Shop Class as Soulcraft: lessons for agency and endeavour

(This post continues my meander through Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft.)

Soulcraft’s topic is manual competence, and what it means when we lack it. I come away from the book reaffirmed that this matters for three reasons. The first is that being able to achieve things that matter in the real world makes us free and more secure. The second is that challenges that are tangible in character – flesh, blood, wood, earth, steel – are those that most stretch our capacities, a major reward to us thinking beings. The third is that constantly putting our attentions on the real world is important for the human spirit (a topic for the next post).

The first issue is essentially one of agency. If my plumbing breaks on New Years Day – thanks to the table I’m seated at, I am touching wood as I write this – could I deal with it? Or would I be powerless? (The latter, I’m afraid.) How indispensable am I at work? If I’m threatened with my role being outsourced overseas, can I point out my knack for repairing engine damage caused by frequent local dust storms, or restoring waterlogged lily gardens, knowing the soil composition round these parts – or simpler yet, say ‘I hope they enjoy the commute!’ Or could the outputs of my cubicle be replaced by one in Mumbai, leaving me perennially at the mercy of my last good idea? 

Crawford emphasises that manual jobs are situated and substantial – they have to be done here, and they have to be done. Conversely, knowledge work is ephemeral: it could be done elsewhere, and when priorities change it may not need doing at all, such as snipping R&D to focus on existing products. The progress of technology seems to support this: the low hanging fruit of massed physical labour were picked during the industrial revolution, largely through the factory line, but manual work that is mobile, personalised, or open-ended seems well beyond what robotics can offer, and is certainly cost ineffective for the foreseeable future. Innovations in technology serve the manual worker rather than supplant him, offering up strength and finesse through stronger tools, better lenses and so on. This is the ‘enlightened inequality’ that Richard Sennett describes in The Craftsman, where the machine does one thing well where the person is weaker, but is unable to perform other parts of the role. The handy-man, gardener, and mechanic can all rest easy.

The second issue turns to the ground well explored in The Craftsman: doing as thinking. Let’s look first at Crawfords negative case, against thought in knowledge work. This seems counterintuitive; surely, regardless of whether using your hands is a thoughtful exercise, knowledge work surely must be. We’re employed for our minds, for our ideas, for our prudent decisions and radical innovations. No?

If we examine the case closely, we know this just ain’t so. Just as Time and Motion studies chiseled autonomy away from the factory worker, determining fixed steps of maximum efficiency and hard-coding these into each job, a similar fate is befalling the knowledge worker through ‘time and thought analysis’. The heads of experts are mined to fill the quarries of knowledge management systems, centralising the needed information and making those experts redundant, or at least in a markedly weaker state to negotiate their worth. 

It seems to me that the only sanctioned move we’re able to make, pathetically, is to become an expert in the knowledge systems themselves. No longer valuable for knowing stuff, now (somewhat) valuable for being able to navigate the system that does the knowing for us. If the system changes, or doesn’t need us any more, bad luck. This resonates with me: before I began working for myself, I spent countless days spent coaxing byzantine systems to deliver information like costings of projects, where once I would have been permitted to use my own judgment to do it. I would hazard that a reasonable amount of the average person’s wage is paid for them to patiently wait as screens slowly refresh to reveal a preordained decision that is Ctrl-C Ctrl-V’d into place. Crawford calls it “a rising sea of clerkdom” and I think that’s dead right.

Meanwhile, manual work presents us with problems that are material and unavoidable. Each may have a single solution, or multiple ones of differing elegance. We must carefully try options, using rules of thumb to choose from the common, the laborious, the unusual, and outright inadvisable to get things done. We must use our full expertise at the service of our judgment which is exercised over countless decision points, each one a source of future learning. When it is done, we can see the outcome as correct – though we may need to check our working before signing off on it. This suggests not dull work but something akin to mathematics, whose problems are readily regarded as some of the highest intellectual pursuits within our culture.  

Compare that to say product branding for phones. You commission market research, which suggests calling your phone a Meetbox may go down well with a desired demographic. You argue your case in presentations with peers. The company goes ahead with a fair-sized marketing budget. Sales are… ok. What have you learned? Nothing definite, because the whole field of operation is so ambiguous and intangible. Could sales have been better? Maybe. By different branding? Possibly. Should you re-use the market research company? Maybe not (but maybe). Would a bigger marketing budget have made a difference? You could make a case for it (but maybe running the numbers the other way would say the opposite). We don’t have a firm feedback, we can’t say this was a success or failure – except of course, in the eyes of others. 

The learning you are most likely to take away from a modern work situation is the most direct component: manipulating your colleagues to a desired outcome. For instance, you mentally note that courting Sally before the meeting would have garnered more enthusiasm for the project overall, and plan to do so again. Crawford argues that as the tangible aspects of work wilt away, we are left focusing on managing our personal brand and becoming more involved in maintaining the best face, from all angles, in the hall of mirrors that is the workplace. In Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich recounts how the noble class within Europe  moved from a culture of individual endeavour – warrior-lords leading their men directly through prowess – to one of social surfaces, of courtiers concerned with intrigue and alliance. The engine for this was the centralisation of military power, requiring nobles to define themselves around something other than martial skill. This process continues now with the knowledge class.

I’ve deliberately avoided discussing one component of endeavour, that of creativity. Here, Crawford is equally damning about the condition of the non-manual worker, but I am more optimistic. I’ll come to this in a future post. The next post, meanwhile, is on awareness.

Bibliography and Links

Matthew Crawford (2009). Shop Class as Soulcraft. Penguin Press. Link

Richard Sennett (2008). The Craftsman. Allen Lane. Link

Barbara Ehrenreich (2007). Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Metropolitan Books. Link

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