We are craftspeople at heart.

Craft is hugely inefficient. Perhaps that’s where its power comes from.

Craft derives from a sense of purpose. Simply put, what we produce is part of us, and a part of the signature that identifies us, where we’ve been and where we’re headed. 

One of the defining characteristics of a craftsperson, like an artist, is that they are never really satisfied. They are always looking to do better. 

I see it in developers, start ups, and in what peple do outside of their routine jobs.

Good enough, a specification, and compliance is not language they use.

Beauty is. Creation is. Contribution is.

I think we are entering, if not already in, a time where we need to understand our own craft , own it and develop it. To identify what matters to us, that which brings us satisfaction and even joy, and which makes a positive difference to those around us. Something human.

The alternative – to do as we are instructed, to produce to a specification, to accept good enough as  the signature on our work is to put us in front of the digital combine harvester that is artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Even when we get behind the alarmist hype, the likely reality is concerning enough. It is unlikely to replace huge swathes of jobs, but it probably will reshape them by encroaching on the content. When it comes to following a process, producing to specification, and doing so without breaks or pay, its a pretty compelling proposition. 

Many are predicting the sort of jobs it will replace. Carl Frey’s latest book, The Technology Trap, and Daniel Susskind’s World without Work offer expert insights. In short, the big threat is less replacement of our jobs, it is “encroachment” – the hollowing out of jobs through that which can be done algorithmically. 

Technology has two routes into our current jobs – to complement them by taking that which can be done by technology to give the job holder more scope to do what it cannot. And on the other hand to replace the job holder.

Every technology has followed a pattern of labour empowerment and labour replacement. The pattern seems to operate in cycles – historically since the 1800’s in periods of fifty years. Where we are now suggests that this cycle may get shorter, and that the balance between who is enabled and who is replaced will continue to tilt in favour of those who already have. 

What we don’t use, we lose. When we use calculators and spreadsheets, our facility with mental arithmetic fades. When we use spellcheck and autocorrect our facility with language lessens. When we use autofill, or Google, our capacity for working things out is subordinated to what an algorithm  has worked out. It’s fast, efficient, and erodes our originality. Our craft.

The big question is what happens if we take routine jobs, from sales to law and accountancy, and hollow out of them skills that have been expensively learned but are easily substituted by technology? We don’t know with any precision, but we should certainly pay attention.

The flip side of the coin is presented by Margaret Heffernan in “Uncharted”, a beautifully and passionately written book which challenges many of the assumptions we make about technology, and the way we have allowed our jobs to be developed.  She talks about the comparison between  technology and craft as follows:

“What we lose when we surrender so much of our time and attention to generic technology is not just the opportunity for personal experience, but the chance to create from it our own sense of the world, our place in it and what the future for both might be. The more time we spend visiting places that others have described, the more we follow the paths others have made, reading what we’re told, seeing what the algorithm recommends, listening to what crowd-sources admire and eating what’s already been photographed, tasted, marketed and measured, the less capacity we have to see what we didn’t expect, to hear what we weren’t told about or to ask questions that haven’t already been answered. We lose our own perspective and imagination and in this everyone is impoverished: ourselves and anyone who looks to us in vain for fresh insight or understanding. Artists try to make the most of their minds. In the quest for predictability, we risk making the least of ours”

I believe we are at an inflection point. Many of us earn our living by operating within a world of process and routine. We spent years getting the right qualifications in order to find our way into organisations where we can exercise our skills, and then work within those organisations to make those processes and routines ever more efficient and profitable. 

When we started the technology was not there, but it has emerged at enormous speed, and its capability is accelerating. 

What many of us put to one side is the stuff that makes us original – our creativity, imagination, time to immerse ourselves in subjects outside the mandated STEM, and which creates the big gap between what we can do that technology cannot. The things that make us original as humans.

The good news is that its never too late. We are not our jobs. We have alternatives. We may not be able to make the leap in one go, it can be high risk, and with rent and mortgages to pay, we have to take care. 

Do we want to be enabled, or replaced?

But we can start. Tiny steps. Making space to think, and reflect on what is really important to us, and give it a larger part in our lives. 

We need to start, because technology isn’t waiting for us.

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