Thinking About Work
Industry vs Craft. Assembly vs Construction. Utility vs Excellence.
Two of the competing desires we have in the products we obtain and for that matter produce. We want things, in general, to be inexpensive and affordable. But we also want them finely crafted. Engineers have a saying, “good, fast, cheap … pick two.” Consumer products likely have a similar pithy phrase, but it doesn’t come to mind right now. The point is intelligent consumers are driven between two competing desires. You want your purchases to be cheap. And you likely would prefer finely crafted items made by artisans, i.e., the highest quality. Yet the first implies automation, assembly lines, and mass production. That is how costs come down. The second requires skill, care, and a lot of human time and talent. In the days prior to mechanization and the industrial revolution, only the rich and powerful (and sometimes the artisans themselves) had access to these quality products. The reason for that was fairly simple, not everyone could have these things … and therefore only the few did. And like always, the rich/powerful get the good toys. There was no, and could be no way for a “better” power structure to make available fine goods made by craftsman to surround your life and leisure for everyone. With automation, the tide rises. While we can’t all get the hand crafted “things”, there is a continuum between mass produced and artisan quality products and basically all have access to an equivalent product in almost every regime today as the rich/powerful have available (pretty much everyone but the bottom billion … which are held in poverty not by goods not being “enough” to go around, but by other factors). Now today one natural place this line of thinking takes on is to consider these ideas in relation to healthcare. But there are other ways in which this could be examined.
Some far future speculative works, such as Star Trek, imagine a future in which the quality of mass/machine produced products are indistinguishable from an artisan’s work. These works of fiction often figure that work per se will fade in importance some what. Political, military, exploration, art and other venues open themselves up for human occupation. Work however isn’t useful primarily for its ends but the process, although most fruitful work has a end (a product) which is useful. Work provides:
- An end product, that is the direct result from the work you do. People extract satisfaction from that in a measure related to their estimation of the value of the product of their work (and the difficulty by which it was accomplished).
- A means by which our the web of dependency can be sustained. Alasdair MacIntyre entitled a book describing the human condition (and why we need the virtues) Dependent Rational Animals.
- In the process of work, we live and interact in a complex social network. The work process with extremely few exceptions is a social one. Every job brings us in to contact in meaningful ways with co-workers, bosses, people under us, vendors, customers and so on.
- In any particular job, even those called “unskilled”, expertise is built up. We become skilled at that particular task through refinement and repetition.
- With expertise, often comes pure enjoyment and satisfaction of doing a thing well, or even doing a thing which few can do.
Only the first of these is the “end” of labor. Depending on the individual each of these elements is felt more or less important. But all of these are present for each person in their labor.
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