Monday, 1 November 2010

The joy of fixing stuff

Every now and then a book comes along that you feel is the book you could have - should have - written and Matthew Crawford's is one of them.  Not so much because it  is especially  insightful but just because it comes so close to my own experience: Crawford has  followed a similar career path to me - a supposedly  'elite' academic background  that was then  followed by  a career where he learned a practical trade. His trade - motorcycle mechanics - is only a hobby for me but I  completely identify with the unsurpassed feeling of pride and satisfaction  he describes when a once dead engine fires up.

Essentially the thesis of the book is that there is a false dichotomy between academic and practical education -  at the expense of the latter.   'Knowledge'-based white-collar jobs are actually as subject to the mind-numbing de-skilling that once characterised factory production-lines.  And that true happiness lies in the trades - particularly those that are community based and focus on 'fixing stuff' - like mechanics, carpentry, plumbing and building. 

Crawford argues that  tradesmen in these sectors actually get to exercise the intellectual disciplines of deduction and hypothesis  more than graduate  middle-managers whose functions largely consist of reinforcing  the 'culture' of their employers' organisations and the repetition of low-level administrative tasks. He shies away from the term 'craftsmnship' seeing it as laden with sentimental associations, but he comes very close to the ground covered by Richard Sennet in the Craftsman - although with a more personalised slant.

Crawford's weakness is that he steers clear of the other C-word - Capitalism: The devaluation of work he describes is very close to the classic Marxist theory of Alienation -  and in fact he draws quite heavily on the work of the Marxist sociologist Braverman. But ultimately the author is a Jeffersonian Democrat who sees civic virtue in a community of small scale artisans. He rejects the idea of surplus value and the exploitation of labour by capital - and sees the main problem for the worker - in business or industry - as  a disconnection with the community of his consumers.

For this reason, whilst  the book serves as good career advice, it is of  less value  on a  societal level: We can't all be tradesman in community based service sectors - and so the kind of happiness that Crawford describes can only be achieved by a small minority. 

My own experience confirms this - I enjoyed the exploration of abstract thought in my academic education, but I equally enjoyed the practical learning of my later vocational training. I choose a career in the printing industry based on the belief that  it  was  more 'real' and bullshit-free than either the options of corporate middle-management or public sector administration that are the more usual pathways for humanities graduates..

Unfortunately  the industry I choose is not community-based but depends on big businesses, and has been de-skilled by technology. With the result that we are being replaced by software and  'off-shored' to wherever labour is cheaper.  So ironically  I now spend more and more of my time using the skills of bullshitting that turned me off academia in the first place, in a rearguard defence of what we have - arguing our worth to corporate reptiles. But  the few remaining enjoyable parts of my work still  lie in using my technical and deductive abilities to forensically deconstruct a job that has gone wrong - or as Crawford would put in - solving and fixing. 

I just wish I was better at motorcycle mechanics ....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Even craftsmanship and the arts have been dissociated from the original skills that used to be necessary - painters no longer need to go back to raw materials and mix their own paint; I don't need to melt down and process my silver as it already comes in sheets. Is it always a given that `progress' separates us from raw materials in the same way that supermarkets separate us from growing our own stuff, collecting our own eggs, hunter-gathering our own food?