I finished Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford a few days ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it. This book came at exactly the right time for me, and raises questions that I’ve had stirring around in my head for a while now.
I am a software engineer, and thus almost by definition work with abstractions. I feel pride in my work, but it’s not the pride of someone who has worked with their hands. I’ve glimpsed that pride, mostly working with my dad on cars where the sputtering of an engine that was once quiet and still has brought me more joy than almost any work I’ve done in exchange for money.
The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.
One part of the book that I thought was particularly valuable was a discussion of the segmentation of cognitive work, where the elite extract the mentally challenging parts of a job, reform it into a process, and feed the process back to workers in contained chunks, so that nobody has to hold all of the knowledge in their heads anymore, but rather can simply execute on their part of the process. “[T]he new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements.”
If genuine knowledge work is not growing but actually shrinking, because it is coming to be concentrated in an ever-smaller elite, this has implications for the vocational advice that students ought to receive. If they want to use their brains at work, and aren’t destined to make it into the star chamber, they should be helped to find work that somehow thwarts the Taylorist logic, and is therefore safe from it.
I am, again, very fortunate that my work hasn’t undergone this process. It is still very cognitively demanding. The change is coming, though, and when it comes it’s going to leave a lot of software professionals out in the cold without marketable skills. A few of us, the luckiest perhaps, are going to learn to work with the machines in order to become even more productive than ever before, just as a few factory workers have benefited greatly from manufacturing automation, but that’s not going to be the reality for most software engineers, especially those who are just entering the workforce, and who have come out of accelerator programs that teach programming as a series of steps, rather than a holistic craft.
If this is the future, and I truly believe it is, then I need to prepare myself. I think the first step is really learning how things work, and learning to make things for myself. Wood and metal and electronics and food. Small steps, making something I would have bought, or trying to repair something I would have thrown away and replaced. Convex skills that reward investment with accelerating upside. Embedding myself in the material world in which I exist.