Friday, September 03, 2010

Difficult and Meaningless

I read Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, and I shouldn't have bothered. Reading Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a few years ago was more than enough motorcycle-philosophy for one lifetime. First, I must admit, relative to other intellectual qualities I have, reading comprehension of philosophy is not one of my strong suits. Only when philosophy is reduced to near-math, or when it is very clearly applied to practical decisions in real life do I enjoy it. With that said, I still think Soulcraft is unnecessarily complicated, boring, and doesn't actually say anything that means anything. It's dense drivel.

It's styled as a philosophical defense of the trades, and starts out talking about how it's easy to pick up good used machine lathes and other shop tools off eBay, because schools have been abandoning shop in favor of "the knowledge economy." Then there's a interesting discussion of Frederick Winslow Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management, Marx's theory of alienation, and Henry Ford's assembly line production. Crawford writes,
Thus, according to Taylor, "All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying-out department..." It is a mistake to suppose that the primary purpose of this partition is to render the work process more efficient. It may or may not result in extracting more value from a given unit of labor time. The concern is rather with labor cost.
Basically, the goal is to hire cheaper stupid people. This idea of factories encouraging mindlessness interests me. If the skilled workers from a firm "go elsewhere" once production has been automated, where do they go once all production has been automated? What are the social implications of that? Can we really have an economy based entirely on selling each other stuff that was manufactured in China? These questions interest me as a person and a social scientist, so it's very unfortunate that Crawford didn't answer them. I can't recall more than one scientific study cited, or even a survey about happiness or pride in your work; it's all just Crawford's philosophical ramblings.

His ramblings are, thank goodness, interspersed with his personal stories of being an electrician, working on his VW bug as a teen, and repairing motorcycles. But if you can't already name every part inside a motorcycle engine, don't expect to understand anything, because Crawford is showing off. Crawford also got his degree in philosophy and worked some stupid desk jobs, one formulaicly writing scientific abstracts on articles he wasn't given time to read, the other for a conservative think tank where he was encouraged to reach pre-conceived oil-industry conclusions (he tries not to give details, but google tells me it was the Exxon-funded George C. Marshall Institute--which actually weakened his argument in my mind--you worked for a polemic conservative oil-industry think tank and you're surprised that you found your work soulless!?).

Other than to say that the book's endnotes, when they are not direct citations, are laughably useless (e.g. "I grew up in a commune."), that's all I'll say about the book. Like many other people, I think about whether my job is useless. I can write statistical program code, but I can't fix a car (and they're making cars more computer-controlled and less human-friendly all the times--some new Mercedes don't have engine oil dipsticks.) Would I be happier if I did something outside or with my hands? Would most people? Does everyone need to go to college? As a nation should we encourage more vocational education so those who don't go to college can find meaningful (i.e. non-retail) employment? I think all these questions are important and interesting, but I don't think Crawford answered any of them.

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