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Matthew B. Crawford comes with a unique set of bona fides to dissect the nature of work.

From age nine to 15, he lived in a commune, where his ability to squeeze into small places led to electrical fix-it work. He later toiled away writing abstracts of academic articles, got a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago and ditched a high-paying job at a Washington think tank to open Shockoe Moto, a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond.

This story first appeared in the July 17, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

His best-selling book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work” (The Penguin Press) details his travels through the dangerous world of white-collar routine and argues for work that has a greater connection with the physical world.

Crawford is thinking — and thinking hard — about what most of us devote too many daylight hours to. WWD asked the philosopher and gearhead for his take on work as it relates to the knowledge economy, the financial crisis and the fashion world.

WWD: If you work at a computer should you consider your way of life at risk?
Matthew B. Crawford: Thirty years ago, we learned that anything that can be put on a container ship will be manufactured wherever labor is cheapest. For the last 10 years, we’ve been learning that a similar logic applies to the products of intellectual labor that can be delivered over a wire. Accountants, programs, architects and radiologists now compete with people overseas. But the Indians can’t fix your car, because they are in India. Any job that has to be done in person or on-site is relatively safe from the logic of outsourcing.

WWD: So what is it that plumbers and electricians get from their jobs that their white collar customers don’t?
M.B.C.: More important than the question of whether you’re working with your hands or working in an office, I think, is the question of whether the job involves using your own judgment. If that’s what you care about, then the manual trades are worth taking a fresh look at. What a plumber or electrician does can never be reduced to just following a set of procedures, the way some white collar jobs are. The physical circumstances in which a tradesperson does his or her job vary too much for that. The work requires improvisation and judgment; you have to be adaptable. So you tend to feel fully engaged in what you are doing. I think that’s what we want in work.

WWD: The kind of self-reliance you’re advocating — being master of your own stuff, being able to change the oil in your car — is it realistic for everyone or are too many of us boxed in by technology?
M.B.C.: It has definitely become harder to get a handle on your own stuff. It’s too complicated, and maybe you can’t even figure out how to get the cover off of an appliance, for example. So we throw up our hands and start to view technology as this magical thing that is always handled by someone else. It’s a kind of infantilization — we come to expect less of ourselves. But a lot of the mystery surrounding our devices is smoke and mirrors — gratuitous “features” that don’t do squat. Once you get inside an appliance, you find that the basic knowledge that your grandfather had will often take you pretty far in diagnosing and fixing the problem. If you succeed, you feel like you’ve broken all the rules, and that’s the best feeling there is.

WWD: Do you blame the financial crisis on an economic culture where decision-makers are removed from the consequences of their actions?
M.B.C.: I do think it has a cultural and psychological dimension. When the daily objects of your attention are highly abstract financial instruments that are several steps removed from any concrete economic activity, it’s easy to mistake theory for reality. It’s just a hazard of the job. When you’re dealing with physical stuff, on the other hand, it usually lets you know right away if you’ve gotten something wrong. You can get physically hurt, and this tends to focus the mind. It’s very hard to B.S. your way out of responsibility when things go badly, so there is a certain ethic of accountability that develops in the trades.

WWD: Fashion designers create with their hands, but their vision is carried out by machines and factory workers in a very regimented environment. Is there a better way?
M.B.C.: Being a fashion designer seems like an amazing job. It’s concrete and collaborative. You have some aesthetic vision that you bring to reality, and get to see it draped on the body of a beautiful model. In the best cases, the model moves down the runway with just the right attitude, an interpretation of your vision that perhaps gives it a slightly different meaning — a new revelation.

And then there is the garment factory worker. Not as much fun. As consumers, we’re not often mindful of the labor that produces the stuff we use. This is encouraged by the ideology of consumerism, which feeds a delusion of omnipotence and independence, making us oblivious of the ways we are dependent on others. It’s a kind of self-absorption.

What if everyone, boys and girls, had to learn to sew some basic stitches in order to graduate from high school? Not only for the sake of self-reliance, but also for the sake of self-awareness, and social awareness. It might have more of an effect than the classes that currently go by the name of “social studies.”


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