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Yet this assessment was made before the full flowering of mass communication and mass conformity, which pose a different set of problems for the republican character: enervation of judgment and erosion of the independent spirit.


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Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life — a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good.

Such a strong ontology is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism, and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers — pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills. Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement.

It is a strange sort of ideal, attractive only to a peculiar sort of self — gratuitous ontological insecurity is no fun for most people. As Sennett argues, most people take pride in being good at something specific, which happens through the accumulation of experience.

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Yet the flitting disposition is pressed upon workers from above by the current generation of management revolutionaries, for whom the ethic of craftsmanship is actually something to be rooted out from the workforce. Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because one wants to get it right. Like the ideal consumer, the management consultant presents an image of soaring freedom, in light of which the manual trades appear cramped and paltry.


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It is a subtle but pervasive omission It is as though in our cultural iconography we are given the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no thought bright behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain. Skilled manual labor entails a systematic encounter with the material world, precisely the kind of encounter that gives rise to natural science.

And in fact, in areas of well-developed craft, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature.

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This at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end. The success of the steam engine contributed to the development of what we now call classical thermodynamics.

This history provides a nice illustration of a point made by Aristotle:. Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

Invented in , it is a sort of mechanical calculus that renders continuous measurement in discrete digital approximation to four decimal places. Such inventions capture a reflective moment in which some skilled worker has made explicit the assumptions that are implicit in his manual skill.

Matthew E. Kahn

They offer a computer program to facilitate making origami, or rather Archimedean solids, by unfolding these solids into two dimensions. In our early work with HyperGami, we often ran into situations in which the program provided us with a folding net that was mathematically correct — i. Figure 7 shows an example. Here, we are trying to create an approximation to a cone — a pyramid on a regular octagonal base. HyperGami provides us with a folding net that will, indeed, produce a pyramid; but typically, no paper crafter would come up with a net of this sort, since it is fiendishly hard to join together those eight tall triangles into a single vertex.

I take their point to be that the crafting problem is in fact not reducible to an algorithmic problem. More precisely, any algorithmic solution to the crafting problem cannot itself be generated algorithmically, as it must include ad hoc constraints known only through practice, that is, through embodied manipulations. Those constraints cannot be arrived at deductively, starting from mathematical entities. It would be a task for cognitive science to determine if these considerations place a theoretical limit on the automation of work, but I can speak firsthand to how one area of work is resistant to algorithmic thinking.

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Following graduate school in Chicago, I took a job in a Washington, D. I hated it, so I left and opened a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond. Leaving a sensible trace, my day was at least imaginable to her. You come up with an imagined train of causes for manifest symptoms and judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a stock mental library, not of natural kinds or structures, like that of the surgeon, but rather the functional kinds of an internal combustion engine, their various interpretations by different manufacturers, and their proclivities for failure.

You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire. If the motorcycle is thirty years old, from an obscure maker that went out of business twenty years ago, its proclivities are known mostly through lore. It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic-antiquarians. These relationships are maintained by telephone, in a network of reciprocal favors that spans the country.

My most reliable source, Fred Cousins in Chicago, had such an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure European motorcycles that all I could offer him in exchange was regular shipments of obscure European beer. There is always a risk of introducing new complications when working on decrepit machines, and this enters the diagnostic logic. Measured in likelihood of screw-ups, the cost is not identical for all avenues of inquiry when deciding which hypothesis to pursue.


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  5. For example, the fasteners holding the engine covers on s-era Hondas are Phillips-head, and they are always stripped and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch, if each of ten screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Put more neutrally, the attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand, but a strong pragmatic bearing on it kind of like origami. The factory service manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, but they never take such factors into account.

    So you have to develop your own decision tree for the particular circumstances. The problem is that at each node of this new tree, your own, unquantifiable risk aversion introduces ambiguity.

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    There comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. Any mechanic will tell you that it is invaluable to have other mechanics around to test your reasoning against, especially if they have a different intellectual disposition. My shop-mate Tommy Van Auken was an accomplished visual artist, and I was repeatedly struck by his ability to literally see things that escaped me.

    I had the conceit of a being an empiricist, but seeing things is not a simple matter.

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    Even on the relatively primitive vintage bikes that were our specialty, some diagnostic situations contain so many variables, and symptoms can be so under-determining of causes, that explicit analytical reasoning comes up short. What is required then is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules.

    There was more thinking going on in the bike shop than in the think tank. Socially, being the proprietor of a bike shop in a small city gave me a feeling I never had before. I felt I had a place in society. I bartered services with machinists and metal fabricators, which has a very different feel than transactions with money, and further increased my sense of social embeddedness. There were three restaurants with cooks whose bikes I had restored, where unless I deceive myself I was treated as a sage benefactor. I felt pride before my wife when we would go out to dinner and be given preferential treatment, or simply a hearty greeting.

    There were group rides, and bike night every Tuesday at a certain bar. It felt good. Given the intrinsic richness of manual work, cognitively, socially, and in its broader psychic appeal, the question becomes why it has suffered such a devaluation in recent years as a component of education. The economic rationale so often offered, namely that manual work is somehow going to disappear, is questionable if not preposterous, so it is in the murky realm of culture that we must look to understand these things.

    To this end, perhaps we need to consider the origins of shop class, so that we can better understand its demise. One was romantic fantasy about the pre-modern craftsman. This was understandable given changes in the world of work at the turn of the century, a time when the bureaucratization of economic life was rapidly increasing the number of paper shufflers. The tangible elements of craft were appealing as an antidote to vague feelings of unreality, diminished autonomy, and a fragmented sense of self that were especially acute among the professional classes.

    The Arts and Crafts movement thus fit easily with the new therapeutic ethic of self-regeneration. Depleted from his workweek in the corporate world, the office worker repaired to his basement workshop to putter about and tinker, refreshing himself for the following week. Some Arts and Crafts enthusiasts conceived their task to be evangelizing good taste as embodied in the works of craft, as against machine-age vulgarity. But it dovetailed with, and gave a higher urgency to, the nascent culture of luxury consumption.