Forget standing desks (“sitting all day is killing us!”, they cry), it’s the contradiction between the idea of knowledge work and the reality of a dumbed down environment of ‘expert systems’ which is making us feel bad. One in which we follow scripts and processes set out by knowledge engineers – mirroring the time and motion studies which took decisions away from skilled craftspeople, and gave us back abstract parts in a process of production.
Matthew Crawford speaks up for a blue collar alternative of real creative work, posited against the anodyne ersatz creativity of consumer choice and individuality. Or, rather, not creative work, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness cultivated by the mechanical arts.
What’s important is the discipline inherent in working with an external reality. Something which forces us to abandon an egocentric view of the world as revolving around oneself, and really pay focused attention to the myriad possibilities in, say, a motorcycle that won’t start. The reality of the immediate and the present, over the abstract.
There are echoes of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But Pirsig was concerned with the value of quality in and of itself. Crawford’s work is a manifesto (albeit one encumbered in academic language) for the unengaged young person to bypass college and take up a trade, discovering a role that is not just better-paying than much knowledge work, but rewarding in a fuller sense.
For much of the book, half of the population is missing: ‘The case for working with your hands’ describes a brotherhood of craftsmen; all the tradespeople mentioned – recalled or putative – are male, and women only enter in the roles of artist or manager. This makes Crawford often read like a Victorian anthropologist (particularly given the sociological bent of the language), and the world of vintage motorcycle repair shops and counterculture figures that the author inhabits seems like an atavistic throwback.
This, sadly, is also a part of a long tradition of American literature on self-reliance and individual agency. But, despite its description of an incomplete world, this personal account of ‘honest trade’ offers valid insights into a deeper engagement with work, and can inspire the reader to rethink their whole world view.
Verdict: A problematic but essential overturning of our assumptions about the education treadmill, work, and fulfilment. 7/10