Sunday, July 22, 2012

Disconnected from craft work?

Who cares if you can't fix your own plumbing or build a deck?  A New York Times editorial by Louis Uchitelle asks whether America is loosing its connection to craftsmanship, or the ability to Do It Yourself (DIY).  The point is that 'crafts' represent more than just a cheap way of getting things done, but rather reflect self-reliance and a 'can do' attitude.  Moreover, physically making things can give a huge sense of achievement. In a world of digital tools, hammers and nails still have something to teach us.

This reminded me of a powerful book called Shop Class as Soulcraft, written by Matthew B. Crawford, who has a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and who runs a motorcycle repair shop in Virginia.  Besides being a well-crafted itself, the book--among other things--challenges the notion that so-called 'knowledge work' is somehow superior to say rebuilding a motorcycle engine.  Knowledge work as Crawford acutely observes can be tedious and mind-numbingly boring.  It can also be pointlessly stupid, as Dilbert cartoons illustrate so well. By contrast, envisioning a project, assembling materials and getting stuck into it--and sticking with it--hones the human soul. As they say, 'first enlightenment, then the laundry.'

Craftsmanship and connectivity are not mutually exclusive.  Thomas Jefferson traveled and read widely, but also enjoyed getting his hands dirty (at least metaphorically) on real projects at Monticello. And, many contemporary folks are cyber-connected, while keeping their feet on the ground and hands on the tools.  For example, Michael Healy, Founder of Yeoman Technologies and a contributor to InformationWeek, works on his house when he is not advising clients on information strategies or conducting industry research.

Personally, growing up on a farm in the Appalachia Mountains, I learned basic skills, if not crafts, in so many practical things, from driving tractors and milking cows to cutting timber and building fences.  Building sheering and wood sheds, decks and other features on our New Zealand property still gives me great pleasure. Craft can take many forms, but we should take care not to loose it, for its loss disconnects us from one of the building blocks of human capability.

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