Cement, Technology, and the Last Surviving Panda in Captivity

by E.B.Klassen

For the last few months I have been working as a labourer for a stucco crew (don't ask why. It’s one of those stupid stories that probably doesn't make much sense when you try to explain it). Now, being a labourer doesn't encourage independent thought, and stucco is not one of your big intellectual stimulators, but during the time I've done the work I have taken the occasional moment to consider what was going on around me.

Stucco is applied in four coats on new construction. Two "scratch" coats, a finish coat, and a texture coat. The scratch coats are a mixture of Portland cement, lime, water, sand, and a bit of soap. The proportions are not exact, but when I mix it, its a bag and a pail of cement (that is, an eight litre rubber bucket called a "monkey bucket"--though no one knows why), about 40 litres of water, a four second squirt of soap (just ordinary generic dish soap), a twenty litre pail full of type S lime, and enough sand to fill the mixer. This creates a fairly thin mix that goes on at one hell of a rate. With two people spreading, I am kept running trying to keep the mixer going and the two of them supplied with mud. (“Mud” is a generic term for any stucco cement mixture -- scratch or finish.)

This ratio is supposedly based on directions from Imasco's research and development people, but of course those figures are suspect and everyone has their own little secret recipes that they use. But no one can explain why they use that recipe. You get words like "heavy" that might refer to weight, but then again it might refer to consistency. Although "thick" might be used as a synonym for heavy, it might also be used as an antonym for the same word -- by the same person in the same conversation. And a spreader trying to explain a concept like "fluffy" to a non-spreading labourer is merely an exercise in frustration, as the word does not have a mutually agreed upon meaning to the two conversees.

I first ran into the word fluffy when I asked why we were putting soap in the stucco mix. "Makes it fluffier," I was told. Well, not exactly. In the manner of construction tradesmen everywhere, it was more like "Well, fuck. I dunno. ’Cause it kinda makes it, y'know, fluffier. And, like, easier to fuckin' spread, eh?" Or words to that effect.

I still, months later, have no idea what "fluffier" means. But thirty seconds after I asked the question my brain decided to produce the answer from previously stored information. Soap acts as a surfactant, breaking down the surface tension of the water and allowing it to better wet the dry ingredients. I can see why a more homogenous mix would be easier to spread, but damned if I have any idea why its considered "fluffier”.

The building trades are one more area undergoing an increasing rate of technological change. New advances in adhesives are creating new ways of using previously developed products. A quick example is the new "silent flooring" system that has been introduced in the last few years. Instead of floor joists being made of huge pieces of timber (typically a 2x10 16 to 20 feet long (or two nailed broad face to broad face)), now 2x4s are grooved down their broad face and a piece of oriented-strand board 10" wide is glued between two facing pieces of 2x4. This, like so many other innovations, is based on recent advances in adhesives. More and more, new construction is being glued together rather than nailed, and this change is powered by significantly new chemical bonding agents.

But we tend to forget that these new materials and techniques are being used by people who are not as radically different as the materials they are using. And there is a very strong conservative streak running through the trades. In some ways, this is a good thing. A lot of the information in the trades is passed orally from the older workers to the younger at the time the information is needed (e.g.: how to lay out a jack rafter, or how to estimate form requirements for concrete work). In the carpentry trades, this is supplemented by formal training in trade schools.

But not all trades enjoy this balance between formal and informal instruction. Stucco, for example, is not a highly formalized trade. So information on new techniques and materials is passed from manufacturer's representatives to both suppliers and the occasional tradesman. But much of the information is passed from the suppliers to the trades, leaving room for misunderstanding and confusion. Locally, one company is advertising a new process for doing restucco work, claiming a better bonding. My bosses don't buy it, claiming that they are doing nothing new -- only adding PVA adhesive to the concrete mix. Is that the case? Beats the hell out of me. They don't pay me enough to think. And I don't have enough information to separate hype from fact.

This conservatism also has a downside. It also means that new techniques don't get used, current information fails to displace outdated information, and proper procedures fall victim to expediency. An example is the introduction of the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, or WHMIS. In my formal training as a furniture maker, I was introduced to the system, and expected to use it. It consists of MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) that detail hazardous ingredients, fire and explosion data, toxicological properties, first aid measures, and etc. for products used in the workplace. In my shop, for example, I have MSDS for various finishing products and adhesives, and information on the toxicological effects of a range of exotic woods I may come in contact with. I ask for these sheets whenever I buy a new product, and keep them on file in the shop where I can and do refer to them. This keeps me from using latex gloves with methylene chloride stripper -- this nasty product slides right through latex. One needs neoprene gloves and barrier creme when using it. I don't use wood treated with pentachlorophenol wood preservative. This evil stuff is linked with all kinds of horrific effects on the human organism.

When I am on the jobsite as a stucco labourer, however, this important and necessary information is no longer available. I am forced to make do with instruction from my bosses -- which is exactly what WHMIS was supposed to change. I read the bag of Type 10 Normal Portland cement and notice it says that when the cement powder comes in contact with water, it forms calcium hydroxide --a caustic and corrosive substance. And when you dump a bag of this very fine powder, you are surrounded by clouds of dust. And the inside of your lungs is a rather humid environment. The same with the lime. But is there a dust mask to be found on the jobsite? Hell no. You want one, you have to know enough to bring your own. And is wet cement on the skin a problem? Only if you don't mind that same caustic chemical slopping about on the biggest organ of your body. Proper gloves are your lookout, not anyone else's. This is the pragmatism of the building trades. "It never hurt me," says the guy who never wonders why he hacks up a lung every day even though he doesn't smoke.

Economists are accused quite regularly of making models of the economy at the heart of which is a little economist busily maximising gains and minimising losses. This little economist really doesn't have a whole lot to do with real people living in the complex world. I think we may be making the same mistake when we consider the effects of new technologies on society; the model we construct in our heads has, at its centre, little forward-looking technophiles willing to devote resources to the latest gadgetry and having a philosophic context in which to fit these changes.

This has very little to do with real people in the complex world. Statements like "the only constant is change" is not a statement of fact, but rather a statement of belief. As much belief as "the Pope is infallible" or "free-market capitalism works." And all three of these statements are perceptual beliefs upon which are hung theoretical structures which may or may not correspond to occurrences in the real world.

So it is with the introduction of new technologies from adhesives to the Internet. Technologies will only transform the worlds of those who use them. And not everyone will see the "advantages" of a new technology, nor will everyone agree that the advantages are worth changing for. Tools may be available to everyone (but usually not; new tools are only available to those who can afford them and understand their use, and thus contribute to the growing socio-economic disparity in the world), but not everyone will use them. Modern tech is of no use to a family in Nigeria facing the loss of their main food crop to drought. What they need is the opportunity to migrate to someplace not experiencing a drought. This family only meets modern technologies when they are denied the chance to move somewhere better, and instead are forced to remain where they are, bought off by shipments of food from technologically advanced countries that don't want any economic migrants.

Should this family grasp firmly the nettle of foreign genetically-engineered foodg rains? Our belief is that they will, immediately recognizing the "obvious advantages" such grains have over native species of plants. Yet time and again we see that such grains produce an immediate reliance on modern farming techniques, concurrent degradation of already poor land, and a general decrease in an already low standard of living. Because of their reliance on foreign technology, credit, and income, Ethiopia was exporting food to the west during their own drought and consequent famine (the one Live-Aid was held to help relieve).

But one doesn't have to look even this far a field to see conditions under which advances in technology won't help a person or people. I recently met a fellow who expressed an interest in pursuing a career in landscaping. He didn't know what time of year pruning cherry trees is best done. I was about to remark that there were plenty of good books on this subject when I remembered that this person had earlier admitted that he did not read books. Not that he was incapable, but rather that reading was so distasteful to him that he would rather do anything else than read. It is no use discussing the basis for this distaste nor any ways to prevent such an occurrence in the future, as we are talking about an already existing condition. A person with an already exhibited ability to run his own business, and a certain amount of ready capital, unable to move through the economic system because of a distaste for reading. He is lucky, as he could still apprentice with a landscaper/groundskeeper to learn the trade, but only with a serious loss of income and prestige for several years.

What good will technological advances do for this person? All of them are significantly text-based, and text is only an invention in use for a tiny part of human history. And yet it is now the most significant method for transmitting any knowledge. And a person who is quite comfortable using complex chemicals on a worksite can be shut out of this entire world of information.

This is not technophobia, nor is it an excess of conservatism. Rather it is the absence of technophilia, a non-desire, or non-commitment to technological advance. This is not a wilful ignorance, but an ignorance based on a perceived lack of need. This is the question "Things are fine as they are. I'm alright, Jack. Why should I choose to change what is working? Why should I decide to trash my current comfort level in order to be more uncomfortable?”

These questions of comfort are ones we all could do well to ask ourselves occasionally. Questions like "Sure this tech is cool. But what will it actually change in my life -- and change for the better?" This is the question of appropriate technology -- which has only a little to do with technology and a great deal to do with how we decide to live. Is it appropriate to destroy the last remaining Panda habitat, leaving only the genetic remains in cryogenic storage someplace? What is the greater good, and who is served by our actions?

These are the places the future lies -- in questions of philosophic structure that will affect how we all live rather than how many people get on the information hypeway in the next five years. Don't get me wrong; the Internet is a place of fascination and power, but so is a library. But those of us who are techno-junkies in this culture of immediate comfort need to remember that while what we pursue can affect a lot of people, it may not really affect anything that matters.

Originally published by Under the Ozone Hole Number Eleven – June, 1995

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