Can You See It Now?

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It's interesting how much the meaning of the word "networking" seems to change when you put the word "social" in front of it. It's like the world has discovered a new word.

In my own life, and work, networking is really the driving force that has caused me to end up where I am today. Even though I didn't make the connection then, its influence began to make a difference nearly 30 years ago at Hancock Shaker Village at a gathering of kindred spirits that was to be the beginning of the Timber Framers Guild.

In that pre-Internet world, face-to-face interaction was what Facebook has become for many people today. Aside from the arguments about whether the Internet makes social interaction better or worse, the act of networking itself changed the lives of 100 young tradespeople who were trying to learn as much as they could about a way of building that was largely lost in America. When the Internet did become a viable way of connecting people, that small tribe of tradespeople grew by 20 fold and, interestingly, began to include many individuals who were not even timber framers but wanted to be part of the network.

Roughly 15 years after the formation of the guild, the Preservation Trades Network (PTN) formed in a world where the Internet was rapidly becoming the standard way people communicated. For me, PTN was an opportunity to begin networking with people in many different trades, which proved to be quite valuable.

The context in which I saw my own work changed as I learned how the trades evolved over the centuries, composed, as they are, of individual components of a complex network of skills and knowledge based on both historic traditions and cultural influences. I was humbled by how little I really knew and motivated by the opportunity to learn from so many tradespeople who were happy to share their knowledge and insight, in person or online.

The existence of the Internet has had some interesting influences on my work and my life. On the one hand, it has connected me to many more people than I ever would have imagined I would meet, but, on the other hand, it has exposed me to many more people than is easy to comprehend. It has expanded the range and scope of my professional opportunities, while providing entirely new ways to mis-communicate.

The rapid rise of digital photography, when combined with universal access to the Internet, has made it easy to share experiences in social networking environments, but it also has dramatically affected how we communicate professionally, sometimes in very entertaining ways. The fact that the owner of a historic building owns a digital camera and has email now means I can give him or her a quote on what it will cost to restore a building by looking at a picture of it!

Of course, most of the new cameras are point-and-shoot and allow you to take as many pictures as you want, for next to nothing, but that doesn't necessarily indicate the pictures someone sends mean the same thing to me that they do to the customer. There's something less than rewarding in receiving an email bulging with pictures of the inside of a historic building that are too dark or out of focus to see anything or are perfectly focused and clearly show something totally meaningless--pictures that seem to have come from a camera gone wild and as useful as the phone calls I get when someone sits on his cell phone as it speed dials me.

Having access to instant communication has been a learning process for all of us. Communicating through emails has taught us how much value there is in hearing how people say something, rather than just seeing how they've written it. It also has made it pretty clear to me how differently all of us see things.

When there is no eye-to-eye communication, words can have different meanings. When I'm asked to look at digital pictures of a building with a problem, it becomes obvious that context is critical and difficult to capture in a picture. The solution isn't more pictures, or even necessarily better pictures. It's being able to see the whole picture.

Looking back from here, I see better now how networking has always been an important part of the trades and traditional building. Tradition itself is based on networking. In today's world, we have the ability to network instantaneously and globally. In some ways, it adds context to our view of the world, and in some ways, it keeps us from being able to see what can be quite important in understanding what we are looking at.

In the end, of course, when a building is trying to tell you what is wrong with it, conservation has as much to do with smelling and touching as it does with seeing. At least for now, the Internet isn't much good for that kind of networking.