Thinking Outside the Box
Sophie Poklewski Koziell meets a philosophical mechanic. The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good by Matthew Crawford. Viking, 2010. ISBN: 9780670918744
Here lies a serious discourse on the ways in which we work. Crudely summed up, it is a cross between Small is Beautiful and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, written for the 21st century by a mechanic-philosopher.
Matthew Crawford starts by observing how little we make and mend, and how much we buy. Hand in hand with this trend is the decline of ‘industrial arts’ training in schools, which used to teach the basics of the manual trades.
Crawford proceeds to investigate fundamental questions about the nature of work, and how and why it is changing. Is our increasing manual disengagement good for us? Does our work lead us down the path of passive consumerism? And how are our characters shaped by our work?
This is not an idealistic call to go back to a bygone craft era. No: this book is grounded in reality. It derives its strength from its author, a motorbike mechanic with an unusual background. Crawford spent his formative years in a commune, skiving school and hanging around with electricians. He pursued a doctorate in political philosophy, and then after a brief spell as a disillusioned director of a think tank in Washington, he ran back into the arms of his first love – motorbikes – and started a repair shop. Here is a man who, because of his enquiring mind and quirky background, is not afraid to think outside the box.
Two strands of writing style run through the book. The first is the voice of the academic philosopher. Reading these parts calls for focus, but reaps rewards. The other style is that of the ‘gearhead’ rebel. This is Crawford’s true voice. Through these passages the author freewheels through his life’s experiences as a mechanic, stripping down a 1975 Honda CB360 or building speed into his VW Bug. The book is unique because there are many philosophical mechanics, but very few philosophers who are mechanics.
The section on the history of the ‘blue collar’/’white collar’ divide is fascinating. The social status attached to each, and how ‘blue collar’ work started to be degraded with the introduction of scientific management. How work that was once cognitively rich and required significant skill and experience, such as being a wheelwright, became fragmented and simplified when introduced into a factory environment.
Now, it seems, we have become used to this ‘dumbed-down’ version of manual labour, and have so little awareness of what we’re missing out on that we don’t bother to protest. Yet when Henry Ford started his first car factories, he struggled to keep workers because they all walked out in disgust with the boredom of the work! These men had been hired from bicycle shops and carriage makers, where they had been involved in complex and rewarding manual work. Interestingly, to compensate for the tedium of Ford factory work, Ford had to raise wages to keep workers.
The clean, serene, coffee-machine world of the ‘white collar’ worker is not immune either. The book charts the way in which management has broken down previously engaging and complex mental tasks into work ‘processes’ that can be better ‘managed’. Work is becoming formulaic and intellectually empty. This has slowly led to a profound disconnection between most people’s work life and leisure life. They are generally unfulfilled at work and tolerate boredom in return for financial compensation, and through leisure they accumulate psychic nourishment. We have become so habituated to this set-up that we rarely question it.
Crawford has no political agenda. He just offers his thoughts from the experience of his own life’s journey. His aim is not to spawn a new generation of mechanics, but to question the way we view and treat work. Obviously manual work is not for everyone, but it has been so ‘downgraded’ that many people are encouraged to sit behind computers, when they would be more fulfilled making, building and fixing things.
Crawford champions manual com-petence, the experience it provides, and its intellectual and social rewards. He seeks to reverse the image that educators and management consultants alike seem to paint of the manual trades as “cramped and paltry: the plumber with his butt crack, peering under a sink”. And, he doesn’t fail to point out, “that filthy plumber might be charging eighty dollars an hour”.