Sam Jacoby

Shopcraft as Soulcraft

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Shopcract as Soulcraft belongs to the category of things that make me feel bad about myself. It keeps company with technology executives who turn treehouse builders, itinerant and beautifully-penniless bicycle adventurers, and Instagram feeds of lithe young people on sunwashed yacht outtings with Derrida paperbacks. If you’re into that good kind of hurt (and I am), it’s a solid, quick read and well-worth picking up.

My dad recently sent me a copy.1 I had thumbed through it when it was first published, thought it was interesting, and put it aside. Now that I’ve been working on my own motorcycle restoration project, the time seemed ripe to give it another go.

Per usual for this sort of thing, if you’re looking for sagas from a mechanic’s workbench, look elsewhere.3 Crawford is a philospoher, and the snappy photo of a vintage BMW on the cover aside, the subtitle, “an inquiry into the value of work,” is what you’ll be getting. That’s fine with me. There are plenty of mechanical war stories on the SOHC4 forums.

As a programmer and designer who spends the his hours behind a computer screen, I’ve always been interested in the strain of the work-philosophy genre, that assigns much of modern man’s ills to dull toil in the bureaucratic labyrinths of fluorescent offices. It’s a popular point of view these days. The cubicle-to-farm journey is one of the redemptive fables of our time.4 The more time we spend with our devices, the more collective yearning there is for something dirtier and realer.

Crawford takes this vague set of impulses and packages into something that makes more sense than my masculine fantasy: I just want to get greasy and tighten bolts. He posits a number of points, a few of which are particularly resonant. He’s highly critical of our education system for ignoring “disposition.” By that, he means one’s predilection to say, to spend time welding than pushing pixels around. The push for mass college matriculation and the generally uniform conception white-collar professional success doesn’t leave a much space for other paths outside of the absolutely fantastic.5 I always did very well in school. It was never very difficult for me. I realize that I’m lucky in that regard, but that said, it’s a kind of restriction all its own. If you’re achieving academically, regardless of your disposition, there are a wide-range of good, well-paying jobs that are considered socially and financially inappropriate.

Sure, maybe I’d like to be a motorcycle mechanic. If I was a good one, I think I’d be proud of me—I think my family would too. So would Matthew Crawford. But could I be one without writing a book about it? My gut tells me that few of my peers would judge me a success. I may be wrong there, actually. It just depends on who your peers are.

Crawford also excoriates the steady degradation of labor and the rise of a poorly-defined set of ‘soft’ skills that play nicely in the obtuse world of corporate cooperation. “[The worker] senses what is demanded of him is not knowledge, but rather, that he project a certain kind of personality, an affable complaisance” (Pg. 17). This is set of arguments that I’ve always enjoyed. Robert Jackall, who Crawford quotes frequently, covers some of the same ground in Moral Mazes, a must-read for anyone with an interest in how the structures of corporations affect our behavior. He contrasts the anxious corporate automaton with the mechanic, who can stand on the merit of his own work: it runs or it doesn’t.7

Crawford actually quotes Michael and Ann Eisenberg, who have lab in Boulder, Colorado, is the well-spring of such research. At the meeting of electrons and hands-on competence. “Hands-on”, the term, is drained of any connotation of mature competence or manual dexterity. A hands-on activity is one intended for children. Finger painting and so on.

It’s in mechanics that Crawford lightens things up. The best bits are the vivid anecdotes that provide the scaffolding for Crawford’s own views. He described his time spent in testosterone-soaked speed shops, where men come together to make cars go fast, as well as casual sniping at his father, a Berkeley physicist, who focused on the theoretical to the exclusion of all else. I googled him, Lawrence Crawford—tough act to follow.

Through this, It is difficult to avoid the louche tinge of fetishism. Crawford is not above embracing it. His workshop, in a decrepit warehouse, is shared with a “very sexy young S and M model.” (pg. 110) His shop is even used as the site of a generic marketing photoshoot, posing a besmocked male model staring idly at a ‘73 Ducatti. Crawford uses these to illustrate advertising’s knowing manipulation of our thirst for authenticity—but Crawford is doing some of the same, albeit from the other side of the coin. I can’t blame him. How many mechanics have read his book? I read it, and I’d wager most do, after a day spent hunched over a computer screen. One gets the sense that if we were spending our time repairing motorcycles , or heaving boulders, say, we would hardly be so interested. Crawford, somehow, is able to do both—motorcycles by day, philosopher by night, an easily-fetishized ideal all its own. There’s another thing to feel bad about.

Coding and Wrenching

I spend most of my time reading, writing, and coding. I don’t make many real things. At the same time, I get the impression I do more of that kind of making then most people. I spend a large fraction of my free time wrenching on the CB500 (or an unloved Yamaha XS400 I’ve added to the collection). That the two go together is significant. I am more patient when writing software because some problems yield to nothing else—mechanical problems are absolutely so.6 And I have spent more time reading my motorcycle manual than that for any piece of software. I am better for one for doing the other.

The mark of good software design is the fully encapsulated abstraction. A black box receives a set of inputs, performs a series of operations, and returns the result. You don’t need to worry about the unpleasant detail . To do the same on a 40-year old motorcycle is to court disaster. Bearings wear, bolts corrode and snap, things fall apart when they’re old. Software also ages. It also breaks. Over time, as needs change, a clean abstraction begins to leak, and compromises and decisions made in its ugly core begins to surface. The software engineer is also a mechanic.

  1. I think this is actually the second copy he’s sent me. He insists otherwise. 

  2. Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes is a jaw-dropping read, especially for those in the upwardly-ambiguous world of mid-level executives,  

  3. Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is similarly misleading. 

  4. Death of a Programmer, Life of a Farmer 

  5. After many years of disinterest, I have since realized that professional sports players basically have the best job. Money, fame, and physical activity. That last bit is key.  

  6. It took me almost a month of steady heating and cooling, tapping, and lubrication to remove the 12 frozen cylinder studs on my engine block. Doctors also get a pass, as people who work on things they have not made.  

  7. Doctors also get a pass, as people who work on things they have not made.