy of practitioner, tool and material; and (iii) the coupling of perception and action” (2011:53). Marx returns at the end of the chapter:

The essence of skill, then, comes to lie in the improvisational ability with which practitioners are able to disassemble the constructions of technology, and creatively to reincorporate the pieces into their own walks of life. In this ability lies life’s power to resist the impositions of regimes of command and control that seek to reduce practitioners to what Karl Marx (1930:451) once called the “living appendages” of lifeless mechanism. Thus skill is destined to carry on for as long as life does, along a line of resistance, forever undoing the closures and finalities that mechanisation throws in its path. (Ingold 2011:62).

Ingold is also thinking about the ideas of Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century: “Was American socialist Harry Braverman right to forsee that the increasing mechanisation of industry, driven by the inexorable demands of monopoly capitalism, would inevitably lead to the deskilling of the workforce or–which amounts to the same thing–an impoverished conception of skill (Braverman 1974:443-444)?” (Ingold 2011:62).

Ingold says this is a premature prognosis, for two reasons. First, no machine is perfect, and can never achieve full closure, never fully becoming automatic. Second, and perhaps more importantly, that as François Sigaut puts it, new machines always demand new skills to run and maintain those machines. Sigaut goes so far as to call this the law of the irreducibility of skills (cited in Ingold 2011:62).

This certainly makes me think: How are skills changing in a digital age? Is Ingold correct to call Braverman’s prognosis premature? Or, as Michael McNally argues in Content Management Systems and the Degradation of Intellectual Work in the 21st Century, is intellectual work being similarly deskilled and degraded? And how about what David Graeber calls The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs?

My initial feeling is that even in the digital age, the emerging technological work may be quite like the skills Ingold describes. We would be remiss not to analyze them as a processional, synergistic coupling of perception and action. And that it is up to us, and perhaps especially to the emerging generation that John Zogby at Hartwick College called The First Globals, “to disassemble the constructions of technology, and creatively to reincorporate the pieces into their own walks of life” (Ingold 2011:62).

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  • Tianna Rivas

    I personally feel I lack skills such as sawing a plank or using tools but i do make up for it in linguistic and interpersonal skills. I have enough intelligence to do well in an academic and social setting. These distinct skills i possess layout tasks just as a manual skill (explained in the chapter) would. I was able to come to this understanding when i read: “even before setting out I need to have arrived at some overall conception of the task to be performed- of what is to be done, how to do it, and the tools and materials required.” All skills laid out before us require a certain task and we must first know exactly how to execute it.

    Initially the invention of technology was to advance the skills of craftsman and artisans, as a step forward in western culture it seemed to be a great thing. But as we get further into modern industrial socities and the monopoly capatialism becomes more demanding, technology has an even huger job title in our enviroment. Leading to the deskilling of the workfore and ones conception of skill. Which is why I believe I lack a manual skill because I’ve been so acustomed to technology doing it for me.

  • Megan Young

    I thought it was interesting when Ingold talked about how no object considered purely in and for itself can be a tool. In order for a tool to work one needs to incorporate their entire body and their muscles to deliver the force that drives the tool and to maintain balance as they work. one also needs their eyes and ears to monitor what they are doing. I found it interesting how Ingold said that what the tool does is the effect of the entire system of forces and relations set up by the intimate engagement of the tool the workpiece and the body.

  • John Antonowicz

    On page 55, Ingold states “This is the moment at which rehearsal ends and performance begins. From this point on there is no turning back.” This quote is true in many aspects of nature. For example, when a mother bird decides her baby is ready to fly, she so gently picks them up and tosses them out of the nest, and down they go. This too is not rehearsal and they have two choices, to fly or not to fly. In both scenarios, practice can occur when the final product is done. Most things in nature only have one time for perfection, while humans have adapted so to have many trials and errors for simple and hard tasks.

  • Courtney Arlington

    What I found interesting about this particular section of the book was around page 55 where Ingold explains that the “placement of tools and materials is already part of the formation of the umbrella plan for the next operation.” The significance of this quote in my life as a musician is that each one of my practice sessions is basically preparing for the next one. I practice in order to be more successful the next time I play. Using the skill of “setting up” for my next time of practice can be of high importance in my overall succession. The preparing/planning for any “operation” really can be mental and physical at the same time. This is basically why I connected with the idea of the “umbrella plan” in this chapter.

  • Daniela DeNuzzio

    I really enjoyed the section called “Technology and the end of skill”. Ingold as well as Carl Mitcham talk about how technology has turned human skill into a bunch of motions to control a machine that does the skill for us. Reuleaux believed that our every move is controlled or planned by the machine. This makes me really think of all the additional technology that has been added since the Industrial Revolution. For instance, the cell phone, which I understand is the most cliche example, disconnects us from so much. We can download applications on our smartphones to play the piano, instead of actually learning how to play the piano. The spell check on our computers corrects our spelling, so we do not have to. Our skill withers away as more and more technology develops. Eventually, we could become mindless organisms that live off machines for the rest of our lives.

  • Alicia Nagla

    First, I would like to mention that this has been the first chapter that I really enjoyed reading and felt a connection to. It’s not that I often find myself sawing a plank, but the conceptualization of the chapter made it more relatable and I found my self annotating and developing connections more so than in other chapters. Moving on, this chapter had me identifying two types of skills in my own life that both contrast and complement Ingold’s ideas. For one, I was drawn to the idea of running as a sport. I run regularly, and I enjoy doing so outside rather than on a treadmill. Relating this to “The processional quality of tool use” I recognize not just the physical steps attributed to running, but also to the process of putting on shoes, planning a route, stretching, etc. In the first paragraph of this section, he mentions, “operational sequence…number of such steps…schedule…many steps”(53). He is therefore emphasizing the existence of steps in every task and skill, whether we recognize them or not. Upon reading this, I was drawn to all of my daily tasks, large and small, that encompass numerous steps that I hadn’t even recognized. My tools would be my shoes, running attire, and the ground. As Inold continues to discuss the role of such tools, he made a statement that really intrigued me: “I am working with the instruments and materials” (55). This statement introduces the connection between man and material that I continued to find throughout the chapter. As I analyze running, my body works WITH these tools; if the shoe does not fit, the task of running is unhealthy and done incorrectly. If the shoe is untied, on the wrong foot, old and warn and so on it can be a detriment to the task, But if the shoe fits, is well laced, has good tread, and is comfortable it becomes a vital tool the success of running. Furthermore, the shoe does not do the running; the body in conjunction with the shoe does. Therefore, the shoe develops a history as the foot develops muscle memory, the grass stains the tread, the canvas material becomes warn and so on. As technology is introduced, I personally feel that the task of running becomes less of an experience and the task looses its value. The technology of the treadmill inhibits me from going outside and experiencing the world which I find boring, thus loosing motivation and not running for nearly as long or with as much effort as I do outdoors. Ingold notes that with such technology, the task becomes, “a purely physical effort” (61).Perhaps this brings forth a connection to previous chapters that embrace the importance of being connected with the earth. As I continued to read this chapter, I was able to realize how skills like running are developed and are comprised of so much more than just running. On the other hand, I have noticed a lot of comments here and on Facebook regarding leadership as a skill. I also believe that leadership is a skill, and in this day and age we use technology to carry out this skill and expand it in ways never before possible. We work with social media, blogs, mobile email and news, all to develop ourselves and our leadership abilities. So, I believe that in this case the development of technology is extremely beneficial as we continue to use it for the betterment of our skills. For any of these communications via technology to work, there must be an operator, a creator, and others involved in order to carry out any sort of communication and development.
    Therefore, I believe that our age of technology brings forth both benefits and detriments to our skills.

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