Ratzenberger on the Manual Arts

When someone I’ve just met asks me what I do for a living and I say I work in software, I sometimes hear wistful responses like, "Oh, that’s cool and it must be a lot of fun. All I do is…" followed by carpentry, plumbing, teaching, farming, or another occupation or trade.

To me, that’s backwards: Any of those things is at least as important, and at least as worthy of respect and appreciation, as what we technologists do. I usually respond by saying so, and adding: "When the power goes out, I’m pretty much useless; worse still, everything I’ve ever made stops working. What you make still keeps working when the power is out."

I can make a pretty good argument that the non-technology skills are more valuable/applicable, but the more important thing is that all skills are deserving of respect and appreciation. Technology has done wonders, and it’s super fun to be involved in that and to have our advances and skills recognized; after all, software has helped build the tools we use to make other real things, including cars and buildings and spacecraft. But it’s unfortunate when sometimes people who focus too heavily on the so-called "higher technology" skills forget, or devalue, the people and skills that built their house, their couch, and their car. Nearly everyone has skills and personal value worth appreciating.

John Ratzenberger makes a similar point:

"The manual arts have always taken precedence over the fine arts. I realized that there is no exception to that rule. You can’t name a fine art that isn’t dependent on a manual art. Someone’s got to build a guitar before Bruce Springsteen can go to work. Someone had to build a ceiling before Michelangelo could go to work."

We live in a richly technologically enabled society, which we can and should enjoy. But when a natural disaster (or just a programming glitch) strikes, and we’re suddenly without power and Nothing Works Any More, we realize how fragile our comfort infrastructure can be.

A couple of months ago here in the northwest United States and western Canada, we had a windstorm that left 1.5 million people without power. Our house was dark and cold for just three nights; many of our friends were out for a week. It can be startling to find oneself unable to talk to anyone without physically going to them: Our cell phones didn’t work at our house, because many cell towers had no power. Many people were chagrined to discover that their landline telephones didn’t work either, because even though the phone lines were fine, the telephone (or base station for a cordless phone) that most people attach requires separate power. Skype wasn’t an option, needless to say, even while the laptop batteries held out. Thus cut off, we were reduced to walking, or driving where trees didn’t block the roads and if you could find a gas station whose pump was working (those pumps usually need electricity too).

Interestingly, the home phone would have been fine had we been using a retro 1950’s-era handset. We’ve now purchased one to keep around the house for next time. Sometimes simpler is better, even if you can’t see the caller ID.

After the storm, who was it who restored our comfort infrastructure, removed fallen trees, and repaired broken houses and fences? Primarily, it wasn’t us technology nerds — it was the electricians, the carpenters and the plumbers. How we do appreciate them! Fortunately, those people in return also appreciate the software, smartphones, PDAs, and other wonders that our industry produces that help them in their own work and leisure, which makes us feel good about being able to contribute something useful back, and so we all get to live in a mutual admiration society.

Thanks for the thought, John. Oh, and Cheers!

One thought on “Ratzenberger on the Manual Arts

  1. So true. Our dependencies on higher order comforts make us forget that those comforts are based on still more primitive realities of life.

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