From Think Tank to Bike Shop: A Review of Shop Class as Soulcraft

Many unread books are sitting on my shelf above my bed. A few weeks ago, I picked up a new one I had bought midwinter, titled Shop Class as Soulcraft. With the beginning of summer and the ceasing of the school year, the book finally looked interesting enough to read.

The author, Matthew Crawford, is an electrician-turned-political-philosophy-Ph.D.-turned-motorcycle-mechanic. The book has the eloquence and formal reasoning of his formal education and the vision and practicality of his technical experience. The thesis of the book is the psychological and philosophical meaning of work and its implications in contemporary society.

There are two questions I have that always interest me, regardless of context: (1) What can I do better? and (2) What’s going to happen next? Shop Class as Soulcraft provided brain food for both questions. Each point is worth a short blog post in itself, but I can organize these points by the question it answers.

What can I do better? Shop Class as Soulcraft points out misconceptions in our contemporary understanding of work, employment, and the economy that are causing errors in our actions. These errors are not normally discussed, and so while I may be very confident in my decision to attend college [and even graduate school], I can still do good by blogging, posting, and discussing these misconceptions in order to inform others. Two of these points made the book stood out to me:

  • “College is the best for everyone all the time.” While there are few people who would argue for the absolute version of this statement, the boundaries of our implicit understanding of this statement are not well-defined. I will begin its blog post with the absolute and refine the statement respectively.
  • “More money is always better.” This statement is tougher to take down, so I offer a clarification: More money is indeed better, but that is because of particular goods that money has the potential to become, not because money is good in itself. This distinction has important consequences.

What’s going to happen next? Though Shop Class as Soulcraft is not a futurist’s book, does not talk about trends, and does not make predictions, its musings on the nature of work inspired my thoughts on the long-term future of artificial intelligence. A primer on artificial intelligence is worth another post, but the nature of work Crawford discusses can offer insight into the work humans and AI will do.

  • What will AI do to the world economy? It is a natural concern: when everything can be done by robots, how will people have jobs?
  • What will humans want, need, or be allowed to do? If work — not employment — is something inherently good or psychologically necessary, what does that work look like, and how does it fit into a world run by AI?

I will write about these misconceptions and questions in the coming weeks, with links to each post.