Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Buggy whips and blacksmiths

Pity the poor buggy whip, the icon of technology's scrap heap. Do you miss the sturdy heft of the old WE302 telephones? Alas, they've gone the way of the buggy whip. Can't stand the latest annoying gadget? Don't worry, the paradigm will soon shift and it, too, will go the way of the buggy whip.

Just what is a buggy whip? As the name implies, it's a small whip used to drive the horses pulling a buggy or carriage. Buggy whip manufacture used to be a prominent industry, but that changed when the automobile came along.

The implication is that when a new technology comes along, older ones are left in the dust. Consider blacksmithing. Look up at the older buildings in many cities and you're likely to see a lot of wrought iron (wrought iron is worked by hammers and such, while cast iron takes its shape from the mold it's poured into). That iron was likely worked by small armies of blacksmiths under the supervision of a master smith.

Blacksmithing was an important profession anywhere there was iron, which was a large portion of the world. In smaller towns, the smith would also act as a farrier, shoeing horses. But all that's gone the way of the buggy whip. With newer machining and manufacturing processes available, why would anyone take the time to work iron by hand, at least in the industrialized world?

Except ... blacksmiths are still very much around, and doing reasonably well for themselves. What do they do? Apart from producing pure sculpture, they build fences, handrails, window bars, fireplace tools, weather vanes and anything else that can usefully be made of wrought iron. Generally a hand-wrought item will cost more than something from the local big-box store, but it will also look better, custom-fit the site and provide a one-of-a-kind design. Enough people like that enough to keep modern blacksmiths in business.

The same has happened with many of the traditional crafts. Witness the resurgence of local breweries and bakeries, which are now called microbreweries and artisan bakeries, much as guitars are now called acoustic guitars. There are any number of other examples. Free associating from "acoustic guitars", drum machines were supposed to put drummers out of work, but they didn't.

That's not to say that new technology is necessarily good for old technology. There are, after all, many fewer blacksmiths, brewers and bakers than there used to be. But neither is it a death sentence. It's also worth noting that many modern blacksmiths use gas forges and power hammers, and state-of-the-art brewing and baking equipment is, well, state-of-the-art.

Not even the buggy whip has gone the way of the buggy whip, if that way is supposed to be extinction. They're still made, just not as many or by as many people.

What does this have to do with the web? I'm getting to that ...

No comments: