Friday, October 26, 2012

Life in the Vats: Have We Forgotten How to Make Things?

If so, we’re dead. Oh sure, as individuals, we’re going to die someday. What I’m talking about is our society, our culture. We can’t live on service and information. We need to make things.

At all levels.

My father spent his working life with the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. When he worked for there it was the second-largest steel company in the country, and perhaps the world. Now it doesn’t even exist.

I more or less know why the American steel industry collapsed—OPEC, high oil prices, foreign cars invading the American market, and so forth. I’m not pretending that didn’t happen or that we can go back to those days. We can’t.

But we’re doing something wrong. It’s not simply that flipping burgers doesn’t pay as well as pouring steel—and it is, after all, a lot less dangerous. Nor does running down the aisles of a giant fulfillment warehouse pay as well as working the assembly-line in an automobile plant, and that gig is, if anything, more physically wearing. The pay is important.

But making things with your hands is more important. Being in the direct and immediate presence of morphing physical stuff—iron ore to iron, sheet metal to an auto body, thread to fabric, fabric to pajamas, logs to pulp, pulp to paper, paper to cut-outs for a home-made Halloween costume, seeds to earth to corn to hot-buttered corn-on-the cob—that’s VERY important.

And we’re losing it. We’re losing the world. The Matrix movies showed us a future where people live in vats and have experiences jacked into their brains by computers. I’ve got news for you: That’s NOT the future. That’s NOW, only we don’t recognize it.

We’re not in vats. We get up and move around. So how could we be in vats?

We don’t make stuff. If you don’t make stuff, then the physical world is as a dream. If all you know is the dream, then you’re living in a vat.

You don’t have to make your living at manual labor or a craft or a trade—and many of those jobs have been physically punishing and poorly paid as well, not everyone belonged to the United Steelworkers. But you need to spend part of your time making something with your hands—cooking, sewing, wood-working, model-building, gardening, whatever.

Take your craft seriously. The quality of the result matters. And you can always do better.

It’s the only way to climb out of the vat. You can’t dream your way out, you can’t internet your way out. You have to do it with your hands and feet, with your body.

And you can’t get out of the vat alone. You need to get help, and you need to help others. If we make things, together, then together we can pull ourselves out of the vat.

It’s the only way to live.