Shop Class as Soulcraft: design space is creativity space

 In a section of the book I found unexpectedly compelling, Crawford outlines a challenging repair to a bike, a Magna V45. Dealing with each part under suspicion demands intimate knowledge at both atomic and holistic levels: what the state of part A infers for B, C, Y or Z. The reason for this is that bikes are precision pieces of machinery, so his role is all about tuning, ever-more precise, beyond the limits that the bike begun with. 

There’s a conception of design space outlined in Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable that I find useful to call on. In that book, evolution’s job is to move us from the flats of undesign into the highland states of ever-more complexity. Thing is, any single random move (mutation) is likely to be unhelpful, and this becomes increasingly true as organisms become more complex – more elements to throw out of wack. Gear-head cycle tuning is right up there on the high peaks, and with a narrow criteria to meet – a more responsive beast with higher speeds – and a single customer needing you to deliver without any nasty surprises, it’s unsurprising that Crawford views with scorn the idea of the unexpert creative. 

However, there are a couple of ways in which things can look different.First. ideas can arise on the flats as well as on the peaks. Not everything is as complicated as a Magna V45 engine or jazz improvisation. If I’m promoting a neighbourhood event, and looking for a method beyond clipping a sheet to the town hall notice board, then my lack of a marketing qualification does not prevent me from twigging a good idea and acting on it. There’s no real fear of my innocent activity upsetting a carefully constructed consciousness-penetrating brand campaign – there isn’t one. I’m building from a minimal position. 

Second, moves that turn out to be bad don’t have to be a big deal. “Failure is not an option” was a byword of the Apollo 13 return. But in nature, failure is an option, and the one most frequently chosen. Pure natural selection is a “blind watchmaker” that gets it right mainly by virtue of getting it wrong so many times. Evolution operates in part by this process operating over and over, it’s iterations helping the organism and environment adjust and fit to one another.

Now, in our dealings with one another, we don’t have the disinterested view of evolution, that can simply shrug when mutations take an organism down no-hope alley. We are most definitely interested – that our astronauts come home ok, that our bike returns with its braking system fit for purpose. But whereas evolution’s testing ground is the world, we have more. We have our minds, our tools, and each other. The interconnectedness of the internet further facilitates this: ideas can originate in one head, be tested by another, run through models to check out concerns, before ever becoming a reality. But it’s always been so.

What this means is that we can afford to take risks in our thinking, in our idea generating, in our creativity. We should. We don’t need to wait for mastery in a domain to contribute to it, we just need to employ the networks of mastery – our spaces to try out iterations –  to ensure that ideas get their proper hearing, and those with potential are developed further. 

I think these twin examples do fit the picture of many creative acts at work. Crawford may contest this, as these things are not monumental, complex and enduring, but I think this just reflects the multitude of meanings that inhabit the term. Nevertheless, I don’t dispute his claim that expertise-bound creativity is immensely satisfying, and for this to be hollowed out of jobs is a great pity. He also warns that creativity and freedom can be a cover for management laziness/incompetence, where subordinates are expected to make decisions, credit for which is passed up to the manager, and failure is passed down to the subordinate. I have no quarrel with this, either.

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