The Weekend's Television: Mastercrafts, Fri, BBC2
Virtual Revolution, Sat, BBC2
Monday 15 February 2010
I don't know exactly when technology got out of hand, but I suspect it was roughly around the time when it got out of our hands – the moment at which processes and construction ceased to be about what one person could make for themselves and started to be about industrial processes so complex that no single individual could carry them off.
We got both ends of the continuum this weekend, starting off with the eminently graspable craftsmanship explored in Mastercrafts on Friday evening and coming up to date with Virtual Revolution's account of how the internet has alchemised human curiosity into one of the most valuable commodities on the planet. One programme stirred a nostalgia for the time where, when something broke, virtually any layman could see what had gone wrong. The other revealed an invisible mechanism of profit that most of us probably didn't even know existed.
Mastercrafts – slotting into that Friday night gap that seems to be reserved for the horticultural and bucolic – is wonderfully soothing, a celebration of old kinds of fashioning, in which three "complete beginners" are given a crash course in some ancient craft and then tested to see who has absorbed it most successfully. A small quibble first: I don't know what their definition of "complete beginner" is, but in a programme devoted to the art of green-wood construction, I'm not sure that a woodwork teacher and a single mum who's just put herself through a carpentry course really qualify. "Not beginners at all" would seem to be a more accurate description. Still, none of those taking part had ever worked with green wood before – or used a foot-powered lathe – and they proved to be just cack-handed enough. Not so good that the acquisition of these skills looked too easy, nor so incompetent that you gave up hope entirely.
Their tutor was a man called Guy Mallinson, a well-spoken downsizer who had traded a city job as a cabinet-maker to set up as a bodger in the Dorset woods. The term bodger – for someone crafting household objects from fresh-cut timber – led you to expect a lot of bodging, but you got anything but. Guy whittled up a lovely kitchen spatula in less than a quarter-of-an-hour and he set about teaching his pupils to construct a ladderback chair, using only the natural shrinkage of the wood to hold the thing together. In between lessons in spindle-turning and tenon-shaping, Monty Don – for whom the whole thing is an extended lesson in consumer ethics – went off to look at more ancient examples of the same techniques. And the whole thing is lovely, whether it's the streamer of wood shavings unfurling from a whirling chair leg or the sense that, while you might not be able to repeat the process, there isn't a single step you don't conceptually understand. Unsurprisingly, the woodwork teacher won the competition, transforming a four-foot log with the sap still seeping into a chair that was not only good to look at, but could also be sat on without trepidation.
The technology explored in Virtual Revolution is a little less tangible – and the economics of that technology (the subject of this third episode of the series) weirdly counter-intuitive too. Given the abstractions of the subject – and the ever- present possibility that it could spiral off into a fog of Baudrillardian nonsense – this series is admirably clear in its explanations, and nicely succinct about the larger implications of what has been explained. It's also got really good interviews. It's as if you were to have a series about the Industrial Revolution in which Matthew Boulton and James Watt popped up to talk about steam power, Richard Arkwright fondly recalled the early prototypes of the spinning jenny and Abraham Darby was on hand to be questioned about cast iron.
Alex Krotoski is a smart cookie – in the non-internet sense of the word – and effectively restores a sense of wonder to something most of us have learnt to take for granted with extraordinary speed. When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, for instance, the idea that online commerce might have a future was still an unverifiable fantasy. But he noticed that web usage had grown by a factor of 2,300 per cent in a single year and decided to get a stake in the gold seam early. And the economies of delivery involved in the internet mean that you can make an absolutely giant profit by making innumerable tiny ones. One of the best bodgers in the country – featured in Mastercraft – reckons he's doing reasonably well if he gets the equivalent of £10 an hour for one of his hand-crafted chairs. Google, by contrast, earns over $720,000 over the same period – and does it 24 hours a day. If money is what you care about start whittling yourself a better search engine.
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