Tag Archives: Work

Crafts vs industry, the meaning of work according to Arthur Lochmann

Following my recent posts about the meaning and values of work through Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, here are a few lines translated from the magnificent book by Arthur Lochmann La Vie Solide. I say magnificient because the writing is beautiful, precise, aerial.

Here are pages 99-102

Certainly, all intellectual knowledge, even the most abstract, involves a make, is realized in an action: the knowledge of a theorem of mathematics includes knowing how to apply it. But know-how is distinguished from intellectual knowledge in that the latter can just be available, actionable when needed, and stored in the meantime on external technical supports. The movement of outsourcing knowledge, initiated by writing, – this is the whole topic of Plato’s Phaedrus; writing, at the same time as it preserves knowledge, is also what exempts us from retaining it and making it truly our own – is today exacerbated by the development of new technologies and the permanent accessibility of knowledge offered by these. The relation to knowledge is modified. Knowledge becomes peripheral, whereas what one makes one’s own, what one interiorizes is the capacity to find it again and, above all, to process it. Probably this relationship to knowledge will experience deeper transformations in the coming years with the development of artificial intelligence, which allows to outsource not only the storage of knowledge, but also part of its analytical processing.

Know-how, on the other hand, is characterized by being internalized, incorporated. It involves an intuitive dimension that allows us to recognize the salient features of a situation and to identify the rules of action. You do not consult a video on Youtube to know how to pass a beam of five meters in length in a stairwell, you must have acquired an intuition of space. It alone will allow us to orient the beam to best use the diagonals of space, it alone will have anchored in us the continuous perception of both ends of the beam. However, it is not magic or innate ability. On the contrary, this intuition is an intellectual conquest. Intuition is developed with work. And in this elaboration, which is called experience, the repetition of operations plays a decisive role in making it possible to establish cumulative links between the experienced situations and the chosen solutions. Experience thus consists of a process of appropriation of life.

Several critics of modernity have diagnosed, even found, a gradual destruction of experience. First, because the lifespan of skills, and therefore the experience of their practice, tends to be reduced. In certain areas of activity that are particularly geared to change – as in the case of consulting, the function of which is to change institutions – experience is even ruled out in favor of innovative talent. More deeply, some thinkers of modernity consider that the very possibility of experience is called into question by the acceleration of social and professional rhythms. The appropriation of the “shocks” of everyday life and their transformation into experience requires stable narrative models to establish links between the past and the future. Like the analysis by Hartmut Rosa, when waiting horizons are constantly changing and “spaces of experience are constantly rebuilding” [1], we can only witness a gradual loss of experience.

In the craft trades, however, the techniques evolve slowly, and the skills retain a long life span. Experience therefore remains absolutely crucial. With time and situations, we acquire a whole repertoire of methods and tips that enrich, clarify and complicate material thinking. It is estimated that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice [2] to learn a trade in medicine, music or crafts. In terms of structure, it is indeed the time it takes to acquire an overview of the various situations that may arise and to master all the details. This duration also corresponds to the seven or so years of training (apprenticeship and then the tour de France) which are traditionally necessary to be granted companion by a companionship guild.

[1] Hartmut Rosa, Accélération, Paris, La Découverte, 2010, p.179
[2] In the venture capital world, one says that it reqiures five years and ten million to be come a good investor. Another illustration that experience matters there too and that VC is more about skills and crafts than about an industry of knowledge.

Then pages 153-155:

This knowledge, because it has been developed over time by and for the community, is similar to what we now call common goods, that is to say goods that are intended to be universal and that privatization can destroy or diminish – and which therefore require specific care. In contrast to the “professional secrecy” claimed by certain corporations to grant their knowledge only to those who would have been worth it, in contrast also to the idea of patenting techniques and methods, the will of transmission of knowledge that I have encountered on most sites is in my view of the same logic: know-how is an intangible treasure that belongs to all of society. Each worker is the temporary custodian. As such, her or his responsibility is to make it alive by transmitting it. “Any received word that you have not transmitted is a stolen word,” say the companions.

It is in such a conception of know-how as common goods that the attitude of computer developers working according to the principles of free software and open source is placed. The Linux operating system or Mozilla Firefox web browser is developed and constantly improved by a community of developers who produce their own software. They work first for themselves, making the tools they need, but also for the common good. This is the pattern followed by most free software: first developed to meet the specific need and not yet satisfied by a private community, they are then made public and made available to all, so that everyone can use them and, eventually, adapt them to their own use. Better still, the principle of collective intelligence on which this work is organized consists in considering that the best software will be obtained thanks to the collaboration of the greatest number.

Developers, artisans of modern times, are therefore in the lineage of the dêmiourgos – a term that refers to the artisans, from the ancient Greek ergon, work, and dêmios, public – while renewing its registration in the community. The community here is instituted by the sole decision to take care of a common good. It is not located geographically: it is that of the users of the whole world, in other words the universal common good. It is no more historically located: the process of transmission from generation to generation of old know-how is the process of real-time sharing.

This example, far from being trivial, is a sign of the vitality and modernity of craftsmanship as a way of working, of organization and more generally as a culture and ethical model concerned with the common good through the sharing of knowledge – this while standing out from traditional communities and social structures.

The Meaning and Value of Work according to Matthew Crawford

I began to read Eloge du Carburateur – Essai sur le sens et la valeur du travail (translated from the American essay Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work) by Matthew B. Crawford. I wrote a first post about why I began that book here.

Here is an interesting critique of artificial intelligence and the meaning of work (read on page 205 of the French edition & found on Google books)

“In John Searle’s famous critique of artificial intelligence, he asks us to imagine a man locked in a room, with only a slit connecting him to the outside world [1]. Through the door come pieces of paper with Chinese writing on them. The man does not know Chinese. Unbeknownst to him, the writing takes the form of questions. He is equipped with a set of instructions in English, for matching other Chinese symbols to the ones he is given. He passes these back through the slit, and they are taken to be answers to the questions. Searle’s point is that to perform the task, the man needn’t know any Chinese, and neither does a computer that does the same task as he. Some enthusiasts of artificial intelligence, insist that the system knows Chinese – somehow there is thinking without a thinker. But a less mystical position would leave it as a saying that it is the human programmer, who wrote up the instructions for matching Chinese answers to Chinses questions, who knows Chinese.

“The mechanic relying con computerized diagnostics finds himself in a position similar to that of the man in the Chinese room. The crucial stipulation in the thought experiment is that one could indeed have a set of rules that is fully adequate for matching answers to questions without any reference to the meaning of the words being trafficked in . Whether this is in fact possible is a deep question in linguistics and philosophy of midn, and there is no noncontroversial answer to it. Yet the thoughtless way in which work is often conceived seems to presume the stipulation is correct. We view human beings as inferior versions of computers.”

[1] John R. Searle, “Minds, Brains and Programs”, Behavioral and Brain Science, 3, n.3, September 1980.

I had noticed in my French post other interesting points:

“We are used to thinking of intellectual virtue and moral virtue as two very different things, but in my opinion this distinction is erroneous. The mutual involvement of ethics and knowledge is well understood by Robert Pirsig in what remains to my mind one of the most successful (and funniest) passages of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [More on wikipedia here]. (…) To be a good mechanic, it is necessary to know how to engage personally: I am a mechanic. On the other hand being a good mechanic means having a keen awareness of the fact that your task has nothing to do with the idiosyncrasies of your personality, that it has something universal. (…) The identification of this truth requires a certain disposition of the individual, a certain capacity of attention accompanied by a feeling of responsibility towards the motorcycle.” [Pages 113-115]

“Virtue is the effort to cross the veil of egocentric consciousness and to find the world as it really is. This effort is never completely successful because our own concerns constantly interfere with it. But getting out of oneself is the task of the artist, and also that of the mechanic.” [Page 117]

“So what advice should be given to young people? If you feel a natural inclination for university research, if you urgently need to read the hardest books and think you can spend four years doing it, then sign up for college. In fact, approach your university studies in a spirit of craftsmanship, immersing yourself in the world of humanities or natural sciences. But if it’s not the case, if the prospect of spending four more years sitting in a classroom gives you headaches, I have good news for you: nothing forces you to simulate the slightest interest in the student life for the simple purpose of making a decent living as an output. And if you still want to go to college, learn to do something during the holidays. You’ll have a better chance of feeling better about yourself, and possibly getting better paid, if you’re pursuing a freelance craftsman career than locked up in an open-space office (a “modular workstation” as they say elegantly ), to manipulate fragments of information or to play low quality “creatives”. Certainly, to follow this advice, perhaps it is necessary to possess a little rebellious personality, because this assumes to reject the path traced for a professional future conceived as obligatory and inevitable.” [Page 65]

“One of the principles of contemporary management is to abandon the management of details to the base and accumulate recognition of merit at the top. For leaders, the rule is to avoid making real decisions that may end up hurting their career but knowing how to cook a posteriori stories that allow them to interpret the least positive result in their favor.” [Page 61]

The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce

I am reading a new book on Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley entitled The Apple Revolution. I will come back on what I think when I am finished reading it. I discovered in the first pages of this book that famous author Tom Wolfe had written in 1983 another article about Silicon Valley centered around Bob Noyce, The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce.

You probably do not remember my previous posts mentioning Noyce, and if not you may want to read them:
What is the mentor role? in August 2010.
The Man Behind the Microchip in February 2008.
It is not very surprising that Noyce, the founder of Intel, is mentioned in a book about Apple computer. Noyce was a mentor to Jobs as you may see below or by reading my post above. Don Valentine add further that Noyce and Jobs may have been the two most important personalities of Silicon Valley: “There were only two true visionaries in the history of Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs and Bob Noyce. Their vision was to build great companies…”

Wolfe’s article is great and if you do not have time to read The Man behind the Microchip, you might want to read this shorter version. let me just extract a few things:

About the culture of Silicon Valley, work, openness and …
“The new breed of the Silicon Valley lived for work. They were disciplined to the point of back spasms. They worked long hours and kept working on weekends. They became absorbed in their companies the way men once had in the palmy days of the automobile industry. In the Silicon Valley a young engineer would go to work at eight in the morning, work right through lunch, leave the plant at six-thirty or seven, drive home, play with the baby for half an hour, have dinner with his wife, get in bed with her, give her a quick toss, then get up and leave her there in the dark and work at his desk for two or three hours on “a couple things I had to bring home with me.
Or else he would leave the plant and decide, well, maybe he would drop in at the Wagon Wheel for a drink before he went home. Every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories, pulse trains, bounceless contacts, burst modes, leapfrog tests, p-n junctions, sleeping-sickness modes, slow-death episodes, RAMs, NAKs, MOSes, PCMs, PROMs, PROM blowers, PROM burners, PROM blasters, and teramagnitudes, meaning multiples of a million millions. So then he wouldn’t get home until nine, and the baby was asleep, and dinner was cold, and the wife was frosted off, and he would stand there and cup his hands as if making an imaginary snowball and try to explain to her… while his mind trailed off to other matters, LSIs, VLSIs, alpha flux, de-rezzing, forward biases, parasitic signals, and that terasexy little cookie from Signetics he had met at the Wagon Wheel, who understood such things.
It was not a great way of life for marriages.”

About youth and innovation:
“The rest of the hotshots were younger. It was a business dominated by people in their twenties and thirties. In the Silicon Valley there was a phenomenon known as burnout. After five or ten years of obsessive racing for the semiconductor high stakes, five or ten years of lab work, work lunches, workaholic drinks at the Wagon Wheel, and work-battering of the wife and children, an engineer would reach his middle thirties and wake up one day; and he was finished. The game was over. It was called burnout, suggesting mental and physical exhaustion brought about by overwork. But Noyce was convinced it was something else entirely. It was…age, or age and status. In the semiconductor business, research engineering was like pitching in baseball; it was 60 percent of the game. Semiconductor research was one of those highly mathematical sciences, such as microbiology, in which, for reasons one could only guess at, the great flashes, the critical moments of inspiration, came mainly to those who were young, often to men in their twenties. The thirty-five year-old burnouts weren’t suffering from exhaustion, as Noyce saw it. They were being overwhelmed, outperformed, by the younger talent coming up behind them. It wasn’t the central nervous system that was collapsing, it was the ego.”

About status, hierarchy and success:
“And if he was extremely bright, if he seemed to have the quality known as genius, he was infinitely more likely to go into engineering in Iowa, or Illinois or Wisconsin, then anywhere in the East. Back east engineering was an unfashionable field. The east looked to Europe in matters of intellectual fashion, and in Europe the ancient aristocratic bias against manual labor lived on. Engineering was looked upon as nothing more than manual labor raised to the level of a science. There was “pure” science and there was engineering, which was merely practical. Back east engineers ranked, socially, below lawyers; doctors; army colonels; Navy captains; English, history, biology, chemistry, and physics professors; and business executives. This piece of European snobbery that said a scientist was lowering himself by going into commerce. Dissenting Protestants looked upon themselves as secular saints, men and women of God who did God’s work not as penurious monks and nuns but as successful workers in the everyday world.”

Although he was an atheist, Wolfe sees in the values of “Dissenting Protestantism” roots of the Silicon Valley culture. “Just why was it that small-town boys from the Middle West dominated the engineering frontiers? Noyce concluded it was because in a small town you became a technician, a tinker, an engineer, and an and inventor, by necessity. “In a small town,” Noyce liked to say, “when something breaks down, you don’t wait around for a new part, because it’s not coming. You make it yourself.”

Interestingly enough the Apple Revolution also mentions all these points, but in the context of the hippie counter-culture… wait for next post!