Individual Craftwork in the Autofactory Era
Published on 2021, Apr 11
I’ve thought a lot about the effects of industrial production on our material circumstances, especially since everyone in my family is an artisan of some kind. Here are some reflections on that.
I want to talk about the dynamics of individual handwork and mass-manufacture process and the way they affect our behaviors in modern society.
So first I’m going to talk about websites.
I’m a big believer in web programming. My very first creative endeavors with the computer were making very bad HTML pages in Microsoft Office® FrontPage™️ in elementary school. While I attempted to take Java™️ and C++ courses in high school, I didn’t really start programming until late 2013, when I learned Sass to write the stylesheet for a subreddit I liked.
Web programming is cool because the best way to convince a person that they’re doing useful work is to show them something, then have them do stuff and watch it change in response to their actions. Command-line programs just don’t have the same level of engagement, and desktop graphical programming has a lot more boilerplate and required components. But to make a website, you can just write some stuff down in a file, drag it into Firefox™️, and see it live.
So I’ve always liked making websites, and ever since I started programming in earnest I’ve always wanted to build my own as much as possible rather than just toss some documents onto a host somebody else controls and let them control the formatting.
My First Website
My Second Website
After I got out of university, I had a bunch of free time on my hands, what with being a household boyfriend and unemployed, so I built a new website out of the Ruby language Middleman framework. It was a nice experience to start, and I liked the fact that it let me use different layouts for different regions of my site, which I was not able to easily do in other competitors. I wanted to continue hosting my Elder Scrolls fanfic on a subsection that had a distinct visual format from the landing pages and blog, which could share a look. So I set it up, and gradually added features as my needs grew.
However, it was hampered somewhat by being a loosely-bound pile of Ruby and began showing environmental differences between my local machines and the actual web host. I didn’t put in the effort to learn how to correctly bundle and package Ruby applications for deployment, so I started writing locally, then pulling the contents to the host and rebuilding the site on it, and then I… stopped writing.
The complexity surrounding the procedure of turning Markdown into HTML was a friction that, as it accumulated, eventually stopped me from publishing on my own platform when I had a much easier platform perpetually at my fingertips. Twitter has a much more limited publishing feature-set — only plain text and images — but there is no barrier to creation and the enforced short-snippet rule makes it easy to have conversations about specific aspects of a writing by being able to refer to only the topical part.
So I started using Twitter to hold my long-form thoughts, as well as my more casual conversations. And now a lot of my longer-form writing is buried in the mire. I plan to recover it from my archive eventually but in the meantime, it’s essentially forgotten.
My Third Website
I eventually got frustrated enough with the concept of having my website frozen in time with a steadily growing pile of drafts, and Twitter’s ease of riffing from snippets only works if you can find the snippets, and its historical search is not good, so I sat down and decided to aggressively rebuild my site, this time focusing on a strict separation of content and presentation.
Over the past three-ish weeks (initial commit was 2021-03-16), I built the application currently serving this out of the Phoenix framework in Elixir. Not having to reïnvent the wheel for HTTP service and HTML rendering is wonderful; my primary application logic is a custom Markdown processor to render the source documents and some HTTP filtering to be more aggressive about skipping the work when the site is unchanged (which is most of its time).
I was able to do this quickly because I have been doing presentation work for eight years and back-end for five. While the work was certainly snapping together parts that other people made with only a little bit of original work myself, the assembly itself is still semi-skilled labor that people with less practice or dedication would not be able to do as quickly or as well.
And the end result is at best comparable in visual output to plug-and-play CMS services. Honestly, this probably could’ve just been a Tumblr skin. Perhaps even should’ve! This site is flatly read-only, and I do want to have some amount of interaction with my audience. But the important thing is that it’s up, I’m happy with the presentation, and the decoupling of the presentation daemon from the text content means that I can update the text by tossing Markdown files on the filesystem, decoupled from the program logic actually driving HTTP traffic.
The contrast of all this work is, as I discussed above, my Twitter usage. I have minor social interaction on it basically every day, write threads vaguely once a week, and essay-length threads vaguely once a month. A lot of that is because Twitter provides access to a great deal of source material, and when something kicks off inspiration, I can immediately start writing.
But I can write faster and in more detail on my laptop, with an actual keyboard, than on my phone, which is where I primarily do my reading, and I’m perfectly capable dual-wielding them when I have a point I want to make.
So for me, I derive more personal happiness and satisfaction from the work I’ve done personally in order to create the environment and presentation that I specifically want, but I objectively get a lot more writing done, not to mention scattered for reading, on a bland mass-market product I can’t use to do anything other than post plaintext messages. Worse is better.
I’m not a one-trick pony; I know how to do more than one craft. I build furniture as well as websites. Or at least built; that present tense is going to be intellectually dishonest until I make my own desk.
Chances are if you’re reading this you’re the kind of computers nerd who has built, or at least could build, your own web presence beyond merely picking a CMS and putting text on it.
Did you build any of your furniture? I didn’t. Nearly everything in my house is store-bought; if not by me, then by the person from whom I did buy it.
Furniture is really hard to build. It’s slow, requires expensive material and even more expensive capital. You can offset some of those costs by getting a membership at a local workshop or makerspace or community college. And if you make a mistake, the material is probably unusable for anything else. And IKEA has a box with what you want in it, folded for transport, and all you need to do is unfold it and put it in your house.
Everyone who has any of the furniture my family built loves it. It’s beautiful; Dad got a degree in cabinetry and put a lot of pride into his work. We made very good furniture and construction. It’s better-looking and better-lasting than its commercial peers.
But each piece took months to build. We worked on our basement for five years to take it from empty to finished. And we couldn’t sell any of our furniture, because it cost hundreds or thousands of dollars of lumber and we didn’t even bother clock-punching for Dad’s skilled labor.
My brother makes some ornamental furniture as a hobby. He estimates that the jewelry stand he gave his girlfriend would have a break-even price — materials and a $20/hr wage (well below rate) — of $300. It’s $65 at IKEA.
I can’t make clothing. But Mom has been knitting for over a decade, and has gotten very good at it. She made her own dress to match the theme colors of my brother’s high school. She routinely makes sweaters — I have five — and gives them to people just to keep herself entertained.
They take two weeks if she’s focused and putting in a workday. They cost $400 in yarn and, again at $20/hr, which is again well below rate, $160 in wage. The market equivalent is $90 at JCrew.
The Destruction of the Artisanal Economy
I’m making some pretty bold claims that are easily rebutted by the words “etsy dot com”. There clearly is a functioning market for individual craftwork. I even bought my plague masks from Etsy! But for most people on it, it’s a side gig, not a primary income, and it’s certainly not a significant fraction of the general commodities market.
It’s undeniable that the industrial economy has enormous material, social, and environmental costs. I am not going to defend the incorporated industrial system at any point. However, it is also undeniable that the manufacture — is that even the right word? While human hands are still important in the labor, that importance is monotonically decreasing. It is undeniable that the autofacture of mass-market commodities results in faster, cheaper, more materially efficient production of each individual item than the equivalent artisanal production, for roughly buyer-equivalent quality.
I have long believed that one of the overarching goals of human civilization is to decrease the amount of human labor expended on survival and allow an increase of human labor spent on recreation. Additionally, the standard of what constitutes “survival” steadily increases over time, just as goods and services in the market trend to migrate from luxury to commodity and then to necessity.
So I firmly, though critically, support the concept of mass-market autofacture. It represents yet another step in the technological advancement of human civilization and an increase in the quality of life for everyone who is able to make use of it. The fact that it is currently implemented on immiseration and destructive practices is a consequence of our political and economic structures, but is not an inherent requirement of the technology or the marketplace.
What Happens to Craftworkers
There’s a great snippet of the movie I, Robot (2004) delivered by Will Smith’s character that’s stuck with me ever since I saw it:
I got an idea for one of your commercials. We can see a carpenter, making a beautiful chair. And then one of your robots comes in, and makes a better chair, twice as fast. And then you superimpose on the screen: “USR: shittin’ on the little guy”.
This is a succinct and imprecise, but not inaccurate or generally wrong, summary of what industrial enhancement and tooling automation has done to the economics of supply. Artisanry cannot compete on scale, speed, efficiency, or cost against industry. Industry is a better supplier of market goods and services in every measure of that marketplace. I am, again, continuing to ignore the negative externalities as an aspect of implementation that we could (and must) change, but have not yet chosen to significantly do so.
But you’ll note that in absolutely none of my essay so far have I ever said the words “industry makes products that people like more than artisanry”. Because, well, it doesn’t. In basically any niche where you have an artisan and an autofactory competing, the autofactory might be cheaper, or it might be technically better (if we’re lucky, both), but there’s an ineffable je ne sais quoi about artisanal work that often just makes people happier than autofactured competitors do. It’s been true of every niche where I’ve used both forms of production. I suspect you agree. I’m not saying artisanal work is inherently or universally better — humans are quite capable of producing garbage on their own — but nevertheless it remains an aspect of the good that autofacture just doesn’t match. Maybe it can’t, or maybe it just chooses not to in service of other goals. I don’t know, and more importantly, I don’t care.
Because I’m not here to talk about improving industrial process.
The Joy of Good Work
I can only speak for myself and my family members here and while I am generalizing to the human condition, I freely acknowledge that I am doing so as an indicator that I don’t think we’re unique; the only statement that is universally applicable is that none others are.
But we (myself and my family specifically, and people in general, sure) don’t continue to work on our projects for the economic value of them. As I’ve laid out above, there isn’t a market for them that is economically viable! Sure there are buyers, but the cost disparity between existence, production, and consumption is severe enough that it severely restricts how much activity can actually take place here.
We do it because it’s fun.
Because we like it. Making things makes us happy, and using things other people have made makes us happy, and hopefully using the things we’ve made makes other people happy.
Who cares whether it’s “market-competitive” or “optimized” or “scalable” or whatever. We’re not doing this to be in a market. It’s just a thing we enjoy and incidentally also has utility.
And this, morally, cannot be restricted to the domain only of those who are economically able to do it as a hobby and have their survival assured by other means. Rather, we should assure the survival and comfort of everyone; artisanal work will follow after as people seek out things to do. This is not to say that everyone must have some form of sponsored hobby! We have already established that artisanry on the broad scale doesn’t matter economically. There’s no requirement that people do work if they don’t want to. We do what brings joy, for those people for whom that is hobby-work, they’ll do it without a threatening motivator.
If you want to have accessible commodities, you move towards autofacture. We have done so, and it’s good. And if you want to have nice commodities, you sponsor artisans to live comfortably and let them figure things out from there. This already happens, in a market biased against it. People want to do this. We are limited by a system that requires us to sell labor for sellable purposes in order to even strive to live in the comfort we want to have, so the notion of doing work that does not financially or materially contribute to this becomes an inaccessible luxury.
So what happens to the craftworkers is not the question.
What Happens to Us
The question is what happens to all of us. This has always been the question, from the very first day that the first human being produced more resources with their labor than they needed to survive.
And the answer is socialism. We produce a surplus of resources for everybody who exists. We require a steadily diminishing amount of labor directed to meeting the basic standards of comfort.
We need to stop hoarding the surplus. We need to dismantle the command economy that uses survival, let alone comfort, as prods to shape people into satisfying the whims of oligarchs and aristocrats.
Industrial autofacture did not kill artisanal craft. It has been, and will continue to be, a profound enabler of it! The smothering of small-scale craftwork is a wound inflicted by people making choices, not a consequence of technological advancement.
Roll your own website, or ask somebody who likes doïng that to make you one. Make your own clothes, or ask somebody who likes doïng that to make you some. Grow your own food, etc. Create and share joy in the things you like, and fall back to the baseline sea of available commodities for things you don’t care as much about personalizing. And organize for a world where doïng so doesn’t detract from survival.