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The End of Cyberspace

One of my favorite work blogs is English Cut, which is written by a Saville Row tailor named Thomas Mahon. As I wrote a while ago, it shows that many professionals can talk about their work in public in a way that makes them sound very good at what they do, without giving away anything essential: even after reading him, I’m not going to be able to make my own suit.

In a recent post, he explains some of the simpler tailors’ marks, which are made on a suit in chalk during a fitting. It turns out that tailors essentially annotate suits, writing instructions to themselves about things like where a sleeve should hang, where a piece of fabric needs to be expanded, or whether a leg should be shortened or lengthened. The annotations are made in chalk, then are transcribed; as he explains, «chalk is not permanent, and by the time it’s been in a suitcase for a week and hauled round America, it can all look very confusing. Especially when I open my suitcase with jet-lagged eyes.»

It makes me wonder at the number of places or occupational contexts in which skilled workers make annotations on things, and how widely technologies like smart fabrics, reactive surfaces, and heads-up displays could affect work. One of the first applications of wearable computers has been in aircraft fault detection and repair: Xybernaut’s wearables, for example, let technicians consult schematics and other documents without having to leave their craft. (This sounds trivial until you consider how complex a jet engine is, and how big the manuals are: as Geoffrey Nunberg famously reported a decade ago, «printed documentation that accompanies the delivery of a single Boeing 747 weighs about 350 tons, only slightly less than the airplane itself.»)

But while retrieving and displaying information for the «task-at-hand» (as Xybernaut puts it) is good, being able to precisely annotate an object for repairs or improvements is a more complicated matter. But this kind of technology could be more significant than Xybernaut’s aircraft documentation system for a couple reasons. I suspect that a lot more skilled work involves annotation rather than rule-following: not many things come with 350 tons of documentation, and a gigantic regulatory and liability framework that mandates how you make repairs. And there are still plenty of skilled craftsmen who can’t read: for them, writing on the thing isn’t just useful, it’s critical.

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