This “Shop Class as Soulcraft” book that has been getting a lot of attention lately bugs me for a lot of reasons. So it’s nice to see that someone has written a far more lucid essay than I could have, hitting all of my main gripes.
I mean, I get where the motorcycle repair guy is coming from. For the last 10 years I’ve either been a software developer or, abstracted one more level, a manager of software developers, or, abstracted one more level, a director of software development— the latter being so abstracted even I’m not really sure what it means most of the time. I spend most of the day communicating mostly electronically with often remote colleagues to build symbolic representations of things which are themselves symbolic representations of other things. So sometimes it all gets a little hairy, and when it does, I come home from the office, turn off the computer and do some gardening: I touch dirt, and cultivate living things that enjoy the sun. Or I mess around with my 3/4 ton cast iron letterpress built in 1925, making physical things on actual paper using real ink that stains my hands, setting the type by hand, metal letter by metal letter. There is a definite satisfaction to manipulating things in the physical world for a change.
And when I talk about these things with people who don’t know me well, they often assume these are my true passions, what I’d spend 100% of my time doing if only I could throw off the golden handcuffs of my day job. They seem a little surprised when I tell them that I’d go totally crazy if I had to do either of those things full time, and that I find my real job far more stimulating. But it’s true. If I really wanted to grow things for a living, I’d have stayed on my parents’ farm, and if I wanted to do letterpress full-time I’d do it— I know many people who have thriving letterpress businesses.
But my job is sort of endlessly interesting: it’s basically to learn how a part of the world works and then to model it as software. When something becomes rote, you just write a program to do it for you. Or, as Alan Turing said:
Instruction tables will have to be made up by mathematicians with computing experiences and perhaps a certain puzzle-solving ability. There will probably be a great deal of work to be done, for every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form at some stage.
The process of constructing instruction tables should be very fascinating. There need be no real danger of it ever becoming a drudge, for any processes that are quite mechanical may be turned over to the machine itself.
In the process, I have gotten to work closely with people from China, all parts of India, Ireland, Korea, France, Bangladesh via Saudi Arabia, England, Russia, and every conceiveable part of the US. While I do sympathize with the movement toward more local economies like the movement toward eating fresh locally grown food, and while I do get concerned at times at the really dramatic extent to which US manufacturing has moved overseas, I do know that my life has been enriched by developing personal relationships with people from all over the world. I have a hard time believing that this kind of international exchange of labor is a bad thing.
Back to the New Yorker piece: one of the things that irks me to no end about the “Shop Class” guy (whose book I have not read, but whose NYT Magazine article I did read) is his kind of shocking lack of historical perspective. The insight that mechanized or abstract work can be kind of alienating is not exactly new. While he does cite some influences (like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), he writes as if he never heard of, oh, the arts and crafts movement. The New Yorker piece does a decent survey of a history of this idea, all the way back to Adam Smith himself.
I guess, finally, what also bugs me is that I do agree with his basic premise: that “manual” labor actually requires creativity and can be a satisfying, valuable, and worthwhile way to spend your life. I just dislike that he seems to rule out the possibility that others mileage may vary, and would not find it so. But it seems like bashing white collar work seems to have struck a nerve with enough white collar workers to sell quite a few books.
[PS: To save you the trouble of looking it up, the title of this post is a Jenny Holzer Truism]