Not long ago, asking customers to roll up their sleeves and build something was almost always a cost-reduction strategy (think IKEA). Now some creative manufacturers are doing it for a different reason: to reach customers' hearts through their hands. Companies such as automaker Local Motors and furniture manufacturer Thos. Moser are inviting people to construct their own products in consumer-friendly workshops and factories. And customers are willing to pay thousands of dollars, or more, for the experience.
It seems an unlikely trend in an era of internet commerce and on-demand everything. In fact, the digital economy--more specifically a reaction against the digital economy--is one reason everyone from weekend woodworkers to white-collar warriors seeks out these programs. Feeling disconnected from the physical world, such people yearn for the singular satisfaction of manual labor. As several manufacturers put it, "You can't hammer a nail over the internet."
That aphorism is from Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, which is the unofficial bible of the build-your-own movement. The 2009 book, which argues for a widespread return to "manual competence," is by Matthew B. Crawford, a political philosopher and senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Crawford spoke with me recently about what this movement means for professional laborers, what impact it's having on businesses that rely on trained craftspeople, and why anyone would prefer the arduous, DIY approach to buying something ready-made.
Lots of companies let customers design or customize their products online. Why would anyone want to physically build what he or she buys?
When bringing a product to fruition, you are going to encounter obstacles you hadn't anticipated when you're just designing something on a computer screen or picking from a menu of design options. It's in meeting these challenges that you get the experience of real agency. It's easy to sort of have the fantasy of agency when you are dealing with representations as one does on a computer. But you find you don't have a full grasp of the thing until you actually try to make it.
People crave that confrontation with material reality, because so much of our lives is mediated through representation. One thing that's attractive about craftwork and the trades is the immediate connection between actions and the consequences. The fact that wealthy people pay a lot of money to do this speaks to a kind of immediate intelligibility to one's actions in the world. It satisfies some of that desire for contact with reality.
Does actually building something change the way people feel about products? And about themselves?
If you are actually making it yourself then you feel like, at the end, you've done something that isn't bullsh--. You put some of yourself into it, especially if you are coming up with a design and then realizing it in the world in a way that is incontestable. You just point to it, and there it is. I used to work as an electrician, and at the end of the job I would flip a switch and the light would come on. There's no need to explain what you have done. It has a kind of social reality to it because it is out there in the world for all to see. That satisfies a human need we have for validation from others.
How does working alongside a company's employees affect the way consumers view a company?
The natural feeling that arises in that sort of relationship is one of profound respect for the knowledge of the other person. When you talk to [customers who are] doctors and lawyers, who are obviously very knowledgeable in their fields, if you ask them to talk about the people who are teaching them to build a car or a fine piece of furniture, I imagine they are going to tell you they are blown away by their skill and knowledge. That cuts against the dichotomy we have of knowledge work versus manual work. The closer you become acquainted with manual work, the more impressed you are with how much thinking goes into doing it well.
Are there social implications to that?
The more abstracted we become from making and fixing things and the more it is done overseas or by people who are socially invisible at home--immigrants, guest workers who are in construction--the easier it is for people to not really see the human excellence involved in doing it well. And that has social implications in terms of respect between people of different social classes. The more acquainted you are with manual work, the easier it is to respect it and the people who do it. To the extent that we outsource everything, it contributes to this kind of ugly class divide that has intensified in the past few decades. If you've never tried to do this work yourself, you assume the people who do it are stupid. And that becomes the basis for not respecting them.
Is there an upside to this for the experienced craftspeople?
You hear a lot from craftspeople--guys in their 60s who are masters of their trade--that no one wants to learn it. Young people aren't interested. So I think that's a source of sadness. This is an interesting model. Because it is not like you are passing your knowledge on to someone who is going to enter the trade and carry on. You are passing it to someone who is interested in it more as artistic expression. I imagine it can be a complicated relationship where you are teaching a rich guy. I'm sure you have to be more deferential than you would to a 16-year-old apprentice.
One concern in all this is the survival of skills. Because it only takes one generation for skills to be lost if they are not transmitted. A lot of things cannot be explicitly laid out in textbooks. It's a matter of tacit learning that can't fully be conveyed but can only be passed on by example, master to apprentice.