Thinking and Doing

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 …

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