Future tailors

I’m at the Technology, Knowledge, and Society conference in Cambridge UK, where I spoke this morning on the theme of network-enabled apprenticeship. It’s a topic I began developing last fall for a talk at the University of Michigan. I don’t feel that I nailed it the first time around, nor this time either, but it’s provoked a lot of interesting and helpful discussion.

My argument is that for most of human history, in tribal life, village life, or farm life, it was common to be able to watch people do their daily work. Kids who grew up on a farm, for example, saw the whole picture — animal husbandry, equipment maintenance, finance. They understood more about work than kids who only saw dad go to the office, do nobody knew what, and return at the end of the day.

To the extent that we now find it culturally acceptable to narrate our work online, in textual and especially in multimedia formats, we can among other things function as teachers and mentors. We can open windows into our work worlds through which people can find out, much more than was ever possible before, what it is like to do various kinds of work.

I claim this will help people, in particular younger people, sample different kinds of work and, in some cases, progress from transient web interactions to deeper relationships in cyberspace and/or in meatspace. And I suggest that those relationships could evolve into something resembling apprenticeships.

There are plenty of holes in this argument, and James Governor, whom I met for the first time yesterday in London, drove a truck through one of them. It’s nice to have loose coupling and lightweight affiliation, he said, but apprenticeship was always a durable commitment that involved submitting to a discipline. It wasn’t about window-shopping. Point taken.

Today on a walk in Cambridge I met Andrew Jackson, a bespoke tailor who’s just opened up a shop here, and we had a great conversation on this topic. Thanks to Thomas Mahon’s English Cut, which is a great example of work narration, I know a lot more than I otherwise would about this craft. When I asked Andrew if he’s having trouble bringing people into the business I touched a nerve. It’s a huge issue for him.

Maybe, I suggested, online narration of aspects of his craft would be a way to attract worthy apprentices. But he was way ahead of me. Among other things his firm trains tailors in other countries, and they deliver that training over the Internet, using video. That’s not the problem, he said. The problem is that young people just don’t want to do the work. They want to be rock-star fashion designers, not cutters and tailors, and they will not submit to the discipline of his trade. What’s worse, he added, is that little or no stigma now attaches to unemployment.

Andrew Jackson has a good job that nobody else seems to want. The same holds true, he says, for the guy who fixes all the lead-framed windows in Cambridge. He’s been doing it forever, he knows everybody in the town, he does lucrative and socially rewarding work, and yet he cannot find anyone who wants to help him and eventually step into his role.

So, back to the drawing board. I do think that online narration of work will be a necessary way to attract new talent. But it may not be sufficient. It may also be necessary to demonstrate the non-monetary rewards of doing the work. The window repairer, for example, may enjoy low stress and much autonomy, may see and hear a lot of the interior life of the town, and may enjoy pleasant relationships with long-term customers.

If he told you his story, or if someone else did, those rewards might become clear to you. Admittedly there’s no guarantee that outcome will occur. But if nobody tells the story, we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t.

21 Comments

  1. I think an examination of the social history of expertise and knowledge production might help sharpen a few of your ideas. Benkler provides a good overview of the history of the information economy, but we could explore more the limits of scale for the Apprenticeship and Barter approach to information exchange.

    Guilds and apprenticeships were a highly localized and closed way to transfer expertise. This is still the case in countries such as Germany, which served as the primary model for higher education in the United States. I think Benkler captures this in his chart categorizing some common “information production strategies.”

    The “Barter/Sharing” strategies are charterized by small groups with high levels of social capital. In other words, they are exclusive and the people sharing/bartering the information are already well socialized into the guild.

    I think what Benkler calls a “Public Domain” strategy would be more appropriate.

    I argue that the socialization (discipline) of the apprenticeship is more important than the information imparted. The tailor and the lead-framed window repairman should share their knowledge in a public commons, feeding the amateurs who want to DIY.

    Some people will go to the site/community and fail to reproduce the lesson. However, some people will succeed, thus becoming a valuable community resource helping others troubleshoot.

    And another freelancer is born…

  2. “Benkler provides a good overview of the history of the information economy”

    In fact he was the source for the notion that loose affiliation is a key enabler.

    “I argue that the socialization (discipline) of the apprenticeship is more important than the information imparted.”

    Which is James Governor’s point as well, and is the flip side of loose affiliation.

    “The tailor and the lead-framed window repairman should share their knowledge in a public commons, feeding the amateurs who want to DIY.”

    That might produce a diffuse social benefit, but it’s trumped by enlighted self-interest. They mainly want to attract, train, and retain people. I think sharing a strategically chosen slice of their experiential knowledge can definitely help with that, but that it’s not enough.

    I like your point about being socialized into the guild. What that means in the context of online social networks is a really interesting question.

  3. This is certainly an issue in open source communities, which are themselves I assume one of the areas that inspired this thinking. In a master/apprentice relationship the apprentice does a lot of grunt work to pay for their education. Some of the grunt work is educational itself, but a lot isn’t. It’s there to make the relationship worth it for the master; otherwise the apprentice is just a time sink.

    Open source communities often have these problems, as there’s a bunch of “users” (who are often developers themselves) who ask lots of questions but never really pay back the community. Many older communities become defensive and unfriendly to protect themselves, or else they become flooded with newbies and the experienced people don’t have time to participate and eventually the communities dies. Both happen quite frequently.

    The relationship between, say, a senior and junior programmer is much different. Often it doesn’t look anything like an apprenticeship, but it can — and part of what makes it feasible is that the senior programmer really *can* give the junior programmer grunt tasks — which often aren’t programming at all, just like the window repairman guy would probably give his apprentice tasks like cleaning out the truck. The authority makes the relationship productive (at least when the relationship is at its best — there’s obviously a whole other set of disfunctions that are possible).

    Even now, we *could* arrange these kinds of things in open forums, but they require some explicit commitment, and we don’t have any way to make that commitment work. People are too flaky and there’s no coercion available to make people less flaky, there’s not even a kind of coercion that someone can agree to up-front in return for entering into an apprentice-like relationship.

  4. Jon: Sounds like this guy needs to sponsor people from other countries that don’t have the opportunities that people in his country have. That is if the immigration service would allow it…

    Ian: I’ve been thinking about just such a thing for several years. Of course it would need some critical mass to get going, but I have thought through a most of the mechanisms assuming I could get the critical mass…

  5. “This is certainly an issue in open source communities, which are themselves I assume one of the areas that inspired this thinking.”

    It is /the/ model for it, yes.

    “The authority makes the relationship productive (at least when the relationship is at its best”

    Who has explicitly written/thought about the apprenticeship aspect of that relationship?

  6. I think the window shopping comment is not completely accurate — what a mailing list or forum does is not let the student window-shop, but instead let the student live in the shop a couple of weeks while they complete their work.

    If we imagine a person initially enters a forum or mailing list, etc to solve a problem with a school project or a hobby, perhaps to get a recommendation on where to find an online video of x, the result is different than say checking a video out of a library.

    That’s because since many of these communities are full service operations, they involve both the exchange of both technical knowledge (how to tailor a jacket) and social knowledge (how nice it is to tailor a jacket on a Sunday morning with your music playing and the sun streaming in).

    Of course it may be argued that most students just raid these communities for the info they need, and never stay around to talk or listen, but at least at the high school level maybe that’s something the system could get better at encouraging.

  7. Less sure about web development, but for Andrew, he should be looking at
    [name an age]+ people. Since I’m 60, I’ll say 40. I’m aiming at an age
    when people have settled a little and their values have changed? Also perhaps
    a little humility has emerged?

    For web people, if you can find a clever geek with lots of patience, you can
    help them with donkey work (documentation? etc) whilst picking their brains,
    just as the butchers and bakers apprenticals used to do.

    Patient masters are the hard part, not willing apprentices!

    Nice thoughts Jon.
    Is your Cambs presentation available please?
    I would be very interested.

    regards DaveP

  8. Compelling narratives will be crucial to distributing opportunities for virtualized apprentice/master relationships. The narratives must convey two levels of information: specific information about the craft and its practice, and richly contextualized explorations of the experience of life within that craft. Those two levels can’t ultimately be divided, but they can be distinguished. I’d argue that the peculiar strength of blogging resides in its essentially narrative form. A gifted master will be able to convey not only the data but the cognitive/experiential *flavor* of the information, and its the latter that becomes compelling.

    All of that said, there’s also the idea of discipline, and it may be that we’re spoiling people by leading them to expect that every instance of what my old German prof called “sitzen und schwitzen” (sit and sweat) will be wrapped within a compelling narrative with lots of eye candy and level-ups. But now I’m playing devil’s advocate with myself. I know that intrinsic motivation can be communicated by a compelling narrative, and while I may not end up choosing the discipline of the tailor or the window-leader, I will at least have a vivid idea of what it feels like to choose that discipline, and why one might want to.

  9. I listened to your entire STIET presentation, following along with the slides you provided. My overall impression is that you have a bunch of interesting ideas that may or may not hang together. I suspect you at least sense a connection, but you don’t let the audience in on the thread that ties all your examples together.

    I didn’t hear you cover the last few slides concerning Benkler and his book. I was looking forward to that part of your presentation and I suggest that you start your talk with whatever Benkler concepts resonate with your ideas. I couldn’t pick out the framework you used to organize your story and perhaps Benkler could be of some help in that regard.

    I understand apprenticeship as a means to reproduce expertise, a long and involved process of knowledge transfer. I think your example of mastering software programming in an online environment is a good example of a novel form of apprenticeship. However, most of your examples I would categorize as enabling amateurs, not reproducing expertise. The relationship with the mentor is less intense and time-consuming. To tie in another part of your presentation, enabling amateurs is all about reducing the amount of tacit knowledge you need to transfer. An apprenticeship is about ensuring the exchange of as much tacit knowledge as possible (and thus the importance of transparency).

    The audience engaged you in a discussion about the economics of barter. I wish I could have understood more of the questions, but I enjoyed the exchange. How do the economic experts enable you, the economic amateur? Talking across different areas of expertise is notoriously difficult. You and the audience were struggling to find some common ground. I think we need to consider various strategies that might best enhance the necessary exchange. I also think that a number of the examples you provide are the kind of best practices we might be seeking.

    I heard at least two distinct talks. I think you could give one talk on information barter in an online environment. And you could give another talk on types of knowledge exchange in an online environment.

  10. “My overall impression is that you have a bunch of interesting ideas that may or may not hang together.”

    An observation that equally applies to Jim Russell. Which is why I think we are fellow travelers.

    “I suspect you at least sense a connection, but you don’t let the audience in on the thread that ties all your examples together.”

    Good point. I know that all this stuff is connected, but I’m not yet able to show clearly how and why that’s so.

    “You and the audience were struggling to find some common ground”

    Yep. It was a friendly and enjoyable struggle though!

    “I think you could give one talk on information barter in an online environment. And you could give another talk on types of knowledge exchange in an online environment.”

    I think I need to leave the former to the experts, and focus on the latter where I actually am some kind of expert.

  11. “Good point. I know that all this stuff is connected, but I’m not yet able to show clearly how and why that’s so.”
    I can see the beastie in the fog but can’t tell what he be…

    I think for fields that involve thinking, the on-line community can provide mentorship at least and possibly apprenticeship. It’s certainly worked for me. Without CompuServe and all of it’s descendants, there is no way I would be a programmer today.

    I think the mentor/apprentice model falls apart a bit once you get into the physical arts. I’m learning to spin wool. I read everything I could on-line, joined discussion forums, you name it and I tried it. It was not until I sat in a room of spinners and had them physically move my hands into the right positions that I began to actually spin yarn.

    I think in the physical arts, one might be able to use the web as a way to maintain contact with others and combine this with periodic face-to-face sessions to resolve technical issues, learn new techniques, or just see how people do the day-to-day grunt work of their profession.

    This may become less of an issue as more people are connected to higher bandwidth pipes with real time high def audio/video. In those cases, dispersed groups could ‘meet’, talk (not chat), and show (via video) techniques. Maybe.

    Have you thought about virtual communities, ala Second Life, as a model? Alan Lepofsky of IBM had an interesting ‘meeting’ with people he stumbled across at the SL IBM building. http://www.alanlepofsky.net/alepofsky/alanblog.nsf

    Good stuff all.

    Doug

  12. Malcolm McCullough’s Abstracting Craft has some nice discussions of relations between working with code (the situation in the open source case that forms Jon’s inspiration) and working with tools (the tailor case).

    ISBN-13: 978-0262133265

  13. I just posted a long reply, but somehow it got lost in cyberspace – must be this lousy AOL service. But I do not want to leave without letting you know that after researching possible apprenticeships and visiting literally hundreds of websites, while some were informative, most “say” the same thing. Not one impart the valid points you make. One important point being where to find apprenticeships – this is what most are looking for. The opportunity to gain valuable hands on experience in a particular craft or field of interest, whether after graduating college, or as alternative learning environment. But who or what business is offering it? Because the search and AOL has completely exhausted me, I will be sure to visit your site after a bit of rest. Thank you for the best info on the net!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s