Monday, May 07, 2012

Working with your hands is great (if you can do it)

I read a great book recently about the world of work and why office life is not the luxurious evolution of years of toil we believe it to be, but is in fact a drab, unstructured place full of vague management speak, unsure ground and a complete lack of answers.

Many would not need a book to tell them this, but in Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good he makes the case with allusion to philosophy while comparing it to his own experiences as an electrician, motorbike mechanic and other similar trades, and makes a compelling case that much of work in an office is bad for the soul when compared with the single-minded work of a fixer, builder, craftsman, who is set a task with a single, clear goal: to make it work, and can only be right or wrong.

So, when I bought myself a small, linen clothes bin, that required some self-assembly, I was ready to enjoy the task at hand, to screw a few screws, assemble some wood, pat myself on the back for a job well done. After all, it was only four pieces of wood and some screws: easy but satisfying.

Some 25 minutes later, frustrated, enraged and cursing the self-assembly Gods of Argos, I heard myself say out loud, “Couldn’t this thing just come pre-built!”. I recalled the book and its mantra of building, creating, self-fulfilment through doing, not thinking (as so much of modern work has become: “How do we measure the customer satisfaction of our latest loan insurance policy”? – I have no idea).

So I persevered and, of course, my brain taxed itself enough to actually get the stupid thing built and now I have a place for my dirty clothes – what a fun bank holiday. 

My Dad can build and fix most things, from cars to showers to cookers, while I am utterly bereft of such abilities, (despite many attempts at teaching). Where does this difference come from? Innately or self-taught, or both? Probably both, but then living in the late 20th century, with its flat-packed, self-assembly fittings and pop-up tent camping gear, it’s not surprising I, and so many people my age, are clueless when confronted by anything requiring true craftsmanship or a working knowledge of woodwork, electricity, construction.

Furthermore, as Crawford notes in his book, nowadays designers and firms don’t want people tampering with their stuff. A friends’ Dyson vacuum broke the other day, but there was no way to take it apart as the screw sockets in use were bespoke, not suitable for an of the array of screwdrivers in his Man Box. Even our fleeting attempts at wanting to fix something, or try to understand it, proved impossible, instead being forced to get A Man to fix it.

Anyway, whether you love our office cubicle or feel it’s a prison by another name, I recommend the book, even if some of the philosophy went over my head at times. Not a philosophy, not a builder, not both as Crawford. What a failure!

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