Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Disappearing Skills

I was watching a PBS program last night that was produced by the Great Scenic Railway Journeys folks.  The show was a travelogue for various scenic railroads across the United States and Canada.  The footage of both the trains and the scenery was beautifully filmed.  It was a testament to many, many people that the old steam locomotives (and other old railroad equipment) were still operational on these tourist lines.

[Image of replacing a locomotive tire circa 1940 from the Library of Congress via Flickr.]

I watched vignettes of about a half-dozen railroads and I kept picking up the same message:  the skills needed to keep the finicky beast, otherwise known as a steam locomotive, moving is rapidly disappearing.  There are no "Locomotives-R-Us" parts distributors for steam locomotives. Every part that wears out has to be made from scratch in the railroad's own shops.  Everything, from the smallest bearing replacement to a complete overhaul, requires tools and skills that are hard to find on the curriculum of most vo-tech schools. 
As time passes, the younger generations have neither any recollection of railroads as a source of excitement nor do they much care about the locomotives that brought their grandfathers or great-grandfathers to a complete standstill when one passed. While a few people can still take care of the equipment today, the mechanics on most of the railroads worried about who will be there to continue the work when they are gone.  

Disappearing skills is by no means limited to fixing cranky old steam engines.  The craftsmen and women who made up the bulk of the skilled labor force have either vanished entirely or are on the verge of doing so.  There are still a few who try to keep a particular craft alive.  Roy Underhill, a master carpenter, has been on PBS for 29 years with his program, The Woodwright's Shop, that teaches the woodworking skills that were used before the advent of power tools.  But he is more the exception than the rule.  It works in his case because woodworking remains a very popular hobby. 

Lost skills are not limited to arcane technologies like locomotive repair and hand woodworking.  NASA, which recently had its Return to the Moon Mission, cancelled by President Obama realized the same thing a few years ago as they tried to ramp up the design for the new Ares rocket.  Many of the designs that had allowed the Saturn rocket to perform successfully during the Apollo missions forty years earlier had been lost and the agency was left with trying to reinvent the wheel.  Old drawings and documents had been destroyed.  Engineers were long-retired or had died of old age. As I recall one news story from a few years ago, some of the young NASA engineers started examining the remaining Saturn rocket in the Kennedy Space Center Museum to see how it was built.  (This might be apocryphal but I think I have my facts right).  

The reason most technical knowledge is lost is the same reason that causes some unwritten languages to disappear:  the most important information is tacit information, the nuances that only come from one person teaching another the skill.  No matter how many technical manuals you have (or dictionaries), if you lose the people with the direct knowledge of a task you lose the art they brought to their work.  Much of that art cannot be written down.  

What can we do about it?  One idea that has been out there for quite a while is the idea of using wikis to gather the tacit knowledge of skilled craftspeople.  Have them write down as much as they can about what they do and why they do it.  Even the bits they feel are simply superstitious could be helpful.  This might work but I can see lots of places it could fall short.  Many people don't like to write, or can't type fast enough, or don't have access to a computer when they need it.  

I have another suggestion.  Give each shop a few of the little Flip video cameras and have them record short, narrated video segments about what they are doing on any particular job. Then post these segments up to an archive center on YouTube.  The combination of video and narration could go far beyond any written document in capturing various skills and it would be much simpler to prepare. The cost of web video has dropped so low that the overall costs would be nominal.  Just a thought.  Do you have any ideas on how we might preserve our rich history of crafts and skills for future generations?


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