How physical craft enriches us

Lessons from the book Shop class as soulcraft

November 26, 2023 · 10 mins read

This post is a collection of lessons from the book Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford, on how physical craft enriches us. He defines Craftsmanship as being the desire to do things as well as you can for its own sake and goes on to explain how we have degraded craftsmanship in recent times. It is a fascinating read that underscores that the physical world is not just a distraction from the real world but is the real world. The book reviews the modern day understanding of work and how we, as a society, have come to value certain types of work over others. In this post I try to summarise the key ideas from the book.

Useful arts

We often associate plumbing, fitting electrical appliances or motorcycle maintenance with something mundane, when in reality these are one of the most useful arts. These are the arts that make the world go round. People practising these useful arts in reality are often leading much more meaningful lives than we would care to accept. Manual work like plumbing needs a lot of systematic encounter with the material world and is cognitively enriching. The fact that old items rust and deteriorate means a repairman needs to apply practical experience along with theoretical guidelines to fix an item (which for ex may break due to rust or simply usage based wear and tear). They don’t simply read a manual and execute a set of instructions as the manual cannot and does not cover every possible scenario. In a way they are the true persuers of knowledge as without learning through hands, the world remains distant and true learning remains at bay.

Manual craftsmen like mechanics or plumbers, often have a more tightly knit social life. They share tools, knowledge, often times even customers. They are also more likely to be self employed and thus have a more direct relationship with their customers. They are also more likely to be in a position to say no to a customer if they don’t like the customer. This is in stark contrast to the modern day office worker who is often a cog in a wheel and has little control over their work.

Thinking vs doing

The degradation of manual work began with scientific management which began with Frederik Winslow Taylor’s management theories (whose fans included Stalin and many B school professors). The cognitive parts of manufacturing were slowly moved away from the shop floor to a management office. The primary intention was not efficiency but cost. Once a mechanical activity becomes a piece of a process with little or no cognitive requirement, a skilled worker can be replaced by an unskilled one. Thus, craft knowledge dies out. This is also called the abstraction of labor. This draining off of cognitive requirements from a job isn’t limited to blue collar work, desk jobs, traditionally thought of to be knowledge work, are also going through an abstraction, which the author calls, a rising boats of clerkdom.

In essence, the dichotomy is not between manual work and knowledge work, it is between work that is meaningful and work that isn’t. We have grown to like sitting on a desk and doing work that does not require physical labour but design plans that someone else, often lower down in the hierarchy, will execute. This is a sort of a moral hazard. We have grown to like the idea of being a manager rather than a worker. This is also called the Peter Principle and is best summarised by the quote “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. The world has shifted from production of goods (which has moved elsewhere) to the marketing of brands.

College graduates often look for specific jobs that pay less than blue collar manual jobs, for the sake of looking for “knowledge work”. This can often mean that the college educated are psychically incapable of taking manual jobs and instead prefer taking up paper pushing cubicle jobs that don’t have a clear objective threshold for quality (other than grammar). That we submit our youth to such jobs that are more prone to the overall production of low quality, is unacceptable and detrimental to our long term well being.

Fixing or working on real world things brings intrinsic joy. Good teachers love students and want them to become the best version of theirselves. Similarly, most good mechanics love cars. There is a certain kind of pride that comes with working on a national brand like Rolls Royce but that joy can get diminished if the parts belonging to the car can come from anywhere in the world.

Finding joy in fixing things

Being able to repair things requires of us to think of what a machine needs rather than what we need. In a way, this suspends our narcissistic way of living and consider what the world around us needs. As I wrote before, the dichotomy is not whether a job is manual or not, it is whether a job is meaningful or not. Being self reliant is a liberating feeling and agency driven autonomy is directly linked to happiness. The fact that people want to take up knitting or grow their own mushrooms is in a way descriptive of how further we’ve gone away from our work and how we, in our soul, want to gain some more agency and responsibility of our things.

Iron Man talks to the tractor like its a person Iron Man in Avengers, talks to a tractor like its a person

The reason we don’t fix our own stuff is because of harped on notion of opportunity cost but in reality, the pride we feel after being curious and getting our hands dirty far outweighs the loss in opportunity cost. This opportunity cost nonsense is based on the fungibility of human experience. That any activity can be boiled down in terms of the seconds on the clock, is wrong. To fix ones own car is not to use up time but rather to have a different experience of time, self and car. Things now a days are being made so as to encourage us not to tinker with them. This is driven by economics, globalisation but also by changing behaviours of consumerism. A good example of this is people playing musical instruments far less now and listen to music on stereo more. Instruments require effort to master while stereo makes music instantly available. Art requires human engagement v a device that requires consumption.

Ethics and cognition

Degrading of work in the way of not getting things repaired or the economics of factory stuff being cheaper but also of less quality, has directly led to moral degradation. The world now pays less attention to the craft and its economic effects are there for everyone to see. It is quite normal today for one to walk to a garrage and find mechanics spending less time looking for faults or fixing rather than replacing parts. This is because the economics of replacing parts is better than fixing them. This throwaway culture persists because we don’t have the patience to listen to the machine tell us of what ails it. We make snap judgements because we don’t care about the machine enough. This is a moral failure. The author also speaks about the service manual as a social technology and talks about a world where the manuals were pieces of art, written to be read and understood by everyone who wanted to not only use the machine but also to fix it. This is in stark contrast to the modern day manuals that are written more out of legal reasons. This is also a type of moral failure that feeds into the throwaway culture.

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