The Craftsman and modern society

December 20th, 2008

This summer I read an enlightening book called The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett.

And one I highly recommend. The Craftsman, is an exploration into the idea of craftsmanship, from the basics of technique and personal expression to how craftsmanship might be at the very heart of social good in modern society!

In the New York Times, reviewer Lewis Hyde writes

“Using craftsmen as symbols of the Enlightenment turns out to be part of an argument that Sennett is conducting with one of his teachers, Hannah Arendt. In her own portrait of the human condition, Arendt distinguished between the world of animal needs and a “higher” world of art, politics and philosophy. This division is, for Sennett, a serious philosophical mistake with serious ethical and political consequences. It isn’t only that it demeans those who labor with their hands, but that it fails to recognize one of the foundations of good citizenship and cannot then imagine the kind of democracy in which governance is widely diffused, not given over to expert elites.

For it is Sennett’s contention that “nearly anyone can become a good craftsman” and that “learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and so become good citizens.” This line of thought depends, among other things, upon the Enlightenment assumption that craft abilities are innate and widely distributed, and that, when rightly stimulated and trained, they allow craftsmen to become knowledgeable public persons.”

That, in my view is a very powerful and motivating thought, and you could say this is how Barack Obama conducted his presidential campaign and how he is conducting the early phase of his Presidency. Think about what Sennett is saying “nearly anyone can become a good craftsman”, people embrace what they create, and if people are part of shaping civil society, they will contribute more commit more, engage more. There is more context and there is more meaning to do so.

The section that caught my eye today, was Sennett writing about organisations and how and why people will work well.

“The first trouble appears in the attempts of institutions to motivate people to work well. Some efforts to motivate good work for the sake of the group have proved hollow, like the degradation of Marxism in Soviet civil society. Other collective motivations, like those in postwar Japanese factories, have succeeded. Western capitalism has sometimes claimed that individual competition rather than collaboration most effectively motivates people to work well, but in the high-tech realm, it is firms that enable cooperation who have achieved high-quality results.”

In supposing that competition between individuals brings out the best in us, and that bringing individual rewards is deeply motivating, we miss the point that collective action brings communal cohesion and a sense of belonging argues Sennett.

And in another extract Sennett refers to Linux. How can quality of knowledge coexist with free and equal exchange in a community? He asks. In Linux, the process of skill evolution is speeded up, change occurs daily, the famous saying is, ‘that with many eyes all bugs are shallow’. The code says Sennett is constantly evolving, not a finished and fixed as an object.

We would do better to contrast Linux programmers to a different modern tribe, (different to – sic) those bureaucrats unwilling to make a move until all the goals, procedures, and desired results for a policy have been mapped in advance. This is a closed knowledge-system.

Sennett points out that in the history of handcrafts, closed knowledge-systems have tended towards short lifespans.

Now there’s a thought

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