I took a brief and unannounced blogging “vacation” over the last few days to finish some do-it-yourself home repairs before the rainy season. Having frankly ignored the media news flow for several days, let me ease back into writing by linking my fix-it experiences to an essay about the demise of public school shop classes. I’ll connect that thought back to what I see as perhaps the prime virtue of citizen journalism — which at very least gives amateurs the ability to do jobs that might otherwise be too small for mass media.
First, the reason for my absence.
My wife and I are fortunate to own a second home on some land in the Redwoods of Northern California. We are not quite affluent enough, however, to hire a handyman to keep both that place and out Bay Area residence in shape. Since the spring I’ve Iaunched three outdoor projects that all had to be more or less completed before it starts to pour — which could be just about any day. So I took off from work last week to hammer and paint and do the things that can’t be done once it gets soaky. I was out in the woods and the Internet wasn’t convenient so I had lots of time to mull an essay titled “Shop Craft as Soulcraft.”
The essay appears in The New Atlantis, a journal about which I’ve written previously. The author, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, bemoans the rise of throwaway values and the denigration of hands-on labor. He writes:
“What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.”
Amen to that! It’s a point that resonated with me over these last several days as I traded my desk job for several days of hard labor. But I rather enjoy the satisfaction of finishing a construction project done, and the miser in me realizes that I’ve saved thousands of dollars.
But that was not the essayist’s concern. Instead he took issue with the notion that brainwork is superior to handwork, noting that this presumed white-collar advantage might not be neither economically nor emotionally true. For instance it is harder to replace a good American plumber than it would be to replace a good programmer in the U.S. with a cheaper one from abroad. The essay concludes with this prescription:
“So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems.”
To this I would add just one pet peeve — a rant against specialization. The economy wants to specialize us. Our human nature rebels, but it’s weak. Had I the money perhaps I would have hired out all three tasks (replacing a deck, repainting a garage and building a shed) that have occupied my weekends over these last several months. But modest means force me to take hammer and paint brush in hand. And since I’ve learned how to wield these tools by helping my dad, fix his house long ago, I am now passing on that “favor” to my teenaged sons — who often curse me now but will, I am confident, thank me later.
The old economy made media part of the specialized world. I have one of those specialized jobs. I get paid to tell stories. And just as a contractor would’ve had better tools, techniques and presumably a better outcome, perhaps my media work is perceptibly superior to that of a citizen journalist.
For some tasks that presumed professional advantage will matter. But just as I draw satisfaction from my imperfect repairs — and accomplish tasks that I could not have afforded any other way — so too would an amateur journalist feel a sense of accomplishment in bringing a new story to light that mass media would never otherwise see. That is the promise of citizen journalism.
I’m sure that amateur media creators will learn some of the tricks and techniques used by the pros. Will they then want to quit their day jobs and make media for a living? Who knows. I certainly don’t want to trade my cubicle for a ladder and toolbelt. But my “soulcraft” is stronger today for having exercised the lesser-used side of my skill set.