October Check-In

October 14, 2020

Back in August, I wrote a post called Honoring Personhood in Material Culture, in which I described some goals. To paraphrase:

  1. Find ways to privilege processes that use and value human attention (what I am calling "assertional making"--making, teaching, learning, curating) over processes that erase human attention (mass manufacturing, anxious consumption).

  2. Identify ways that assertional making can compete economically with existing low-wage jobs--that is, find strategies by which a person working a minimum-wage job could raise their income by spending their time on something more personally fulfilling.

When I wrote that, I had the beginning of a plan in mind. I had been working in ceramics for almost a year, I had been doing woodworking for a few months, and I had been working with textiles (bags, garments) for a little while. Each of those crafts has basic-level projects (like a bowl, box, or bag) that are easy to make adequately[1]. I hoped to make progress toward my goals by coming up with a recipe book of ways to make a living while learning as a craftsperson--trying to find a path by which anyone--not just the especially skilled or artistically educated--could make a living in the way that they found most personally affirming.

Of my three crafts, sewing seemed like the obvious place to start because it requires the smallest initial investment. You can make a perfectly serviceable bag or garment from fabric available cheaply at thrift stores (cloth napkins, sheets, etc) using nothing but a sewing kit available at a drugstore. If you don't like hand-stitching or want to increase your speed, craigslist has a seemingly endless supply of durable and precise sewing machines made between 1900 and 1970, costing under $50 and frequently free. These tools are not just sufficient--they're nearly all that was available to even the most skilled craftspeople throughout human history. It seems inarguable that given time and practice, any interested and motivated person could turn those tools into a satisfying and useful way to spend their time on earth[2].

So I began by trying to find a recipe for making a living through a love of sewing[3]. My criteria were:

  1. After as short a period as possible, a person must be able to reliably make more than minimum wage for whatever time they decide to spend working.

  2. The recipe must not include reliance on any rent-seeking[4] third party.

  3. The recipe must not rely on a realignment of the whole structure of society in order to work or to be tested.

The main idea of the first two points, one that is not at all embodied in our current economy or culture, is that care and attention should be valued more highly than output. It is more valuable to humanity to have a person diligently and critically engaged in an obscure or inefficient craft than it is to have a cargo ship full of consumer products that people can be convinced to purchase[5]. This is a functional and moral argument, not an economic one. It seems more obvious every week that the earth has more people on it than it "needs" from the standpoint of the global economic system. And since "filling a need" is the only way to get a meal ticket under the current regime, there is a lot of activity directed at competing over existing needs and synthesizing new ones out of anxiety and social pressure. For the humans this system considers surplus, it is impossible to feel equitably connected to society. The results include alienation, division, anxiety, and unrest. It doesn't seem very controversial to state that, however nicely this system fits a particular way of looking at reality, it is not a stabilizing strategy.

This is shaping up into a critique of capitalism, but that's simply because capitalism is the only target available to me in the US in 2020. I don't intend to present an argument that one or another way of organizing the economy is best. Instead, I'm trying to present a set of outcomes that seem good or not good in any given system. One of the basic good outcomes any system could deliver is that a person should be able to easily sustain themselves by doing what makes them feel most fulfilled and useful, within sane limits. The mark of success of a society should be whether you can spend most of your time just doing what you feel like, with your friends, and still count on three square meals a day and a roof over your head. We've tried a few different ways to get there--monarchy, totalitarianism, capitalism, fascism, communism--and none so far has achieved that result. This makes me suspect that there is no system that can simply be installed as the organizing principle of society and then trusted to get us where we want to go. That's the reason for the third criterion for a working recipe--it must not require a large-scale realignment of culture or the economy in order to work or to be tested. That is, the recipe is not allowed to include "and then a miracle occurs" as one of the necessary steps.

There's a simple way to test these recipes, suitable for the existing capitalist mode of the 2020 US. For a given recipe, you just have to figure out what an "untrained" person following the recipe can produce in an hour, and then you need to figure out how that person can sell what they produced for a price that comes out to more than minimum wage after subtracting necessary expenses. The recipe should allow you to balance for yourself the amount of time you want to spend working within the recipe vs working within different recipes or relaxing--that is, you should not be required to commit to a 40-hour week simply to reserve your place in employment at minimum wage[6].

To a humanist, these goals are underwhelming. There's no bonfire of the vanities, no eating the rich, no great collective renunciation of waste and excess and avarice. An economist would have the opposite objection--these goals are unachievably ambitious. The economist's objection would have to do with efficiency. Nothing that can be produced by individuals at a cottage-industry scale would be able to compete economically with a functionally similar mass-manufactured product. Both of these criticisms are valid, and my response to both of them is the same: in order for any of these recipes to work, a number of individual people need to decide that human care and attention are more valuable than the excess made possible by mass manufacturing. The relevant question is "how many people need to decide, and how costly are those decisions?" A good recipe is one that requires the smallest number of people to make the least-costly decisions to assert these values in order to work[7].

When I tried to come up with a recipe like that around the activity of sewing, the means of which are highly available to most people, two related challenges arose. The first challenge was the vise-grip that media and advertising have on the concept of value. One of the preconditions for any of these recipes to work is that individuals have to choose to value the products of human care and attention above the products of mass manufacturing. There needs to be a way for people following the recipes to communicate that value-set in effective competition to the value-set communicated by mass media advertising. The second challenge is the prevalence and effectiveness of rent-seekers controlling access to markets. An example of the first challenge is that a low-quality bag with a designer name on it is widely considered more valuable than a functionally identical hand-stitched bag made by someone in your area. An example of the second challenge is that if you want to sell your own goods, the easiest way to do it is to use one of the online services that sell you access to customers in exchange for reinforcing their ownership of the market[8] and paying them to be allowed to access it.

These are really interesting challenges to me. Plenty of people understand the value of human care and attention--if you asked people what they'd miss if they lost everything in a disaster, many people would tell you that they'd miss the irreplaceable human artifacts--artwork, pictures, letters, heirlooms. There's broad awareness of how amazing and precious those kinds of things are, but that awareness breaks down somewhere (or in several places) when it comes to what we pay money for. Likewise, it seems like many people recognize that what they get from mass media (traditional and social) is mostly anxiety and stress, but there's just something that makes it a little bit harder to act on that knowledge than to keep scrolling.

These are the challenges that I'm keeping in mind while working on my social media alternative. What I come up with may not be a unified experience in the way that facebook is a unified experience. Instead, it's likely to be a set of very inexpensive tools for people who want to advance the value of human care and attention. For instance, one person might decide that they want to give people the experience of an Instagram feed without supporting facebook, and that will be possible. Someone else might decide that they want to produce and distribute a podcast without a social donation platform taking a cut of their income; that should also be possible. Other people may want to do scholarship, publishing large data sets or articles or software. Others will simply want to sell physical goods. The services offered by the big cloud platforms[9] are now advanced and inexpensive enough that there is very little value, and rather a lot of waste and moral hazard, being provided by intermediaries who bundle them together. My goal is to make it simple for individuals to participate in culture and the economy on their own terms, without having their effort and attention used for profit by a corporate agenda.

  1. Here "adequately," means that the result can be used safely and effectively, and specifically excludes aesthetics. ↩︎

  2. I'm trying to be very careful with my phrasing here. I do not mean that it seems like it would be easy to "make a living" this way in an industrialized economy. I mean only that if sewing is your thing, and you practice it diligently in the way that adds to your satisfaction with your life, then that ought to satisfy whatever moral requirement exists for you to work and be useful as a person. ↩︎

  3. "love" specifically, not skill or training or credentials or network. ↩︎

  4. I define "rent-seeking" as "charging money to access a market or resource controlled by the rent-seeking party but created by other customers." Under this definition, a generic payment processing company that charges 2% per transaction to process credit card transactions would not be considered rent-seeking, because that company doesn't control the market or resource of "being able to process transactions". However, a company that provides an online marketplace for goods, and charges for access to it, would be considered rent-seeking, because the company has exclusive control of the market created by the market participants. It is an interesting exercise to track how companies that create such marketplaces evolve over time, often in the direction of extracting ever more capital for their owners at the expense of market participants. ↩︎

  5. In case it needs to be said, "valuable to humanity" here does not refer only to monetary activity, but includes non-economic goods such as social engagement and community. ↩︎

  6. This is recognizable as the dream that the "gig economy" has so miserably and comprehensively failed to realize. See "rent-seeking," note 4. ↩︎

  7. It's no coincidence that an original meaning of the word "company" is "a number of people," or that it comes from the word "compaignon," from which we also get "companion." ↩︎

  8. That is, customers go to the site because that's where the sellers are, while sellers go to the site because that's where the customers are, and both sides give money to the market owner. The momentum of that process delivers value to the market owner out of proportion to the amount of value they add. ↩︎

  9. Yes, there needs to be a conversation around the ethics of big cloud providers. But as it stands, everyone is using big cloud providers when they use services like Patreon (AWS), Etsy (Google Cloud), Netflix (AWS), Spotify (Google Cloud), Prime Video, Google Search, etc. I would also make the case that when you pay AWS to use cloud computing resources, that transaction is very similar to renting a storage unit or renting a car, while using a service like Instagram is more like getting a "free" vacation in return for attending a time-share sales pitch. ↩︎