Esko Kilpi photo

Work of Art

Ancient societies took it for granted that skills would be handed down from generation to generation. Developing one’s talent as an artist or a craftsman depended on understanding and following the principles of earlier masters. Art and craftsmanship may suggest a way of life that waned with the birth of industrial society, but this is misleading. The future of work may resemble the history of work, and this is because of our newest, most advanced technologies.

The corporate system is transforming into a maze of fragmented tasks and short-term gigs. Although the modern era is often described as a skills economy, most companies have a short-term focus, which means for a worker that when her experience accumulates, it often loses institutional value.

Since the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, the machines of work have been seen as threatening the human worker. This threat has so far appeared as mainly physical. Machines are never tired, but people often are. Machines are always fast, but people rarely are, and the machines never complain about the long hours and the low wages.

Computers are the new machines, but they are machines of a very different kind. Computers follow a logic that is very different from the machines of the industrial factory. Computers make things the same way an artist or a craftsman would do things.

The still prevalent system of the industrial world is based on mass-production and economies of scale. The more identical things are, the cheaper each copy can be. Computer-based digital manufacturing does not work this way. It does not use moulds or casts. Without these, there is no need to repeat the same form. Every piece can be unique, a work of art. As Mario Carpo puts it: “Repetition no longer saves money and variations no longer cost more money.” This means that the marginal cost of production is always the same. Big was better in the industrial world, but not any more. A small workshop can compete with the largest factory. Production is not affected by size. What is emerging leads to a flat marginal cost society, an economy without scale, a human-sized economy.

The biggest challenge for a worker in this new environment is to think like an artist, at the same time making good use of new technology. The artist becomes the symbol of humanness building on the increasing financial value of personalization and variation. It is not a zero sum game between faulty men and flawless machines. The machines propose and create potentials rather than take over.

The societal changes are huge. The modern machine changes the way we understand skills and learning. A skill has always been, and will always be, trained practice. Modern machine learning (AI) algorithms can learn from experience very, very fast because the code develops through data feedback. The danger here is that people may let the machines do the learning without participating in it. People may choose to serve as passive bystanders and consumers of artificial intelligence and its expanding capability. This is why learning needs to change: it is not first going through education and then finding corresponding work, but working first and then finding supporting, corresponding learning. Modern technology is abused if it deprives its users of hands-on training.

What if, then, the future of human work is not in networks, or self-organizing swarms? What if we are not supposed to follow the example of a flock of birds? And what if even the place of work matters more than we think?

The workshop, the studio, was the artist’s home. People slept, ate and raised their children in the same places where they worked. The workshop looked nothing like the modern office. Labour and life were the same thing and mixed in a very face-to-face manner. It was a place that united family, friends and work.

And it was not very democratic. In a workshop the skills of the master earned him the right to lead, and the benefit of learning from those same skills created the follower’s obedience. In craftsmanship and art there is a superior who sets the rules and, at the same time, helps others to understand the thinking behind those rules. Work is always learning and here the most important learning relationship is between the master and the apprentice. It is a hierarchic relationship that is not questioned. The master sets out the terms of work that others do under his direction. The apprentice is expected to absorb and copy the master’s lesson. Learning by demonstrating assumes that imitation can and will occur. The apprentice is there to learn and copy until she finds her own voice, her own style.

It is a world of “Homo Faber,” man as his own maker. Man as a maker of life evolves through daily, often mundane practices. Work creates a developing story in which each project is like a chapter in life that in the end adds up. Following this thinking, people can see that their lives add up to more than just a random series of disconnected jobs — even in today’s gig economy. This sustaining narrative is sometimes called a passion or a vocation, meaning a gradual accumulation of skills and an ever-stronger conviction that this is what I was meant to do!

Our society sorts people along the lines of the idea that the better you are at something, the fewer of you there are. But the capacity to do one’s work well is shared fairly equally among human beings. We are never going to do exactly the same things, so there should not be the same homogeneous educational or other measures for everybody. Work is becoming more situational and context-specific. Motivation and a sense of meaningfulness are going to be much more important than talent.

Contemporary research highlights the roles of emotion and empathy in organizations. The subjective influences of learning and culture are also well understood. These phenomena are more related to the ethical and aesthetic than the purely rational and quantifiable. This is another reason why art and craftsmanship can provide us with a valuable lens through which the technology-enabled, post-industrial work can be better understood.

Pride in one’s work lies at the heart of art and craftsmanship as the biggest reward. The enlightenment believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work. We now have the tools to support a renaissance of human-centric work — for all.

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Credits Mario Carpo, Piero Formica, Richard Sennett

Republics of Makers