Intelligent behaviour

One of the delights of Christmas is doing jigsaws.  The easy part is sorting out the straight pieces, the hard slog is working out the innumerable shades of blue in the sky, or the green and brown in the trees.   It is easy to give up, but return after a short break, and look at the pieces from a different perspective and suddenly it all seems easy!

The other delight is the opportunity to read something enjoyable, though not essential.  This Christmas I had with me a curious book from last year’s New York Times bestseller list Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford.  Crawford is an unusual polymath being both a Doctor of Philosophy (he is a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia) and the owner/operator of an independent motorcycle repair shop.  A fascinating combination that opens up new ways of looking at processes we simply take for granted.

Craftsmanship necessitates the ability to dwell on a task for long enough to satisfy yourself, not simply the customer, that you have done it to the best of your ability.  In today’s “management speak’ this is seen as an ‘ingrown’ skill, an unnecessary indulgence, something the very opposite to what is seen as desirable in the modern world where the successful person moves, apparently effortlessly, from one high-level generalisation to another without his, or her, feet actually touching the ground.  Philosopher as he is, Crawford was amazed when he realised that there was more truly abstract thinking going on amongst the mechanics on the floor of his repair shop as they sought to tease out mechanical problems, than anything he had encountered in the intellectual discourse of university think tanks.

Crawford shows how this separation of thinking from doing owes its origins to the American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor and his “Principle of Scientific Management” (1901).  Taylor proposed that any complex task carried out by a craftsman could, if analysed carefully, be reduced to a series of logical and sequential steps.  Employees who exactly followed these instructions, as on Henry Ford’s assembly lines, behaved in a totally mechanical way, and did not screw up by attempting to think any of it through for themselves, would be far more productive than autonomous craftsmen.

Ford found that he had to pay the assembly line operatives more than they ever earned in their own workshops – in effect he compensated them for not thinking about what they did.  Secondly, because goods rolled off conveyor belts so fast, the market had to expand by giving factory operatives access to the money to buy the excess goods.  In short, advertising was invented to create demand, and easy credit was made available for the masses to buy on the ‘never-never.’  In such a way consumer debt was created.  Financial prudence, that had been such a feature of earlier artisan life, was replaced by pride in what you could purchase due to the size of your credit rating.  Soon the workers were tied to the assembly line by the necessity of meeting their monthly payments on the goods they might well have wanted, but probably never needed.

“If the occasions for the exercise of judgement are diminished, the moral-cognitive virtue of a attentiveness will atrophy,” writes Crawford the philosopher with a spanner in his oil-stained hands, and ‘the institutional carelessness of taylorised work, turns us into uninvolved automatons.’  Which explains why, as a society of any real moral significance to anyone, we are getting, he says, “more stupid with every passing year… which is to say, the degradation of work is ultimately cognitive matter, rooted in the separation of thinking from doing.”  As it happens this was exactly the theme also taken up by Stephen Bayley in The Times recently when he wrote, “Making real products is far superior to having a lust for quick returns… anything that is made betrays the beliefs and preoccupations, the morals and manners of the people who made it.  People who make real things, not only make money, they behave better.”  It is the “behave better” part of the jigsaw which is the critical link Crawford makes between shop craft and soul craft.

See Action 1 of Briefing Paper and Chapter 5 of Overschooled but Undereducated