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Can We Talk?

Communication is about subject matter

A recent thread on the LinkedIn group discussion "Means, Methods & Materials for Restoration of the Built Environment" asked the question: “JOC, IPD, BIM and life-cycle costing/management are all critical to restoration and sustainability of the built environment. Do you agree?”

In all honesty, I had to Google the acronyms to even have some context to work with when reading the comments. They sure weren’t tools I could find in my toolbox. The comments brought up some very interesting (to me) topics about the place of technology and the place of trades in historic preservation (HP). While replying. I realized this was something we need to talk about.

Communication is much easier when people understand the subject matter, not necessarily the language. When I was in Poland a few years back, one of my most enlightening experiences was interpreting a PowerPoint presentation being shown by Petre, who spoke eloquent Czechoslovakian and very little English.

He was showing pictures of his research concerned with an interpretation of ax marks found on historic timbers based on the marks left behind by the nicks in the ax, kind of a “broadax ballistics” approach. I spoke no Czech at all but had held and used the same tools as Petre had during his research, so the stuff of his presentation said the same thing to me it did to him, which I was able to interpret to my English comrades.

When we lived in a world where things were made by hand (not so long ago), understanding the stuff around us was much more natural. We lived with and worked with and maybe even were the traditional tradespeople who made the stuff. We understood the subject matter and could communicate about it in familiar ways.

The consequences of technological fabrication

Whether for better or for worse, which probably doesn’t even matter, that world has changed, and pretty much all of the stuff around us is made using technology. Understanding the subject matter is not only less natural, it has less apparent value. Hence we see technology developing forms of communication that are foreign too many traditional tradespeople, who are arguably an irreplaceable part of HP.

Is this a problem? Is this something we need to fix? To answer in the form of a famous recent American president, “That depends on what you mean by ‘this.’” One of things that becomes ever clearer to me is that communication itself is something we have, like so many other things, gotten worse instead of better at. Remember when the phone company used to know how to 'fish' wires through walls instead of stapling them to historic trim and siding?

From my perspective, the real issue is one of whether or not we feel the need to communicate. As the "trades" of building the future have evolved, the relative value of the knowledge held by tradesmen who knew how to do things the “old way” (by hand) has diminished. The academic environment has created a world in which entire occupations and specialties exist that weren’t even imagined when many of the greatest architectural works we now consider “wonders” were created. The real wonder is why we can’t see the value of so much of the knowledge that was held by those who came before us and built the objects we are trying to conserve.

One reason I get up every morning and pick up whatever tools I need to do my work is that I think our world community has the potential to learn to talk about and to learn to value all knowledge. Prejudice comes in many forms, but we need to all be very aware that it is all too often the reason we don’t learn from the experience of those around us and those who came before us--that and our habit of over focusing on how technology can make our lives better.

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