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Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

Florida’s contribution is to update our view of these mini-Einsteins by taking a pop-existentialist view of their “creativity.” It is a view that is familiar to most of us from kindergarten: creativity is a mysterious capacity that lies in each of us and merely needs to be “unleashed” (think finger painting). Creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality. According to this hippie theory, the personal grooming habits of Albert Einstein are highly significant–how else does one identify a “bizarre maverick operating at the bohemian fringe”? The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonizes quite well with the culture of the new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence. Such competence is the condition not only for genuine creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys. So the liberationist ethic of what is sometimes called “the 1968 generation” perhaps paved the way for our increasing dependence. We’re primed to respond to any invocation of the aesthetics of individuality. The rhetoric of freedom pleases our ears. The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture, and if we’re not paying attention such usage might influence our career plans. The Tterm invokes are powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Writing in Foreign Affairs, the Princeton economist Alan Blinder considers the question of job security and falling wages for U.S. workers in light of global competition:

“Many people blithely assume that the critical labor-market distinction is, and will remain, between highly educated (or highly skilled) people and less-educated (or less-skilled) people–doctors versus call-center operators, for example. The supposed remedy for the rich countries, accordingly, is more education and a general “upskilling” of the work force. But this view may be mistaken. . . . The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connections) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide dose not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and those that do not.”

Blinder suggests the crucial distinction in the labor market will be between what he calls “personal services” and “impersonal services.” The former either require face-to-face contact or are inherently tied to a specific site. Physicians who treat patients don’t need to worry that their jobs will be sent offshore, but radiologists who examine images have already seen this happen, just as accountants and computer programmers have. He goes on to point out that “you can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”

The MIT economist Frank Levy makes a complementary argument. He puts the issue not in terms of whether a service can be delivered electronically or not, but rather whether the service is itself rules-based or not. Until recently, he writes, you could make a decent living doing a job that required you to carefully follow instructions, such as preparing tax returns. But such work is subject to attack on two fronts—some of it goes to offshore accountants and some of it is done by tax preparation software, such as TurboTax. The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules.

These economic developments command our attention. The intrusion of computers, and distant foreigners whose work is conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way, into what was previously the domain of professionals may be alarming, but it also compels us to consider afresh the human dimension of work. In what circumstances does the human element remain indispensable, and why? Levy gestures toward an answer when he writes that “viewed from this rules-based perspective, creativity [sic] is knowing what to do when the rules run out or there are no rules in the first place. It is what a good auto mechanic does after his computerized test equipment says the car’s transmission is fine but the transmission continues to shift at the wrong engine speed.”

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Of the Smith-Hughes Act’s two rationales for shop class, vocational and general ed, only the latter emphasized the learning of aesthetic, mathematical, and physical principles through the manipulation of material things. It is not surprising, then, that the act came four years after Henry Ford’s innovation of the assembly line. The nascent two-track educational scheme mirrored the assembly lines severing of the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical execution. Such a partition of thinking from doing has bequeathed us the dichotomy of white collar versus blue collar, corresponding to mental versus manual.

These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors. First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements. Paradoxically, educators who would steer students toward cognitively rich work might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like.

This would take courage. Any high school principal who doesn’t claim as his goal “one hundred percent college attendance” is likely to be accused of harboring “low expectations” and run out of town by indignant parents. This indignation is hard to stand against, since it carries all the moral weight of egalitarianism. Yet it is also snobbish, since it evidently regards the trades as something “low.” The best sort of democratic education is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best. At this weird moment of growing passivity and dependence, let us publicly recognize a yeoman aristocracy: those who gain real knowledge of real things, the sort we all depend on every day.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Descartes, generally credited with inaugurating the scientific revolution, begins from radical doubt about the very existence of an external world, and builds up the principles of scientific inquiry from the foundation of a radically self-contained subject.

Yet this solipsistic ideal doesn’t gibe perfectly with the history of science. For in fact, in areas of well-developed craft practices, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This was at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end. The success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now call classical thermodynamics. This history provides a nice illustration of a point made by Aristotle:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge work-place is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur,” that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job. Shop class presents an image of stasis that runs directly counter to what Sennett identifies as “a key element in the new economy’s idealized self: the capacity to surrender, to give up possession of an established reality.” This stance toward “established reality”, which can only be called psychedelic, is best not indulged around a table saw. It is dissatisfied with what Arendt calls the “reality and reliability” of the world. It is a strange sort of ideal, attractive only to a peculiar sort of self—insecurity about the basic character of the world is no fun for most people.

As Sennett argues, most people take pride in being good at something specific, which happens through the accumulation of experience. Yet the flitting disposition is pressed upon workers from above by the current generation of management revolutionaries, for whom the ethic of craftsmanship is actually something to be rooted out from the workforce. Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right. In managementspeak, this is called being “ingrown.” The preferred role model is the management consultant, who swoops in and out and whose very pride lies in his lack of particular expertise. Like the ideal consumer, the management consultant presents an image of soaring freedom, in light of which the manual trades appear cramped and paltry: the plumber with his butt crack, peering under the sink.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Consider the phenomenon of players jamming a toothpick into the button that initiates a play so that the machine plays itself Contlnuously and the player becomes a mere bystander, watching the credit meter rise and fall (mostly fall). In Australia, an “autoplay” feature has been incorporated into slot machines, to serve the “mature” player who has moved beyond control to pure automaticity, and experiences himself as part of the machine. Such desubjectification does look quite a bit like death.

This might seem exotically pathological, but I can detect something like a death instinct in myself, for example in those times when I slump in front of the TV and watch whatever is served up. It becomes an occasion for self-disgust as soon as I rouse myself from the couch, and is no great source of pleasure while I am in the trance, so why do I do it? I think because the passivity of it is a release from the need for control. As someone who is self-employed, I don’t have the jig of a regular job, so the disposition of every hour is a matter of choice, an occasion for reflection and evaluation. Sometimes I just want to stay where I am and watch Dateline, because that’s what’s next. Let death come.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Perhaps We are all becoming autistic, in this broad sense. If so, it is not without reason. As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces (e.g., “globalization or collateralized debt obligations”) that no single individual Can fully bring within view; as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive. The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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