Shop Class as Soulcraft is a good polemic. A railing against the way that society is going and an eloquent exposition of what it means to be human. Though I found some of Crawford’s arguments to be off the mark his critique has a grain of truth running throughout and made for an enjoyable read. Crawford’s world view seems to reflect my own to a certain extent though I disagree with some of his conclusions.
In short, to bastardise a sophisticated and subtle book, Crawford is railing against the perceived deterioration in the material intelligence of the world as it shifts behind the veil of competence. Crawford points out that the relationship between people and their devices is becoming more unidirectional, more consumption oriented. People are no longer expected, or required, to understand their devices and instead can live in a state of ignorance as a mere “user”.
Any problems with the device themself is to be fixed by an expert and the user is entirely passive in their experience. They cannot modify the device, nor can they interact with it in any meaningful way outside of the way the creator intended. Instead, information and understanding is hidden behind inscrutable “error codes” and the most common response to any problem is to replace rather than repair.
Devices are now built to hide their internal workings as opposed to showcase them to the user. Creation and personalisation has become the process of choosing compatible parts and assembling them together in a creative act as opposed to developing something true and unique. Creation can be thought of as a permutation in this development as opposed to an original creation. You can have any colour you want as long as it’s black.
I see parallels in Crawford’s argument in the right to repair movement as well as the open source software movement. These movements are fighting for the right to repair and understand the devices and software that underpin our lives. They are the antithesis of the approach Apple is taking with their devices which become harder and harder to repair each year. Crawford’s arguments hold true when viewed through the lens of the commercial software monoliths that dominate our lives. I have no idea how Google, Facebook, Twitter or any other modern website works under the hood. If there’s any issue with them I have no idea, nor ability to fix them.
But, I think Crawford’s arguments don’t necessarily hold true. For instance, I have a wonderful mirrorless digital camera made by Sony. I have no idea how it works but I can understand it’s complexity and the engineering that went into it. Does this make the device any less useful to me? Is my life worse or poorer because I can’t understand the digital camera?
As human’s we thrive off introducing abstractions and building on top of them. If anything, the ability to manipulate different abstractions is what enables us to continue to grow. We get better by abstracting and trading these abstractions with one another in an interdependent fashion. Without the abstraction the burden of knowledge imposed on each and every person to understand their devices is too high. Consider Thomas Thwaites efforts to make a toaster from scratch. It was almost impossible to make such a simple consumer device. Is this a bad thing or something to celebrate?
In Crawford’s argument is thus a form of elitism regarding the role that mechanical ability plays in society and glorifying those who possess the ability to understand the internals of specific devices. My life isn’t worse just because I can’t understand each and every device. If anything, my life is richer as I can use the product of others labours efficiently and reliability.
But, reading deeper into Crawford’s argument is that he’s not specifying that an individual must be able to understand the internals of something that they use but instead that they should have the option too. Internals shouldn’t be hidden away and non-repairable. Instead, an item should work but it should also be repairable by someone with the appropriate level of expertise independent of the manufacturer. The argument is that the level of complexity in society is wrong as we’ve lost the middle ground of skilled labour.
A suitable middle ground would be for all products to come with a user manual outlining common failure modes and how they may be repaired. Simple steps like introducing common fastenings to enclosures so that internals can be exposed quickly and efficiently would go a long way to increasing repairability. The only reason to invent your own bespoke screw type is to make it harder for the lay person without the accompanying specialised tool to repair the device.
For the software that runs our devices we should insist on being able to understand and modify it. Here, the open source movement should be celebrated as one of the great achievements of humanity. The fact that millions of people come together and are able to collaboratively work together to build and understand something that they use is truly something to be celebrated.
An argument which threads throughout the book is a harsh critique of the knowledge economy which in many situations appears to be anti-knowledge. Crawford draws upon his own experiences to argue that what education is today is not so much knowledge development but instead credential development. I broadly agree with his assessment here.
Ultimately, I agree with Crawford’s assessment. It’s important that we retain agency in our dealings with the material world and the trend of hiding complexity behind inscrutable expert systems is not a good one. Instead, we should celebrate and encourage understanding of the material world less we become beholden to our own abstractions. A society living off the ghosts of it’s past without any ability to move forward. This is the future we should avoid at all costs.
A good read, important and evergreen with re-readability. A 4/5.