This review of Matthew Crawford’s new book is better than most, an enjoyable read for its own sake. Part of what I like about it is that for the most part I don’t know how much is Fukuyama and how much is Crawford. This passage, for example, is plenty worth pondering for the rest of the day:
Under this new ideology, everyone must attend college and prepare for life as a “symbolic analyst” or “knowledge worker,” ready to add value through mental rather than physical labor.
There are two things wrong with this notion, according to Crawford. The first is that it radically undervalues blue-collar work that involves the manipulation of things rather than ideas. Expertise with things permits human beings to have agency over their lives — that is, their ability to exert some control over the myriad faucets, outlets and engines that they depend on from day to day. Instead of being able to top up your engine oil when it is low, you wait until an “idiot light” goes on on the dashboard, and you turn your car over to a bureaucratized dealership that hooks it up to a computer and returns it to you without your having the faintest idea of what might have been wrong.
The second problem with this vision is that the postindustrial world is not in fact populated — as gurus like Richard Florida, who has popularized the idea of the “creative class,” would have it — by “bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe.” The truth about most white-collar office work, Crawford argues, is captured better by “Dilbert” and “The Office”: dull routine more alienating than the machine production denounced by Marx. Unlike the electrician who knows his work is good when you flip a switch and the lights go on, the average knowledge worker is caught in a morass of evaluations, budget projections and planning meetings. None of this bears the worker’s personal stamp; none of it can be definitively evaluated; and the kind of mastery or excellence available to the forklift driver or mechanic are elusive. Rather than achieving self-mastery by confronting a “hard discipline” like gardening or structural engineering or learning Russian, people are offered the fake autonomy of consumer choice, expressing their inner selves by sitting in front of a Harley- Davidson catalog and deciding how to trick out their bikes.
The last point there, about using the fake autonomy of consumer choice to delude ourselves about our total lack of true autonomy, is one I could spend the rest of my life studying. We knew as early as the 1930s that so-called white collar work was mind-numbing and robotic, only valuable in large aggregates. Films often portrayed middle-level white collar workplaces as seas of desks, each with an identically dressed person sitting at an adding machine or a telephone or a typewriter, doing a limited, repetitive, undemanding task all day long.
The work didn’t change. So how did modern industrial society manage to persuade us that we aren’t the drones we appear to be, but instead “bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe?” This is the part that fascinates me, and that I think has been left mostly unstudied. I don’t think it can be denied that the process was deliberately engineered, by the forces of society if not by specific individuals. One small example that struck me when it came around was the “Wild at Heart” fad. A friend was caught up in it enough that I spent a little time poking around the fringes; what I concluded was that it was not so much a movement to introduce freedom and competence back into a man’s life as it was a program for choking back one’s natural responses to a drone-like existence through controlled doses of thrilling, challenging, but ultimately meaningless activity—on the weekends, of course.
I’ve written before that we’ve somehow managed to turn incompetence in most aspects of life into a badge of honor, taking pride in the fact that we can afford to pay others to do even the simplest things for us. But it only works if you can muster up a healthy amount of contempt for the work you’re paying for.
Highly educated people with high- status jobs — investment bankers, professors, lawyers — often believe that they could do anything their less-educated brethren can, if only they put their minds to it, because cognitive ability is the only ability that counts. The truth is that some would not have the physical and cognitive ability to do skilled blue-collar work, and that others could do it only if they invested 20 years of their life in learning a trade.
The last paragraph of the review is poignant, as well as mildly puzzling.
In the end I must confess that it would have been hard for me not to like this book. While I make my living as a “symbolic knowledge worker,” I have both ridden motorcycles and made furniture — my family’s kitchen table, the beds my children slept on while growing up, as well as reproductions of Federal-style antiques whose originals I could never afford to buy. Few things I’ve created have given me nearly as much pleasure as those tangible objects that were hard to fabricate and useful to other people. I put my power tools away a few years ago, and find now that I can’t even give them away, because people are too preoccupied with updating their iPhones. Shop class, it appears, is already a distant historical memory.
My first reaction was: I’ll be glad to take those tools off your hands! Followed closely by: Why did you put them up?