Stories of the Human Hand


In broad terms what is this project about?
This project's mandate is to to explore the world of the human hand especially when hands are used to build, shape, repair or restore. It will look at the science of the hand-brain connection, the role hands have in learning and our sense of well-being. It will look at how we communicate and interrelate with others through our hands. It will recognize the importance of the skilled trades and why we should promote these careers more vigorously. It will advocate a relationship with man-made objects that respects the environment and values workmanship. It will bring attention to artists and inventors whose hands are an integral part of the creative process. It will show the rejuvenating joy of using hands for leisure pursuits.

How would you like to tell these stories?
My main objective is to produce From Rocks to Radar, a web-based documentary series. This project has evolved in many different directions but I strongly believe the web-series is the best option for various reasons. There is more support these days for short videos. Funding can come from broadcasters who are expanding their online presence, from funding bodies who support the arts or science education, from corporations who have a connection to the subject matter and from crowd funding. There are an increasing number of people in our society who have, often from their own experiences, realized complex and active use of our hands is essential in a world where passive consumption is just too difficult to avoid.
I also find doing short documentaries very satisfying and creative and the most suitable way to tell such a broad range of stories..

Why do you want to tell these stories?
Our daily lives have become saturated with media and digital technologies. We spend hours each day in front of a screen. We have become accustomed to instant gratification and to the large consumption of information. So it is easy to forget that everything outside our natural world has ultimately been created using hands. Manual skills require thought and patience and even if the finished result is purely functional it often requires creativity and imagination. These skills can be taught but mostly they are developed with experience. As a DIYer myself I understand the passion that goes along with doing manual activities. And where there is passion, there can be great stories.

Are there specific issues you want to explore?
-- How using our hands in 'effort-based activities' contribute positively to our mental health and feeling of well-being. Epidemiological research suggests that occurrences of depression were considerably less for our ancestors than in present generations. Experiments have also shown a lifestyle based on manual activity and physical effort does result in positive chemicals being released in our brains. Prehistoric Prozac, by Kelly Lambert, Ph.D. is a very good article that expands on these ideas. There has also been a lot of evidence that hands-on activities (specifically Montessori methods) have a great benefit for people who are suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's.

-- The removal of industrial arts from the education system --
Like music and sports, industrial arts can be valuable for children in their development. It enhances hand-eye coordination, problem solving, self-confidence, cooperation and imagination. It also introduces them to a type of activity that may suit their personality and natural abilities. It may open career opportunities they might not have thought of considering the societal pressure to go to university. Industrial arts is still present in a few schools though more often as a separate program (in another building). On the other hand we are starting to see, in recognition of varied learning styles, a hands-on component being implemented in regular classes (RAFT is one resource that promotes this idea). There is also the work of Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori who in 1897 started to develop theories of pedagogy where the five senses were a key part of learning. Montessori education is practiced in an estimated 20,000 schools worldwide.

-- Severe shortages in the skilled trades --
This will be an even bigger issue when, for example, the current generation of electricians and plumbers start to retire. The lack of shop classes is partly to blame, along with the perception of the trades. Skilled trade jobs do not have the same status as white collar employment. While working with your hands can sometimes be dirty and physically taxing, the brain activity required can be considerable. What is needed is a patient, meticulous intelligence with good visual perception. These are not the same requirements as for a sales manger, a schoolteacher or a social worker. Different traits, different jobs. One of the more hopeful sign of how our attitudes might turn the corner are the Skill Competitions that happen around the world. The are also Summer Manufacturing Camps run in partnership with industry that give young people a unique opportunity.

-- Our relationship with our objects --
More and more, we simply throw out our electronics and furniture when they're broken. The cost of repairing our devices often exceeds the cost of replacing them. Furniture may be cheaply made and cheaply priced, so when it starts to look the worse for wear, we replace it. This throw-away mentality has environmental costs and personal costs as well. We become casual about our stuff, lose an appreciation for quality, and feel that we have no control over our objects and in some ways our lives. iFixit is one website that is devoted to helping people do simple repairs of their electronic devices. One encouraging trend is the number of community based Hackerspaces that are opening up around the world. This is in part because tools such as laser cutters, CNC machines and 3D printers are becoming affordable. To see what is being done to encourage and support young people and educators visit Makerspace.