All posts for the month June, 2009

I’ve now read almost two thirds of “Shop Class as Soulcraft“.

I like to blog my book reviews in segments, because unless I’m genuinely surprised by picking up a book in the first place, I am always conscious that I’m reading it because is seems to fit my agenda (positively or negatively).  I like to separate initial impressions and expectations from actual content and analysis. If I express my expectations early (before reading more than introductory chapters) I can be kept honest when blogging later about surprising significance or, more often, unsurprising confirmation of content related to my agenda.

So first admission – I underestimated Matthew Crawfords experience and wisdom. The US-centric writing still grates, but the lessons expressed seem well founded and well articulated. In fact if my disappointment with the content is that I’ve heard it all before, is really an expression of envy that I wish I could have written it, whereas he did.

The other impression to correct is that in fact a good deal of Crawford’s book is indeed thoughtful narrative and autobiography, probably 50/50 interwoven with the critical review – overall the style is easily readable and the language straight talking … idiot, stupid, motherfucker … sprinkled within a good turn of phrase.

“Yes, yes, yes, tell me something I don’t know”, says more about me than Matthew and his book, which I find very good, both in content and wit. He sums up the problem for the increasingly globalised world for me in one short question.

“Is this our society as a whole, buying more education only to scale new heights of stupidity ?”

He is talking here about academic, intellectual, institutional high-school, college education and beyond to grad schools. His eventual conclusion is going to be that we individually and society as a whole would be better off if more of us experienced more “shop” trade / craft skills training earlier, and more of us saw the value of this engagement with the real when moving into working for a living, in whatever field that turns out to be.

As I mentioned in the initial impressions, there is much more parallel to Pirsig’s ZMM, than is actually acknowledged. So much of the descriptions at length of maintenance / re-build jobs – particularly the diagnostic aspects – are so reminiscent of Pirsig describing his “gumption traps” … the stepping back from the physical to the conceptual and returning from another angle, the involvement of the frame of mind with the hard physical frame of the motorcycle … the fact that what you know affects what you see, and so on.

Like so many before he sees the paradox of the drive to detach the self from the physical as inherited from “Descarte’s Error”, but Crawford’s prescription is the practical one of the processes of learning by doing above, rather than seeking any metaphysical solution.

Another aspect that works well for me is that Crawford does recognize very well the institutional hypocrisies in so much of business management and organizational behaviour, dealing as it does with the complexities and paradoxes of many levels from operational to abstract, from here and now to tactical and strategic. And correctly that the issues are more “moral” than logical or scientific …. previously summed up nicely by John Z Delorean as

“Committees of moral men often make immoral decisions”

or the unattributed

“Losing your ethics on the drive to the office.”

He points out that the absurdities we find so amusing but somehow so close to reality in “Dilbert” surely contain the message that there is something seriously wrong in general – absurd in fact – with the worlds of work and business. I totally agree. Not sure yet that he has anything new to offer here … but I’ll be back.

Talking of working class heros, as I was in the previous post, I have just started reading Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class a Soulcraft”.

I skimmed though all the notes, references, the introduction and general structure , and so far just read the first two chapters “A Brief Case for the Useful Arts” and “The Separation of Thinking from Doing”.

By way of pre-amble, this book has received a fair bit of publicity and high-profile reviews, and these have been circulating in the community of Robert Pirsig fans because it is aparent from those reviews that the subject matter of Crawford’s book is very similar to that of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. And the sub-title “An Inquiry into the Value of Work” is clearly a nod to Pirsig’s work. The style is of course completely different, this being a conventional academic treatise rather than a creative narrative work [correction].

In fact I find that there are significant references to and quotes from Pirsig’s ZMM, though no overall acknowledgement. But that is not surprising since Crawford is at pains to steer away from any mysticism or “wistful romantic” explanations of his subject matter. (More surprising is that the whole passage “Motorcycle as Mule” in the Chapter “Master of One’s Own Stuff” could have come straight from the pages of ZMM, but has no reference.)

It may prove to be a mistake to ignore those aspects, but I’ll need to reserve judgement until I’m through. Crawford’s limited pragmatic objective is clearly stated as “a set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is useful”. So far it is very good, and I find little to disagree with – with one nauseating exception.

The book is myopically US-centric – so much so that the value and quality of work is very much in terms of whether US workers and customers benefit from it rather than unworthy foreigners. Sad. Less of a concern is the fact that Crawford’s age and inexperience [correction] have you hoping he has a wise head on young shoulders and hoping the book isn’t one long plug for his own successful motorcycle maintenance business, after dropping out from a potentially high-flying “knowledge work” career. Less of a concern because he already says so much that is truly good.

Significantly he cites being introduced to Al MacIntyre’s work as deeply influential – which is odd given that he has chosen mainly the treatise rather than narrative style. MacIntyre’s position is that we are all writing our own stories in the context of humanity’s cumulative narrative.

There is much about de-skilling and automation, and on the perceived value of blue-collar “manual work” in preference to white-collar “knowledge work” – which is missing the point about creative work. But he correctly nails the real issue when looking at the “offshoring” of services that can be delivered “down a wire”. The point is not that electronic is bad and manual is good, but whether the important value is generated algorithmically – which can and should be automated. Whether the delivered value is in physical or informational products is irrelevant, the important thing is how much human thought does it take to create that value ? If it doesn’t take much, then it make sense to automate it as far as efficiently possible for the mental well being of the human doing the work, as for the basic economics of the transaction.

Where a productive task (genuinely) doesn’t require mental effort, it makes sense not to ask a human with a brain to do the task. But it makes no sense to artificially exclude the involvement of the human brain where it adds value – knowing how to work out what to do when the established procedure fails or encounters variations. All of which is a good lead into Taylorism and scientific management and those over zealous Harvard MBA’s that bought this stuff.

This is my original agenda, and indeed prominent in my manifesto – “management that mistook itself for a science”. There are some wonderful quotes from F W Taylor that bring home just how misguided the “time and motion” economics of production misses the point of value. In theory at least, freeing mental power from mechanical tasks is positive because of the “opportunity” of that mental power to be applied to more creative tasks. This is where Crawford identifies the problem;

According to Taylor “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centred in the planning department …”

Crawford recognizes that “It is a mistake to suppose that the primary purpose of this partition is to render the work process more efficient. It may or may not extract more value from a given unit of labour time. The concern is rather with labor cost.”

Spot on. More autistic economics.

Of course it is right to organize working at levels of abstracted knowledge in planning of complex undertakings involving many skills of many productive people – life is just too short for the collective brain to interact and iterate from individual lessons of the whole organization. But that is no reason to control out the autonomy of the individual brains – quite the reverse. “All life is problem solving.” – Popper.

The consumerism side of the production economy is an interesting angle, could easily lead us to the capitalist conspiracy agendas …

 Reading on …

Mentioned somewhere I had been reading David Peace’s “The Damned United” fiction-based-on-fact story of Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leeds United in 1974. The narrative is interwoven with his managerial carreer up to that point at Derby County and previously Hartlepool United. (Also released as a film – I’ve not seen yet.)

Immediately afterwards I also read the story of Cloughie’s time following the above at Nottingham Forest, entitled “Provided You Don’t Kiss Me – 20 Years With Brian Clough”, a biography by journalist Duncan Hamilton.

Despite  Hamilton saying to Peace in conversation that he didn’t recognise the same Cloughie, I have to say I very much did. The fiction seems every bit as real as the facts, and thanks to Cloughie’s level of public persona both fit with my experiences at the time too. Hamilton does admit of course that the event – the move from Leeds to Forest – that separates the one book from the other was life-changing for Clough – he was two different people.

Both are painfully honest, but I can’t see why either would be branded as putting him in a bad light – in both you see how human he really was. I guess I need to see the fim version to understand the criticisms of Peace’s piece.

A surprising text book on general management do’s and don’ts, wise and unwise career decisions, notwithstanding the very particular story of the central character. In both cases well-written recommended reads especially for the nostalgic pining for real football before the advent of Sky money and The Premiership. They don’t make working class hero’s like that any more, and probably won’t ever again.

Strange how wikipedia works. Whoever (Antonio Alafuente) last edited this page included a link to a post of mine about the distinction between Cynic and Kynic – in relation to Zizek and Sloterdijk. Working backwards through the link we come to this Spanish blog on expanded education, refering to the 11th  conference of Zemos98 earlier this year – interesting because it seems to link well with the current Nick Maxwell agenda in education.

Google Wave – Interesting if only as an e-mail / IM integration with branching conversations as a single object – effectively blurring email-list / forum / bulletin board with wiki / blog / twitter collaborative editing , linking and commenting on that common object. Not sure the simple switching of real-time typing and private branches is such a great idea and the simple “bloggie” publish – to make the whole object a public page, and thence pick-up blog / twitter responses and links into the same object – real extremes one click apart – powerful though.

“Makes flame-wars so much more effective.”

It’s Open-Source and beyond that it’s API’s and Protocols for develpers to extend. Thanks to Mark Federman for the link. See also blog from the creators Lars and Jens Rasmussen.