Monday, October 02, 2006

Man the Foolmaker

[posted by Callimachus]

Man, the Toolmaker is a convenient chauvinism, ripe for being kicked over by some more progressive cliché ("human, the compromiser," say) and swept aside by robotics and technology.

But what would we be giving up, in addition to busted knuckles?

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

As the grandson of a tool-and-die maker, I feel a special incompetence every time my home repair projects get deeper than I can manage -- which is usually just past the point where the wires disappear into the walls. My grandfather could explain everything from driving a screw to sweeping with a broom in terms of physics, motion, forces. I can't.

Still, I cherish what I have in my diminished tool box. I paid my bills in college, partly, by working summers on an assembly line where I was soldering gas meters together. I learned the whole process, from firing up the ovens to making sure to wear thick socks, even in summer, to keep the stuff out of your shoes if it splattered. By the end of it, I had this all internalized, including the "touch" of the iron and what shape and curve worked best for what job.

At the time, it was just a job, and a chance to hang out and hear Vietnam stories and smoke excellent dope after work with the guys who worked other jobs there. But from the perspective of more than 20 years, what I learned on the assembly line seems as extensive and ultimately as important, as what I learned in college classrooms.

Crawford's article, well, it hits the nail on the head:

So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.