The Line is grateful for: Learning how to make stuff
While the price of a credential has risen, the cost of knowledge has collapsed.
As we start a new year, The Line asked some of its friends to write us articles about things that they loved during 2023. Consider this a small act on our part to help get 2024 off to a good start. Today: Jen Gerson on learning news skills in a changing world.
By: Jen Gerson
Over the holidays, my family and I trekked across the country, and in so doing were able to spend some time with my father. To my son, a deep fan of trains, this was a particular delight, for when we entered his basement we beheld my father's pride: an immaculate model train circuit on a table that spanned about 20 feet across. The scene included a photo-realistic mountain with a tunnel and a landscape that rolled across a trestle bridge into a bucolic prairie scene. This has been the work of a decade.
My dad had recently acquired several 3D printers — only a resin printer could replicate miniature electrical poles with a satisfactory resolution — to furnish this slice of a little world. My son was delighted, and would only let grandpa leave for a few moments to show me the latest acquisition to his woodshop: a digital metal lathe precise enough to handle the machined threads on the kitless fountain pens he crafts from scratch for funsies. (I got two this year!)
On the way out, we passed his latest baby: a HAM radio.
"Oh, because you need another hobby?" I asked, eyebrow unavoidably arched.
"Well," he said. Grumble grumble. "Yes."
I laughed, but when I got home, I unpacked several yards of heavily discounted wool jersey I had uncovered in our journey, then began to examine the cost and practicality of purchasing lipstick molds, while sourcing the nearest repository of Szechuan peppercorns, intrigued by the prospect of a more thorough exploration of regional cuisine. And let's not forget my imminent plans to recreate Victorian wool felt slippers.
I do realize what I am doing.
If one becomes an adult the moment we forgive our parents, I wonder what we become when we discover that we are our parents?
This thought leads me to the thing I am most grateful for: the familial curse that demands I acquire a manic array of divergent hobbies, and the historically unprecedented conditions that have allowed me to pursue them. The sheer wealth of material goods now available to us encourages experimentation. And easily accessible knowledge via the Internet allows us to acquire skills that could only otherwise have been obtained by apprenticeship, schooling, or learning in familial settings.
I want to get into all of that. But first, for a moment, I want to talk about capitalism.
Bear with me.
For all the joys and blessings elucidated above, modern capitalism often blinds us to its advantages by its perverse incentive structure. Over time, the quest for efficiency and profit has a tendency to reward us for developing more specialized skills.
The obvious example is the assembly line. The factory owner one day discovers he can produce more cars with fewer men by requiring his worker not to be able to assemble the whole vehicle, but rather to master creating or affixing a single component of the whole.
This discovery led to a radical increase in mass produced goods — necessities, luxuries and comforts that were once available only to the elect could be offered to the masses, improving living standards for pretty much everybody. We traded quality and craftsmanship for convenience and cost, and given the material conditions of our ancestors, who could blame us?
The Luddites landed on the wrong side of history, but they weren't incorrect. The assembly line traded one cost for another — the objective cost of a car over the unquantifiable cost to the worker's health and pride. The repetitive motion of the assembly line is bad for the body and mind. It's boring.
Efficiency is desouling — even to the man who wants to drive his own car on a labourer's wages.
The assembly line turns him into something less than himself: a machine, a cog in a process, inevitably to be outsourced to cheaper men, or cheaper machines, better able to replicate his fine movements and rote work.
Over time, this logic extended from physical labour to mental work, to the services and the professions. That's why so many of us feel as if we are doing pointless work soon to be outsourced to AI. Meanwhile, even basic and universal skills like cooking, sewing, or simple repair work are atrophying. These common skills are increasingly outsourced to other specialized workers.
The terrible paradox is that our society cherishes individuality yet creates codependency.
And yet — and yet — what is civilization if not codependency on a grand scale? What would I sacrifice for my conveniences and comforts?
The only antidotes I have found for this problem are practical hobbies that reconnect me to the physical things I need to survive and be comfortable. Cooking, sewing, woodworking, gardening, preserving food, etc. Nothing helped me to gain control over my material environment better than acquiring the skills to make things. The world morphs a series of puzzles unfolding into questions of geometry, biology and chemistry. "How do I make this thing taste good?" "How would I replicate that dress?" "And what would this item look like in a 2-D state?" "Can I picture it in my mind, and make it real?"
It's as rewarding to learn how to make that restaurant meal as it is to eat at the restaurant.
Love Sephora? The markup on cosmetics is absurd. You can make all of it for pennies per unit, if you learn how.
That $40 scented candle? It's glass, wax, fragrance, and a wick. It’s not complicated.
I make some of my own clothes now, often with uncut material and notions I find at Value Village and Goodwill. And don't get me started on furniture: the thrift stores are awash in good wood furniture — stuff that only needs a strip and a new coat of varnish. It's all stuff you can find in Home Depot for a few bucks, or secondhand on Facebook Marketplace. And don't get me started on the money I've saved by teaching myself how to wire dimmer switches and fix leaking faucets and tame misbehaving appliances. All skills you can find on YouTube.
Decent meals, good bread, bougie pillows. You can have whatever you want, if you can make it. And in this weird and miraculous moment in history, you can learn to make almost anything.
Learning how to do stuff has improved my relationship to both time and money.
Whenever I am tempted by pants, or dresses, or a handbag, I now ask: "What is this really worth? What would this actually cost me in time, effort, and material to produce?"
Sometimes that calculus pushes me toward just buying the thing. More often, breaking material goods down to their component parts reduces the value of the product too far below the asking price, thus curbing the impulse toward impulse shopping. (Which is not to say that hobbies can't become their own consumerist traps, only that this is not inevitable.)
Hobbies transmute the compulsion to acquire things into a desire to obtain tools, skills, and knowledge. They have also taught me to appreciate quality and craftsmanship, to seek the inherent worth of a thing.
Hobbies teach us that true wealth doesn't lie in goods, but rather in time.
Also, making stuff is fun! It's joyful and rewarding. It's meditative. It's better than fighting on Twitter.
One last word of praise and gratitude for YouTube — the greatest repository of human skills in all of history.
Yes, the world is replete with doom-and-gloom articles about how social media is a radicalizing algorithmic hell — but as in all things, your outer algorithm is a reflection of your inner soul. I taught myself how to sew on YouTube and found my vintage Singer on Facebook. And all of this juicy information, free! Free! Free!
What a revolutionary shift this represents. At no other time in history could we acquire professional-level skills in, say, cookery or metalwork or carpentry, without an education. While the price of a credential has risen, the cost of knowledge has collapsed. Hence a flourishing of makers and DIYers and homesteaders and side hustlers and hobbyists, all of them learning from, and inspiring one another, on social media.
Herein we can find a path back to the humanity that all of our miraculous technological advances would sap from us. Here's to the re-soulificaton of our stuff, and to finding new value and purpose therein.
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