Whose hands

The last two Sundays I’ve sat in an adult Sunday school class discussing danah boyd’s book  It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Two teenagers were helping lead the discussion, and I was proud of their fresh-faced leadership skills.

And as the questions about personas and privacy were flying I felt sad. These young men and women who rely so heavily on the Internet to connect to the world outside know that they are being exploited.

I love the Internet. I love computers. I’m an early “networked teen” since my life revolved around the screen and keyboard for social connection since I was 17.

It’s a prettier Internet than it used to be when I started with green letters on a black screen. Yet the hearts of the users are very jaded. They know in their bones the truth of the saying “If you are not the one buying you are the one being sold.”

What a world! What a choice! To communicate with old friends and make new ones, you have to sell yourself. That’s what high-tech brings? That is the price?

A smooth-edged pill: what you need can also destroy you.

For the last several weeks, culminating in this past weekend, I have been working on making a shelving system in my house. My house is from 1950. I adore how old this house is. I love to imagine, with the help of the Internet, who lived here when it was new and what they did. Where they worked (probably in the aircraft industry) and what roads they droved (the nearest freeway wasn’t built in 1950).

I love to fix it up in the same style as the time period it came from. I chose linoleum for the bathroom floor because it was of the period. Vinyl flooring was available starting in 1947, but I wanted to have an old-fashioned mid-century modern house.

And Yes, I have done a lot of the work to make it my version of THAT version of lovely.

One of the architectural features of mid-century modern houses is the ‘built-in.’ The house designers–I don’t say architects because a lot of them weren’t–like to make the shelves and storage areas part of the house. How wonderful! All the cubbies and places to put things as part of the structure. I love it!

My house has a lot of closets in the hall, but we don’t have built-ins. I would love to have some.

But you know what counts for a bookshelf these days?


Those Swedish people have taken the convenience and design of homes to a sharp edge that inspires awe. I love to walk through their stores and admire the clever little ways to maximize space and put a room together. It’s a triumph of design. These people are geniuses.

And yet when I think of bringing one of these pieces into my home I hesitate.

It’s too…


antiseptic. Too angled. Too many of exactly the same thing.

I just finished reading The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. It is a dystopian (of course) sci fi story that paints a world that is completely dominated by technology. Paper is smart by virtue of nanotechnology and writes itself. Of course the poor have access to this technology in the form of matter replicators to get food and other necessaries. Only the rich have access to unique items. And even more valuable are the REAL items. Things hand made from wood or metal, food actually grown in earth.

As I planned out my shelving system I thought about these options. I thought about the Maker movement.

We are not as advanced in the Matter Replicator area as Stephenson’s novel. And yet, we do have the ability to make and distribute a LOT of stuff. Just like ikea.

Why would you ever need to but anything else? For a quite reasonable price, I could have a lovely bookshelf. And yet…

Walter Benjamin says that a work of art cannot exist separately from its place in history. Where it has been is inseparable:   “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony of the history with it has experienced.”

That’s a mouthful. What it means to me is that my house, as a thing of beauty, has is authenticity or its personality from where it has been and who has been with it.

Who screwed that screw into place in my house 64 years ago? Who painted that door?

Some of the doors I painted in the last few years. My hands made this house beautiful. And a lot of hands have made this house and made it beautiful over the years.

SO. Ikea bookshelves. Yes, someone had the idea of that bookcase. But no hands made it. It reeks of machine. My house has a patina–a social life or history of its own.

I am unwilling to introduce a new history-less object into this house.

And yet I need a place to put my stuff.

Back to the Makers. The maker movement is about doing it yourself. Using ones’ own hands and time to create things.  In a way, it’s kinda stupid.

Why on earth should I make a cake from scratch? It’s easier and cheaper to use a mix. Or just buy the silly thing. It’s easier!

Why would I take a bookshelf that is already uniformly painted white and repaint it by hand?

None of it makes sense. 

Except that lopsided and possibly lumpy cake had my hands involved and my heart. 

Ikea bookshelves would clash with my old house. My house with layers upon layers of hand-painted surfaces. How could these hyper mechanized bookcases fit in?

If I used my hands and put paint on them, that’s how. My imperfect human hands, and the drips of paint that match the drips of paint all over my house.

It is my way of fighting back against the machine. I know I’m being sold. I know that all the parts of my life are on loan from some mega corporate or political machine that cares very little for me until they find a way to monetize or leverage my life.

But it’s still my life. And it’s my hands that make it.