Amateurs and Experts

More coffee? The Jeffersonian ideal How things work, how we work

My family circle is fairly modest in its pretensions, slow to pick up on fads and surprisingly determined to maintain routines that are less than ideal, or even satisfying. So, recently, when one of my brothers received a Keurig system for a birthday gift, it prompted a discussion about the origins of this new contraption, its function, effectiveness, and ultimately the need for such a new machine. The youngest among us wanted to push the button over and over again, while the eldest wondered what was wrong with making enough coffee for everyone to share.

In my life I recall coffee pots that sat on a gas burner, later replaced with airtight jars of instant coffee granules, not tasty but more efficient. Then came the Mr. Coffee machines, endorsed by Joe DiMaggio and allowing everyone to believe they could prepare a perfect cup of coffee with no grounds at the bottom. This continues to work in most cases, but our tastes have been elevated by high-end coffee bars where more exotic blends and urbane surroundings allow us to feel sophisticated and unique for our selection.  So, it makes sense to have a machine at home that provides the simplicity and individuality one gets by ordering at a counter, along with the variety and precision of those brews – as long as one is prepared to give up the shared experience of the coffee pot.

The transition is not really in the product, but in the consumer. Tastes have changed and because the technology is available, needs have changed too.  

This change in tastes is not to be disputed, but the value we place on particular choices is open to examination. For many years the coffee brewed on the stovetop served its purpose, but because it’s no longer necessary to do things that way we are able to see different aspects of that purpose, and make different choices.

I often recall historian Paul Johnson’s anecdote on the roots and development of modern times: he offered Thomas Jefferson as a primary example of the Classical age that preceded Modernity, noting that in addition to being a political philosopher and statesman Jefferson was an accomplished writer, musician, architect, astronomer, and horticulturist. Jefferson made himself capable at these things because there was a need, as he saw it. A generation later, almost no one could distinguish himself by more than one of these talents; they had no time because they needed to devote themselves to perfecting just one skill at which to make a living. There were eminent writers, musicians, and architects following Jefferson, but they inhabited a world wherein one was rewarded for a specific skill – not a multitude of accomplishments.

But, let’s allow ourselves enough perspective to realize how easily this tide of human development could reverse itself. As we grow accustomed to having the very best choices available to us, and to completing our tasks with speed and simplicity, we learn more about how these processes work and what skills we have for solving problems. Our pages have documented well the progress of 3D printing and additive manufacturing is shaping the future of metalcasting. It’s possible because of technology but also because vast sums of information are now freely accessible. Like the developers of the Keurig system, we can improve the things we want to improve, if we apply the sort of determination and insight that the task demands.

But there is something else needed, too. At a recent meet with several dozen other people who are involved in metalcasting, and discussing the topic of career development and skills training, I heard an impromptu short speech on the need for commitment to the cause. The speaker was one of the elders there, one whose involvement is now not professional but vocational.

His point was not that conditions cannot or will not improve, but that we will not improve if we do not pledge some devotion to the things we profess to care about.  And if we do not do so, then the cause will be diminished, too.

Finding new people to join our ranks is a constant concern of professionals today – in metalcasting to be sure, but across manufacturing. (It’s true in my particular profession, too.) We all believe we want new hires to have specific skills or resume details, but after the hiring is done we realize what’s needed are people who care enough about the work we do to offer their best efforts in order that the work will be done right. It may take personal sacrifice of time, or delayed reward. But the work must be as important to them as we know it is.

More than that, we must be able trust them to solve the problems that emerge as we proceed in our efforts. Theories and testimonials about the value of manufacturing are fine, but we are beyond the age when expertise will address the challenges we face. We must have devotion.

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