Skill and Class

Let us pause for a moment to consider skill, a common enough notion in everyday life, but also a key to understanding the social dimensions of technology. On one hand, skill is highly personal. It is practical knowledge, it implies a certain amount of cleverness, perhaps expertise, and we often think about it as residing in our bodies, particularly our hands (e.g., ''manual skills''). On the other hand, skill is also deeply social. It is not inborn, but acquired, as distinct from an innate quality like talent. Skill implies training, the time and effort to learn and master it, often with the help of another person. We also associate skill with pleasure—in acquiring it, exercising it, and observing it in others. Hence the joy in watching a musician, a figure skater, or a baseball pitcher (who are all probably talented as well) perform. Skill garners respect, and the more skill you are perceived to have, the more respect you seem to earn.

Skilled workers include surgeons, carpenters, and waiters. Obviously not all skills are equal. Some are more respected than others, and there tend to be social and economic differences among their practitioners. Skill also sets people apart. The word itself comes from an Old Norse word meaning distinction or difference, ideas that remain integral to today's meaning.11 For any skill, some people have it and some people don't. The very notion of skill implies a social group, possibly even an elite.

When people with common skills come together, they often form societies, set standards, and create and uphold traditions. They also police the boundaries of who is in and who is out, and for high-status skills this makes them members of professions (those with more traditional skills belong to crafts).12 Most would agree that surgeons are professionals, but are carpenters, or waiters?

The Wright brothers, by emphasizing the importance of skill, created not simply a controllable flying machine, but also its human counterpart—the pilot. From the moment Wilbur Wright first flew, this new professional was born.

In this light, the language of Charles Gibbs-Smith's chauffeur versus airmen distinction bears some examination. The term chauffeur connotes an ordinary skill, a person who is paid to perform a common task, driving an automobile, for another person of higher social status (the word robot has similar connotations). For the chauffeur school, flight is inherent in the machine, and hence the product of the engineer or designer.

The term airmen, however, suggests someone who flies for himself, who is part of a new profession, living in a new element, and it also identifies him as male. In the airmen school, the pilot's continuous, active involvement—his skill—is required to maintain stable flight. Flight itself is then a product of the pilot. If the pilot creates flight, then his status rises accordingly. The element of risk increases it further.

The terms chauffeur and airmen were Gibbs-Smith's from 1970, not those of the early aviators. Nor do we need to argue that the Wrights created these distinctions intentionally. Still, the dichotomy of chauffeurs and airmen makes it clear how high the stakes were in the debates over the stability of flight around the turn of the twentieth century. At issue was not only a technical question of aircraft design, but also the very professional status of the pilot: Were they to be mere engine drivers, like so many wage-earning machine operators before them? Or would they be independent professionals, masters of the new element?

Numerous models existed for pilots in the early decades of aviation: mechanic, tinkerer, engineer, sportsman, artist, aristocrat, and soldier, among others. Boosters saw aviators as mechanical angels, carrying the ''winged gospel'' of modernity, while futurists and Dadaists saw in them a modernist blurring of organic and mechanical.13 Different notions of aviators would compete and evolve as aircraft changed, and the technology itself would adapt to suit the interests and dreams of its operators.

By phrasing the debate as chauffeurs versus airmen, the winning choice should have been clear, for who would choose to be subservient? The history of airmen seems a history of the victors. The Wrights triumphed, the airmen won. Or did they?

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