09 February 2012

Hand-Built Lament

In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford rebukes the commonly held assumptions that limit our post-industrial conceptions of work, self-worth, and ultimately, happiness.

Crawford leaves a think tank gig to open a motorcycle repair shop. He learns the value of a tangible, hands-on skill, has the pleasure of connecting with customers, and sees first-hand the fruits of his labor. It is not the first book to revere the sublimity of motorcycle maintenance.

He laments the transition from skilled craftsman to the mechanization of the industrial revolution (e.g., from pride in craftsmanship to the interchangeable parts of a human assembly line).

Crawford also laments the disappearance of shop class from our high schools. It is true that high school students today are too far removed from the ability to make things. As a programmer I can say better to take wood shop in school than to learn programming. A monkey can learn to program a computer, but it takes some coordinated mastery to turn a bowl on a lathe.

Working with our hands certainly sharpens the mind, but also buoys our sense of well-being. Anyone who has built a cedar fence, thrown a ceramic bowl, or cobbled together a desktop computer from parts with a daughter or a son knows the life-lessons to be had and recognizes the strength of the bonds to be made through a hand-built, team project.

I wanted Soulcraft to touch a chord, but it simply confirmed with mechanical precision what many of us already know about being a knowledge worker buried by mindless bit-shuffling in people-unfriendly corporations -- bit-shuffling provides a living, but ain't very satisfying.

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