I loved this book and its ideas formed the basis of my thinking about digital craftsmanship, the perils of virtuosity, and an upcoming post about social expertise versus antisocial expertise.

Craftsmanship may suggest a way of life that waned with the advent of industrial society – but this is misleading. Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labor; it serves the computer programmer, the doctor, and the artist; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship.

What I enjoyed most about the book is the framework it gives to think about craftsmanship – both as an ideal to give meaning to life, but also as a way to look at the history of the material world, beginning with man’s first use of tools.

Étienne Boileau’s Livre des Metiers or “Book of Trades” from 1268 was an attempt at a comprehensive catalog of the crafts, each listed under six overarching categories: foods, jewelry, metals, textiles and clothiers, furs, and building. I wonder if we were to develop a similar taxonomy of craft today what it would look like. And what about in twenty years?

Another chapter tries to understand the motivations that inspire craftsmanship. Does creativity lie within us, or is it brought forth by society? Can policies or cultural norms be developed to encourage craftsmanship? (Sennet points out that neither capitalism nor communism encourage craftsmanship; the former seeks speed and profit, the latter a fealty to the state rather than the individual.)

As early as the fifteenth century, Europe had been suffused by what the historian Simon Schama has called “an embarrassment of riches,” a new cornucopia of material goods …

As material abundance seeped downward, it extended to the most ordinary matters, like possessing several pots to cook with, different plates to eat off, more than a single pair of shoes to wear, and different clothes for varying seasons. Things that we now take for granted as necessities were increasingly available to ordinary people.

The craftsman was once the mediator of the material and human worlds. Now it seems that there is no longer a divide between our humanity and the material goods with which we shape our identity. (Or, perhaps, with which we did shape our identity until the Facebook profile came to dominate identity construction.)

As machine culture matured, the craftsman in the nineteenth century appeared ever less a mediator and ever more an enemy of the machine. Now, against the rigorous perfection of the machine, the craftsman became an emblem of human individuality, this emblem composed concretely by the positive value placed on variations, flaws, and irregularities in handwork.

For the first time, the sheer quantity of uniform objects aroused concerns that number would dull the senses, the uniform perfection of machined goods issuing no sympathetic invitation, no personal reponse.

Lyonnais weavers assaulted Vaucanson in the streets whenever in the 1740s and 1750s he dared appear. He provoked them further by designing a machine to weave an intricate design of flowers and birds, this complicated loom powered by a donkey. Thus began the classic story of displacement of craftsmen by the machine.

After the industrial revolution craftsmen were no longer necessary. Rather they were quaint reminders of a time when life was simpler and slower. We go to arts and crafts fairs not because we need something, but rather because they remind us of a way of interacting with the material world around us that affirms our role in the process. At these fairs we’re not just receivers of mass produced goods, but once again there are human mediators between the sheep’s wool and our favorite sweater, between ourselves and the material world.

We usually think of Karl Marx and his theory of alienation; that workers in industrial production become estranged from their sense of purpose and significance because they are only involved in one small aspect of building a larger product. But Sennet points out that 70 years before Marx published his theory of alienation – indeed, before the industrial revolution really took off – Adam Smith had described the same sort of alienation:

Only a generation after the Encyclopedia appeared, Adam Smith had concluded that machines would indeed end the project of enlightenment, declaring in The Wealth of Nations that in a factory “the man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations … generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

But the culture of craftsmanship didn’t die with the advent of machines. Ever since, there have been waves of romanticism of which John Ruskin was perhaps the most eloquent forefather. Ruskin was no Luddite. He didn’t ask us to destroy the machines and return to the land. He realized that the advancement of technology was inevitable, and therefore he sought to sustain the culture of craft in the age of machinery. Richard Sennet shares his view, as does Thomas Pynchon, Matthew Crawford, and Francis Fukuyama. Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture is waiting for me on my iPhone. I am sure that Ruskin would rather I read a dog-eared version picked up in a used bookstore. In fact, so would I. But I think he would also understand the need to balance convenience with our nostalgic yearnings for a past aesthetic.

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