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March 8, 2011 AT 11:26 am

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

517Geri9Byl. Ss500

The New Atlantis » Shop Class as Soulcraft via Robert.

Anyone in the market for a good used machine tool should talk to Noel Dempsey, a dealer in Richmond, Virginia. Noel’s bustling warehouse is full of metal lathes, milling machines, and table saws, and it turns out that most of it is from schools. EBay is awash in such equipment, also from schools. It appears shop class is becoming a thing of the past, as educators prepare students to become “knowledge workers.”

At the same time, an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

This is part of an essay that was turned in to a book


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6 Comments

  1. I consider myself so lucky that I had the teachers I had- electronics, art, wood shop, metalsmithing and drafting made school so much more meaningful to me and I’ve been fortunate enough to have hands on jobs my entire adult life that have put those skills to use.

  2. Apple’s a leader in this. Smooth, clean exteriors of gadgets you can’t open or tinker with. Use them until the next one comes out.

  3. What @Honus said. Looking back, maybe it was insane to turn 15 year olds loose with table saws, blow torches and molten aluminum, but looking back it’s probably one of the best skill sets I picked up. Perhaps the most important lesson is not everything has to come from a factory in China.

    The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards

    An interesting exception to this is toys. When I was a kid, it was routine for plastic toys with interesting parts to be glued shut, requiring serious mayhem to get inside. Now, most toys are easily disassembled with a screwdriver. I’ve routinely repaired my kids toys.

    Now if we could just get to toy companies to document the MCU under the epoxy blob and provide an ISP port…

  4. As a machinist, I appreciate the post but think it doesn’t fully represent trends. People are becoming “knowledge workers” because it pays very well: most machining is done by computer-driven equipment, and increasingly even the design is done by computers. As a result, the product is increasingly complex, adding value but also making the cost/benefit of learning to repair it less attractive. It’s both harder to repair, and people are making more money, raising the value of their time. I don’t think it’s correct to say ‘what ordinary people once made they buy’: what ordinary people couldn’t afford, now they can. In the 1950’s many cars sold without heaters because of price sensitivity. Now cars come stock with air conditioners. Harder to repair, but anyone who can afford a car gets heat, AC, and even a radio. Very few of us look back nostalgically on the days when people cured their own leather or heat-fit wrought iron rims to wagon wheels, because they’re out of living memory. That’s why technology is wonderful: new stuff is so awesome we completely forget how bad things used to be.
    For the record, I cut gears by hand on a recession-era lathe and fix old oscilloscopes, because it’s fun. But the net gain to society as a whole, for not having to do stuff like that, is *enormous*.
    The resistor captcha scheme here is *brilliant*, by the way.

  5. Yeah, smells, it’s lots of fun to reverse engineer things and fix them, but few earn a living doing it! I’ve done complete engine rebuilds on car and bike engines because I wanted to “know what’s under the hood”. Now I own a Prius and I’m essentially unable to do much more than change the oil. As a repair person, I have learned that what fails is what moves. In most modern designs, the trend is towards mechanical simplicity and electronic complexity. Why? It’s cheaper and more reliable that way! The Prius has no gearbox, no clutch, no torque converter, nothing that slips, so the gas engine is geared directly to the wheels, cheap, reliable, and efficient. But its heart is as much a black box as Microsoft Windows. There is a very large and active Prius Hacker Community working diligently to break into and understand just what is actually running their car. Just as with windows, people are allied in the quest for understanding and control of these semi-autonomous devices. It’s the lack of control that makes the occasional Windows user smash their keyboard in frustration, and makes the occasional Prius user involuntarily become road kill. So here comes the Soft New World where micro processors make the decisions and non-programmers who dabble with Arduinos are the new Shade Tree Mechanics (read Hackers). An old geezer, I’ve already decided to pass along my lathe, and mills, and welders to a local Maker/Hacker Space when I pass on. That’s where the future is!

  6. Yeah, smells, it’s lots of fun to reverse engineer things and fix them, but few earn a living doing it! I’ve done complete engine rebuilds on car and bike engines because I wanted to "know what’s under the hood". Now I own a Prius and I’m essentially unable to do much more than change the oil. As a repair person, I have learned that what fails is what moves. In most modern designs, the trend is towards mechanical simplicity and electronic complexity. Why? It’s cheaper and more reliable that way! The Prius has no gearbox, no clutch, no torque converter, nothing that slips, so the gas engine is geared directly to the wheels, cheap, reliable, and efficient. But its heart is as much a black box as Microsoft Windows. There is a very large and active Prius Hacker Community working diligently to break into and understand just what is actually running their car. Just as with windows, people are allied in the quest for understanding and control of these semi-autonomous devices. It’s the lack of control that makes the occasional Windows user smash their keyboard in frustration, and makes the occasional Prius user involuntarily become road kill. So here comes the Soft New World where micro processors make the decisions and non-programmers who dabble with Arduinos are the new Shade Tree Mechanics (read Hackers). An old geezer, I’ve already decided to pass along my lathe, and mills, and welders to a local Maker/Hacker Space when I pass on. That’s where the future is!

    The youngsters need a cheat sheet? I had to remember that Bad Boys Rape Our Young Girls, but Violet Gives Willingly. Not politically correct, but the easiest way to remember the color code!

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