I’d rather have the skill and not need it, than need the skill and not have it

Here’s the thread:

http://www.livejournal.com/community/spinningfiber/510647.html

And my thoughts after reading the article…

I think I’m probably somewhat different from a lot of developed-world craftspeople, in that I did not start into this stuff as an adulthood — instead, I was born to it and raised in it, in ways that are very, very old-fashioned. So with textiles, I never experienced this thrill of discovering, “Wow, I could be good at this!” and I never went through really consciously thinking about the frustrations of not being able to do the really fancy stuff yet. Obviously, I went through frustrations — but it was all at the same time as so many other childhood frustrations, as we learn to deal with things like tying our shoes or using utensils to eat with and that kind of thing. For a child, a certain amount of frustration and lack of skill is normal. Adults have grown accustomed to competence and so perceive things differently when they’re trying to do new things.

I also haven’t lived my whole life in the industrialized world. I think this is a major, major factor in the whole thing, and something that Metcalf doesn’t address at all. The industrial world is NEW. It’s really, really different from what was before it. So now we have say 8 generations worth of adaptation to the industrialized life, in the most modern parts of the world, compared to countless generations before that. What’s the big difference between the two worlds as I see it? In the non-industrialized world, what you do every single day has a clear, tangible, direct impact on your survival and wellbeing. Every day’s actions can readily be put into a larger framework that gives them the context they need to have meaning. It is meaningful that I got up and dragged my butt out to dig potatoes, because once I have dug those potatoes, I have FOOD. I will eat *those very potatoes that I dug just now.* They wouldn’t have been there to dig if they hadn’t been planted and tended to, either. If want them next year, I have to do it all over again.

On the other hand, this morning I got up, got in a car with my family, dropped off our child at school, and headed on in to work to sit at a desk for a while reading email, then go to a meeting to talk about the same thing that’s been talked about in 8 prior meetings already. Since then I’ve identified a couple of things that weren’t behaving like they were supposed to (and fixed those), written a status report, and gone to lunch at a restaurant. In exchange for this and the remainder of the day, twice a month, the number in my bank account will change such that it gets bigger, before then getting smaller again in turn as I exchange those numbered intangibles for concrete goods that I get from stores.

In one of these worlds, there is a direct and tangible connection between the time and effort and energy one spends doing things, and whether (or how well) you live. In the other, it is all very abstract.

I personally hunger for the direct connection: for a sense that it *matters* if I get out of bed today, or not. To be entirely honest, in the very abstract sense of working a white-collar job in the industrializeed world, it doesn’t mean squat if I show up or not. Everything it means is several levels removed from the nitty gritty stuff at the core of human survival or quality of life. It’s all artificial or abstract. It isn’t real. At the end of each work day, there is nothing tangible, nothing real, to show for all the hours and effort that I have spent. There are web sites and people whose email was answered, I suppose, but what do those *do*? How are they relevant to the fundamental human and societal necessities? In five years, who will give a wet slap?

The answer to that last question is, basically, nobody. It doesn’t honestly matter at all. Nobody cares NOW what I did workwise five years ago. I can’t think of a SINGLE TIME in my professional career (which pays me money that I use to buy things like my house or my car or my food or school for my kid) when someone has said “I’m really impressed by this, how did you do it? That’s beautiful. That’s interesting. That’s useful,” in a way that was really, truly fundamental. The things I do for work are useful *only for work* — only in the context in which they are created. They’re totally abstract goods and services.

But on the other hand, the things that I make, those are tangible objects. They are real. They serve a purpose with a direct connection to the foundations of human life and human society. They stand as a testament to the notion that I, my wit, my skill, and my toil exist, and have existed, and triumph in fundamental, essential ways. These things speak directly to the fundamentals, from which we are abstracted and removed in modern industrialized life. Food, shelter, clothing, those are real and essential. Web sites, better-looking PDFs, emails answered or unanswered, are tangential, ephemeral, transient. I can feel strongly positive about making someone a baby blanket that keeps getting used. Did I not have an absolutely astonishing black thumb, I could feel the same about planting a garden, growing food, harvesting it, and eating it. I can feel strongly positive about these thigns because at a visceral level, I recognize them as essential. But the only way I can achieve any semblance of such feelings about my abstract white-collar industrialized world job is by thinking “there are people to whom this really matters.” Only by attempting to convince myself that some part of what I do is essential in someone’s eyes, am I able to even bring myself to work, which otherwise would seem completely fraudulent and fake. This would probably be much easier if I were, say, an auto mechanic, and not a software developer.

Hard work and discipline are learned things. I believe that in the pre-industrial world, you had to have those qualities by the time you grew up, or you just plain didn’t make it. Nowadays… well nowadays, I don’t think you do, because you could have money, and you could get that in ways that don’t involve hard work and discipline at all, and lots of people do. I don’t think that culturally or individually, humans have come to a point of balance about all of that being the case. This leaves those who Metcalf refers to as “makers” in his article at loose ends. Whereas it was once essential that makers be making all the time, because that’s how stuff got made, now it is possible for stuff to get made *without* makers working all the time or often even being involved. But this too, I think, has long been a pretty basic human goal, because it’s hard to be a maker of absolutely everything so people specialize, and then you’re forced to interact with lots of other people to subsist, which means you’re dependent on them and thus beholden to group rules, and then what happens if you lose one or more makers anyway? It’s intrinsically appealing to think, “Hey, I don’t want to depend on people! Far simpler to depend on machines! And those just have to be made, instead of spending lifetimes learning to do things!”

Another factor in play here is people looking for sustainability. Let’s say you’re an English longbowman. I understand those guys were intensely deadly, a force to be reckoned with like you just can’t believe. But it took them a lifetime of training to be that good. Meanwhile, you could put a rudimentary gun in the hands of the rankest of recruits with no training, and he’d be almost as deadly. And if he’s killed, you’ve lost a month or two of getting him up to speed to use a gun, instead of a lifetime of training to the longbow. I use this example to point out it’s not limited to crafts, to makers — many human societies tend towards the cheaper and more replaceable no matter what it is. Even when it’s a lesser product.

Well, anyway. Something Metcalf doesn’t address in his article is one of the fundamental reasons why I do a lot of what I do, and that basically can be boiled down to the question of lore, or knowledge, and the preservation and dissemination thereof. Because let’s say that you operate a machine that makes, oh, socks. You know that it makes socks. One kind of socks. You know how to make it do that. You know what to put into it to get socks out. But that’s not the same as thinking about what makes a sock a really good sock, or knowing how to make a machine that can make socks (which if done well, is going to involve at least some knowledge about what makes a good sock). But you need socks, and you know how to make them fast using this machine, so it’s all good. And then one day, for whatever reason, your sock machine breaks. If you know a) what makes a good sock b) alternative ways to make socks c) different kinds of socks exist d) how to fix the sock machine, you are merely inconvenienced. Same, arguably, if you don’t know those things personally but know who does and can get him or her there to solve the problem. But, well, in any case, someone has to know all or most of those things. The mere fact that a sock machine exists doesn’t mean we no longer need the knowledge of how to make socks without that machine. Even if that machine never breaks, possibly knowing those things means you can make a better machine to make socks eventually!

My 7-year-old son largely believes that writing longhand is an obsolete and unnecessary skill which he does not believe worth putting forth effort to learn. I can relate to this, given I felt the same way about many things in school myself. What I’ve been trying to explain is that although he’s right in some respects — he really COULD just type — if he can’t write longhand, he’s dependent on a computer or typewriter to communicate things in written form, and those are much finickier and more demanding devices than pen and paper. In other words, I tell him, being able to do things with less technology — do things by hand — is LIBERATING. To repurpose some controversial rhetoric, I’d rather have the skill and not need it, than need the skill and not have it. 😉

In the final analysis, everything that composes the modern industrial world is, as we pretty much all accept, built up using the work of many aeons of those who have gone before us. We go to school and we learn, in 12-20 years or so, thousands and thousands of things, and in many cases, people before us spent their entire lifetimes, or many lifetimes, arriving at those data (and that’s not even factoring in the stuff we learn outside of school). We can leverage all that by knowing what’s gone before, by not forgetting, by not losing track of the things that are fundamental and essential, and we do that all the time, not just when it comes to craft.

One thought on “I’d rather have the skill and not need it, than need the skill and not have it

  1. I think as human beings we all have an instinctive need to work with our hands. I certainly do. Being so immersed in high tech environments most of the time intensifies this. Tactile, concrete, low tech pursuits like knitting or spinning allow us to slow down, work with natural materials, and get tangible results. It’s good for the soul.
    Besides, should our mode of civilization (which often seems precarious at best) come to an end, it’s handy to have alternative modes.

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