Man and Machine

Man and Machine at Vienna Museum of Technology | Image by Mirko Tobias Schaefer (CC)

Man & Machine, Vienna Museum of Technology | Image by Mirko Tobias Schaefer (CC)

What inspired me to write this post are two seemingly unrelated things I saw recently: a friend’s website and a documentary film. The website was created using Adobe Muse. The documentary film was about sign painters, released through the Creative Bundle.

These two completely different discoveries both led me to ask the same question: a question about the role of technologies in our present and future lives, and the ongoing competition between man-made and machine-made. Why? Let me elaborate.

Adobe Muse CC is a tool for designing websites without having to write any code. It is aimed at the huge market of designers who had to make the transition from print to web production, but haven’t learned coding. After Flash and Dreamweaver, this is the very first program by Adobe that takes away the need for a skill that generations of programmers have been developing. As a matter of fact, the program provides no access to the code it generates on behalf of the designer. So the knowledge of coding is of no extra benefit to creating a website in Muse.

Sign Painters, directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, is a fantastic film exploring this unacknowledged art form and underground trade. Hand-painted signs have a long tradition; historically the craft was acquired through apprenticeship, though in the early days many sign painters were self-taught. According to one of the artists featured in the film, mastering the craft normally takes about 5-7 years. In the age of digital immediacy, this seems like a serious approach to learning a trade but that’s precisely what the interviewed painters value: a Renaissance-style mastery. All of the painters demonstrate the same level of dedication and passion for their job. They believe in solid knowledge of materials, techniques, and process; in quality, beauty, artistic vision, and durability. They came to the trade from different backgrounds and in different ways, but once they picked up a brush, they were reluctant to let go. For quite a long time, sign painting was “the” job, which brought money and a fair amount of freedom. Ira Coyne, one of the interviewed painters, mentions a book he once read, “Sign painters don’t read signs,” which is an autobiography of a sign painter from Portland written in the late 1950s who believed that the hand-painted sign industry would last forever. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

In the 80s, when first computers were introduced, and vinyl cutting machines were invented, the art of sign painting began to fade. Sean Starr from Starr Studios says: “That was a true nightmare, when that movement came, when all those little franchise things opened up. Any area that those guys came into just wiped out little guys who were doing really neat work.” The software became extremely popular among people who had no background or any knowledge of design, layout or technique but could produce signs a lot quicker and cheaper. Just like designers who don’t know the slightest thing about HTML and CSS reach for Adobe Muse to make quick, attractive and cheap websites for clients who don’t want to pay for “the real thing”—which is hand-coding. As a result, “hundreds of sign painters just threw in the towel,” and turned to a plotter, as Norma Jeanne Maloney recalls. They had to respond to customers who, according to Mack Benek, quickly developed expectations that if they order a sign now they will get it overnight. “But if it’s hand-done, it’s not going to be instant,” he says.

Adobe Muse

Adobe Muse screenshot from http://muse.adobe.com/

Thirty years after vinyl machines disturbed the peaceful existence of sign-painters, Adobe’s new release became a thorn in the side of website developers. On various computer and design-related forums, they’ve been ripping the software apart at the seams and criticizing Adobe for allowing dabblers to create websites. Many developers claim that web design should be left to somebody who understands the concept, and as such should be coded up by hand. They point at the flaws of Muse—the messy code it generates, lack of responsiveness, clunkiness, and various other bugs. Some say that it can only be used as a tool for making good-looking prototypes, and therefore its marketing is misleading. “Well written code that is efficient, powerful, and clean is an art form in and of itself,” someone said on a forum. And no-one can disagree with that, just like no-one would undermine the quality of hand-painted signs. But will people be willing to pay and wait extra for a higher quality website if presented with a cheap and fast solution? Code-savvy designers have developed the same fear that sign painters had—that the new software will put them out of business.

Technophobia—the fear or dislike of advanced technology or complex devices, especially computers—is nothing new under the sun. It started during the Industrial Revolution which brought on new machines able to do the work of skilled craftsmen using unskilled, underpaid men, women, and children. In the workers’ eyes, the machines were a threat and in 1675 got destroyed by a group of weavers who feared of the changes taking place.

Dustin Walsh, the author of “Fear not the ‘bot? As robots take jobs, experts ask if humans will keep up” article, reminds us that “robots have brought fear and paranoia to the American worker since the first robot entered the factory floor.” That first robot, a 4000 pound Unimate with a “six-axis arm attached magnetically to a steel drum, welded and moved parts weighing up to 500 pounds,” a job considered too dangerous to workers. “In March 1964, President Lyndon Johnson received a memorandum from a group of professors, technologists and activists, warning him that computers and automation would cause unemployment. However, the U.S. has added more than 74 million jobs since 1964. For their part, computers and robots have changed the skills and wages of the workforce.”

When vinyl machines became omnipresent, hand-painting became the luxurious craft that no-one was willing to pay for. It looked like the industry would die. But it didn’t. And those who remained in it despite the financial difficulties, got rewarded.

Sign Painters

Sign Painters film still | www.signpaintersfilm.com © The Sign Painter Documentary

For twenty years later things began to shift. Sean Starr, the founder of Starr Studios, talks about a massive project his company got commissioned to do by GAP. He was puzzled, wondering why the company would want to invest extra money in hand-painted store and truck signage. Surely, all companies were doing everything they could to save money? Not necessarily. GAP’s new business strategy was to try to go back to the roots and passion that launched them in 1969, and incorporating craftsmanship was part of that campaign. People were slowly becoming tired of the polished and homogenised look. They began to crave “the real thing.” And as Doc Guthrie, owner of “Doc Guthrie Signs” and a teacher, says, “there is always a demand for hand-crafter WHATEVER.” In the 80s and 90s the brush might have been going away but it’s coming back.

A hand-painted sign fades and becomes a work of art. Vinyl, on the other hand, shrinks and cracks, and has to be thrown away. It isn’t surprising then that many young people are willing to spend weeks learning to paint horizontal, vertical and diagonal strokes at Doc Guthrie’s school of sign painting. “They’re bored out of their skulls but it’s a challenge,” he says. The sign in one of his workshops says: “Through these doors pass America’s potential sign graphics designers and lettering craftsmen.” Anyone can punch letters using a vinyl machine. But the art of lettering is reserved for the hard-working, skilled, and dedicated ones.

Still from Sign Painters | http://www.signpaintersfilm.com

Sign Painters film still | www.signpaintersfilm.com © The Sign Painter Documentary

Keith Knecht, one of the sign painters featured in the film, is absolutely right when he says that “the problem with technology is that it never stands still.” Technology is indeed constantly changing, and those changes can be problematic. But they needn’t spread panic. Computers are increasingly more and more powerful, but we’re still very far from reaching true artificial intelligence. According to Frank Levy, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “robots don’t respond quickly to change, and computers are strongest when there is a repetition of a single action, so humans still have roles in the workplace; they just may be a little different in the future.” And it is true that computers have taken some jobs, but they have created jobs too. And, most importantly, they’ve given us instant access to knowledge, communication tools and shortcuts that have made a vast number of previously laborious tasks incredibly easy.

When asked whether technological change is a threat to the livelihood of humans, Dustin Walsh remains optimistic remains optimistic. In his view, the focus should be on embracing the robot and shifting human jobs “to the right parts of the manufacturing or service-providing process: programming the robots, repairing and maintaining them, and adapting work processes as the economy continues to evolve.” Given the speed at which computing power increases, and areas where that power is used (self-driving cars being a good example), people will have no choice but to use computers in the future. But they do and will “remain in control of the discovery,” to use Walsh’s words. As for hand-coding and hand-painting, I believe that while some people might be satisfied with a soulless, generic and non-durable product, there will always be people who value the skill and soul behind the hand-made.