Craftsmanship and High-Energy Society

I’m a tech guy. I like my sci-fi and my computers and my mass produced conveniences. But I also love stuff like this:

I wish I could be half as excited about my work as this guy is.

I encourage you to watch this as I’ll be referencing parts of it through this article.

Done? Good, lets keep going

There has definitely been a seeming resurgence of the visibility of “craftspeople” in the last decade or so. Some of it in positive light like as shown above, or sometimes in a mocking tone where the word artisanal is used as a negative implication for something that is being made in purposefully pointless and pointlessly purposeful way.

I think this is the purest showcase of that mindset. I’m not saying it’s wrong in this specific case, but it tends to get wrongly applied to things that actually have benefits from being handmade by experts

I hate to sound reductive, but there’s only really two “camps” of people who appreciate handcrafted items. Either you want something that is handcrafted for the intangible qualities of such a piece of work i.e. the skill of the craftsman displayed in the quality of the final product, or the emotional attachment you have to the person who made it and the effort they spent on building it for you. (In the second case the quality of the final product is kind of secondary in importance.) Or the idea of craftsmanship is romanticized due to its perceived value in past societies and showcasing a way to be free of the influences of modern production methods and systems in low energy lifestyles. And this romanticism is a problem because it’s just not true anymore.

Now I’m not saying that craftsmanship and similar high skill work didn’t exist back before society had electricity, because they were fundamental to how those societies actually survived. But they have never been low energy compared to others in their society. For example lets look back at the first video, what do you see in the background throughout the entire video? Tools. Tools of every variety. Drill presses, band saws, sanding belts, an induction furnace, a regular furnace, a welder, a molten salt bath, power hammers, probably a table saw somewhere in the back, and all manner of hand tools. And then the fact that this shop is probably heated/air-conditioned because as we saw near the end of the video when his wife walks into the shop, it is attached to his house.

He likely can’t ever have all of those things running at once since he can only be in one place at a time, but even with just a few, his personal energy usage is likely easily 10 times what the average personal usage is in his community, and even more compared to a person who lives in a suburb or city center (no way you could build a shop that size anywhere but out on an acreage or other rural-esque area).

And this need for energy is not a modern thing. Craftspeople before the Industrial Revolution would often have good chunks of a village’s amount of energy dedicated to supporting them with materials or labour. Coal deliveries and water hammers for blacksmiths, Lumbermills and loggers for carpenters, watermills or windmills and fuel deliveries for bakers. But these craftspeople weren’t able to use that energy effectively enough to provide for the material needs of a burgeoning society.

This led to the creation of mass production. Because no matter how good a weaver you had, they couldn’t make an entire ship sail in any reasonable amount of time. We had to become more efficient and effective with the limited amounts of energy available to us. And this has been amazing for society. It’s given us things like indoor plumbing, microchips, airplanes, cheap antibiotics. Things that could never have been possible or at least never have helped as many as they have without mass manufacturing.

But as we have said before on this blog, there is more to life than just being the most efficient possible. And to paraphrase my favourite roman numerals joke, I for one would be giddy with joy to see more people shift back to enjoying taking up a craft as our society automates more and more heavily. And this might be more possible than you would think. If we can reduce the cost of energy with nuclear by providing the potential abundance regardless of time or weather, we can reduce not just the cost to run all those machines that you saw in the first video. But also the cost to make not merely the machines, but also the tools that don’t require power. And this is how we can lower barriers to entry for people who Want to be craftspeople instead of office workers or what have you but haven’t been able to justify it due to the economics just not working out to them being able to support themselves.

And here’s a great thing about working at a craft. It’s all about how you use tools, which is something that is more beneficial than just allowing someone to do their job. Tools are how we interact and change our world to how we want it to be, and the more people that can do that, the better a chance we have of building the world we want to live in.

To compound both of those previous points, the easier access to energy we have the less it matters whether you are good at any craft you choose. Because as the barriers to entry and sustainability get lower and lower, there becomes less selection pressure for “only the best”. I can only hope I can one day see a society where being a craftsperson wasn’t conflated with the idea of “if you aren’t the best at this then you won’t be able to make money doing this”. I’m sure we all know Someone who has a little side gig selling stuff on Etsy or something similar. And how many of them stopped doing that within 6 months after burning out or running out of time to put towards it?

No, in fact, if there is anything we have learned from Covid-19 it’s that money can’t change the world, only actions and effort can. And the more people that can feel like they are able to start making that kind of effort not only for themselves but for others as well, well I think that Anthony Bourdain said it best in the video at the beginning.

“Bob Kramer is clearly out of his mind. This process is so difficult, and so long, it’s insane to work this hard to improve something as utilitarian as a knife you’d think. But at the end of the day what comes out is so unique, and so beautiful, that all I can say is that I want that kind of crazy. That’s the kind of Crazy that makes the world a better place.”

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