I am so not an economist —but going off a standard definition of “economy: — “careful management of available resources.” I can offer some perspective of how that relates to artisanal production.
For detail, I am a craftsman by training and by trade. I started as an apprentice in a print shop at the age of 12. I learned how to make books — how to set type and to print and to bind. I have used those skills every day of my professional life, both as a maker of books and as a maker of software. My experience taught me multiple lessons: That people respond to something that is well made and well-suited to its purpose. That a skill is transferable by its philosophical experience as much as its practical application. And that the discipline of making something well allows you to live comfortably in the space of innovation: both the elation and the drudgery. The economy of craftsmanship, then, by definition, is the management of not only the assets produced, but the intellectual capital of the craftsman. There is value in the making and the skill.
The economy of craftsmanship starts as an economy of scale. It translates on a very human level— a one to one relationship between builder and customer. Building a community through utility and through craft. Prior to industrialization, the craftsman was the center of a community — the provider of something tangible for that community and as a center of education, passing on a trade. In this way, certainly, the economics of the system was not simply an exchange of cash for goods, but a vital integration into the ecosystem.
For years — well, for centuries, really, the argument has always been between localism and internationalism. Wendell Berry writes very passionately about this in his Case Against Free Trade. International trade, like international manufacture, allows you to get the most for your money. By capitalizing on the economy of regions — buying goods in one region, and selling in another region. The trader Makes a profit by capitalizing on disparate economies. However, financial advantage is not the full measure of an economy. “The careful management of available resources” should consider all resources — the health of a community. The relative health and diversity of that community. The fundamental use case for international trade is homogeneity. I mean that in two ways: first, in order to make an exchange between regions worthwhile a lot of one thing is purchased/sold. Second, the preponderance of a lot of the same thing means that most people have to settle for “good enough”.
There are certainly advantages to Free Trade. Cheap goods, a decentralized model that gets goods and services to a large populace, to name a couple things.
(While I write this, I am distinctly aware that I am offering a very simplistic view of the ideas of Free Trade and decentralized goods. I also do not want to create an argument against. I am not trying to white knight one thing or the other. What I am interested in, though, is a model for a local economy. which, in this day and age is an odd thing given the availability of anything via the web. )
I am interested in a heterogeneous economy. One that serves the diversity of a community.
The workshop — the center of craft — is not simply a conduit of selling something. It is a vital part of a community. Here, not only is product made, but it is made with the surrounding community in mind. The shop can pivot quickly to a customers needs and to the needs of the surrounding community. Rather than settling for something that approximates the users needs, the user can get something that matches. The product is the definition of localism — like a surf board carved for a specific wave.
Innovation and change, then, is an acceptable part of the day-to-day practice of the shop.
As the shop remains flexible to customer demands, products are continually redrawn, remade, and made better through iteration. Responding to the customer is vital to the business and that vitality defines the product.
Further, apprenticing someone to the processes of the shop means that those innovations and creative moments are built into the process of growing employees. Rather than sticking someone on a line to build the same widget, a skill-set is grown, and more importantly, a philosophical understanding of the process of making is grown. While the shop-master is certainly the author, the journeymen and apprentices act as editors, offering input and their own distinct intelligence to the process of making. A shop can teach someone how to think at the limits of both the technology and the material. By teaching someone how to think through the materials at hand — to think through their fingertips, a shop is training for the future.
KNOWING how something is made is an extremely valuable skill. Looking at stitch and seam, at how something is riveted or soldered — knowing how raw materials are assembled into something cohesive. Being able to appraise those details and understand the effort and conscientiousness that went into developing that. Working at the limits of those materials and machines means knowing how to use those limitations, and the eccentricities of those limitations, to innovate. Understanding that innovations happen at the limits of any given material and technology is not a skill easily taught and a skill not to be underestimated for its value.
To operate in that space is to work at the limits of ones own senses — rather than work through the memorization of the task, one learns to work with how a material feels — to understand how something reacts. To use sight and scent and hearing to guide in the making. As printers, certainly, we listened to the ink in the rollers to make sure a page would be properly printed.
It is inhabiting that space but also accepting that drudgery is part of the process. It is essential to the process of making something beautiful that knowing how to repair a machine, clean work surfaces, and prepare the raw materials for production is part and parcel of the work. In short, one learns the value of discipline and one learns that no one is above mopping the floors.
Writer and entrepreneur alansmlxl wrote a great post on Medium about Jony Ive, head of product design at Apple. I encourage anyone to read the article because it does a lovely job of talking about the unreasonable nature of innovation. Hewing raw material to ambition.
So far I have simply described the bubble of the shop — a place where product is made for a community, and how that process of making occurs and how it can benefit that community. An essential piece to this equation is competition. The crucible of competition drives innovation and discovery.
If the craftsman does not enter into competition with other makers, they risk taking all of that creative energy and devolving into preciousness. Here, the proposition should be very simple — I am making the best product available. Compare it to any other like product and judge for yourself.
The economy of craftsmanship survives on striving to make the best in show. When a product is designed well — and it works effortlessly in the hands of the user, that product becomes transparent — an extension of the users own ambition. This can only happen when the craftsman listens not only to their customer, but understands that their competitors are trying to do the exact same thing.
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