Matthew B. Crawford - The Thinker

Shop Class as Soulcraft author wonders about the motorcycle’s place in the autonomous future.

Matthew B. Crawford
Shop Class as Soulcraft author Matthew B. Crawford.Zach Bowman

Matthew B. Crawford published his essay “Shop Class as Soulcraft” in the technology and society journal The New Atlantis in 2006, spurring a book of the same title. It simultaneously turned his professional career on its ear and gave voice to a generation of knowledge workers dissatisfied with the fruits of their laboring hours. In the years since, he’s turned his eye to the increasing demands on our attention in The World Beyond Your Head. Now he’s putting an eye on our seemingly inevitable autonomous future with a new project.

“The original essay began as an attempt to make sense of my own work experience,” Crawford says. “It did not fit the official ideology of knowledge work versus manual work. I often felt more intellectually challenged trying to diagnose a machine than in the various white- collar jobs I’ve had. To make sense of that required going into some of the history of the assembly line and the separation of thinking from doing.”

He is laser-eyed, and while his shop is a spectacular array of distractions—a Scion xB awaiting a brake job on a lift, the entrails of a Volkswagen Bug splattered on the floor, a stalled Dunstall CB750 build in the corner—he wields a rare hyper focus, fully involved with the conversation or task at hand.

“Shop Class” was written some 12 years ago, and in the time since, the maker movement has exploded, with ever more people building, tinkering, and sharing their knowledge with the wider world. Crawford says it makes sense, as does our preoccupation with motorcycles despite all the reasons to know better.

“People come home, and they want to take things in hand themselves,” he says. “We evolved as tool users. There are intimate connections between the use of the hands and the use of higher cognitive functions in the mind. We’re creating this world for ourselves of mediating everything through a screen that’s extremely novel and extremely at odds with years of evolution.”

“I often felt more intellectually challenged trying to diagnose a machine than in the various white-collar jobs I’ve had.”

For Crawford, transportation cannot be separated from a society’s economy. The two are intertwined in ways both obvious and not, and as large technology companies increasingly work to dominate our daily commutes, choosing to ride subtracts us from that equation. Now, maybe more than ever, it puts us at odds with a society that claims to know best.

“Our self-appointed disruptors have figured out that capturing and monetizing people’s attention is the name of the game in contemporary capitalism,” Crawford says. “That adds to the kind of dissident quality of riding a bike. You’re stepping outside of what feels like a tightening grid of social control.”

He has a point. For many of us, a helmet serves as one of the few refuges from daily life’s barrage of notifications, news alerts, and glowing screens, all things that make someone money simply by monopolizing our attention. Crawford believes that might be at the heart of Google’s desire to participate in autonomous vehicles. The average commute is just north of 50 minutes, both ways, he says, time that we are otherwise inaccessible to the internet and its advertising—or ought to be.

He is aware of the argument that driverless vehicles might be the best thing that’s ever happened to motorcyclists, removing the unpredictable and inattentive from our paths. He’s also not optimistic about that becoming our reality.

“The premise there is that we will be allowed to ride, but there are a lot of the hoped-for benefits of driverless cars that are only realized if everyone is in them,” Crawford says. “There’s good reason to think that once we allow a cartel of IT companies to remake our public infrastructure, then it’s going to be like all these other forms of platform capitalism: nonnegotiable terms of service.”

Matthew B. Crawford
“That adds to the kind of dissident quality of riding a bike. You’re stepping outside of what feels like a tightening grid of social control.”Zach Bowman

The tragedy there, at least for him, is not the loss of the motorcycle, but the loss of faith in ourselves as capable doers. He points to traffic in London or in Ethiopia, nightmares for commuters—but miraculous displays of humanity’s ability to problem-solve, communicate, and cooperate in a highly efficient manner.

“It’s a picture of how amazing human beings are at working sh-t out cooperatively on the fly,” Crawford says. “It’s an example of human intelligence that’s hugely impressive. The whole rationale for driverless cars is a presumption of incompetence by human beings. That’s generally a pattern, that technology is trying to relieve us of the things that we don’t do very well.”

He warns that there will be pressure to redefine driving as a thing that computers excel at over us dim humans, but as Crawford, and anyone who has ever threaded their way up a snaking coil of asphalt knows, the act of driving or riding is not simply following a set of rules. It’s improvisation. It’s creation.

“Rule following just scratches the surface of human intelligence,” he says.

Crawford’s next book, Why We Drive, comes out next year.