Some books stay with you for years because they opened your eyes to something that seemed intuitively right despite your feelings about it. Then there are those books that spell out something that you’ve known for some time without knowing quite how to spell it out yourself. And there are times in this when you wish that what were spelled out were otherwise.
The Case for Working with Your Hands describes how the world of work has in recent decades leaned ever more towards brain work than handiwork. Crawford examines several implications to this trend that go against the prevailing wisdom that it’s a good thing. One of these is that it’s getting harder for people to see tangible fruits to their labour. The workplace is awash with ‘targets’, ’outcomes’, ‘milestones’ and all sorts of measures that attempt to replace a product that we can hold in our hands to verify whether we had a good day at work or not. This leaves us dealing with the politics of managing appearances. What’s worse is that so much of this brain work can easily be replaced by workflow systems, the division of labour into small, semi-skilled and low paid labour, and, ultimately, machines.
In contrast, Crawford discusses the satisfaction and creativity to skilled manual tasks. His prime example is what he turned to after leaving a consultancy career: repairing motorbikes. He found that the intellectual challenges were greater than anything he encountered when completing his PhD at Chicago. There is, he contends, in our rush for the glamour of brain work, a corresponding devaluation of crafts. Mastering a craft, he goes on, demands an empathy with the world. Repairing something means meeting objects on their own terms. The computerised world encourages us to press buttons and expect our wishes to be instantly granted. Physical objects have no interest in our wishes, having properties that obey their own laws. Manual work therefore requires getting out of oneself and understanding something else on its terms.
My only complaint about the book was that there’s only so many repair workers needed, even if there’s currently a shortfall. What is everyone else to do? Most manual tasks get mechanised in automated factories. So what does that leave? The only way I can answer this is to suggest that the book is best read as a way into re-imagining the world in non-computing and non-abstract terms. After all, computing and abstract jobs end up mechanised or redundant, and quicker than anything else.
I read this book four years ago. My partner loaned it to me because Crawford described exactly the workplace I found myself confronting after university. It was sobering. I found myself wondering how and if I should train as an electrician (UK rules stop you from doing this if you have a ‘higher’ qualification). And I still wonder this. I eventually found work, but it’s patchy, low paid, and short-term. The knowledge economy I was sold while I was a student barely appeared, and what is left is shrinking.
So this book is crammed with joy and sadness. If, as many online book bloggers and blog readers are, you’re working on a career in publishing, you’ll get a lot from reading Crawford. He balances the gloomy forecasting with a lot of detail about the satisfactions of ‘shop class’. In the spirit of this balance, I’ve added a gallery about a manual task I enjoy. It’s hard to escape the question once it’s in your head: are there unmechanisable, creative manual jobs that it would be great to spend a bit more time on and, perhaps, get paid for?