Books : reviews

Richard Sennett.
The Uses of Disorder: personal identity and city life.
Yale University Press. 1970

Richard Sennett is one of the world’s leading sociologists, and this book, first published in 1970, was his first single-authored work. It launched his exploration of communities and how they live in cities, and outlined his view that order breeds narrow, violence-prone lives, while an ‘equilibrium of disorder’ brings vigour and diversity to urban life. The New York Times described it as ‘the best available contemporary defence of anarchism’.

The Uses of Disorder followed the student and urban rebellions of the late 1960s. But it remains relevant to the problems of city life forty years on. In a new preface Sennett considers his own objectives in writing the book and the enduring benefits of a strong and fresh urban experience in the twenty-first century. The body of the text remains unchanged, ready for a new generation of readers.

Richard Sennett.
The Fall of Public Man.
Penguin. 1974

Are we now so self-absorbed that we take little interest in the world beyond our own lives? Or has public life left no place for individuals to participate?

The Fall of Public Man examines the imbalance between private and public experience, and the decline of involvement in political life in recent decades. Tracing the changing nature of urban society from the eighteenth century to the world we now live in, Richard Sennett discusses the causes of our social withdrawal and asks what can bring us to reconnect with our communities. His landmark study of the imbalance of modern civilization provides a fascinating perspective on the relationship between public life and the cult of the individual.

Richard Sennett.
The Craftsman.
Penguin. 2008

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 2 April 2009

Most of us have to work. But is work just a means to an end? In trying to make a living, have we lost touch with the idea of making things well?

In this provocative and enlightening book, Richard Sennett explores the idea of craftsmanship – the desire to do a job well for its own sake – as a template for living. Pure competition, he argues, will never produce good work. Instead, the values of the craftsman, whether in a Stradivari violin workshop or a modern laboratory, can enrich our lives and change the way we anchor ourselves in the world around us.

This is a philosophical treatise on the ambiguous status of the craftsman in society: on the one hand the skilled creator of valuable artefacts (“Hephaestus”), on the other the creator of destructive machines (“Pandora”); on the one hand deeply absorbed and at one with the work and materials, on the other careless of the potentially hellish results. How to reconcile these aspects? How to have pride in our work, without becoming obsessive and blind to its consequences?

A caveat: I read this because I wanted to see if it might illuminate software development as a craft. Sennett does mention Linux developers as one example, but his major examples are more traditional: gold assaying, glass blowing, making and playing musical instruments. All of these have a much more physical aspect to them, and I am not yet clear how this ideas translate across into an abstract medium, except maybe in two cases: education and not-fit-for-purpose tools.

Sennett has interesting things to say about education: the constant attempts today to make things “interesting”, to remove the boredom of repetition, are misguided. To become a craftsman requires repetition (about 10,000 hours of it, it seems), but that repetition need not be boring: it should be an engaged repetition, a part of the process of becoming one with the material. The kind of engagement is different as different parts of the process become mastered. That 10,000 hours is a long time: it translates to 10 years of three hours a day practice (for example, mastering a musical instrument) or seven years of five hours a day (as in a traditional apprenticeship), or even three years of 10 hours a day (the training regime for junior doctors). Programming, like all crafts, is not a spectator sport; it too requires practice. But how to make it this kind of engaged practice? And how can we reconcile the time needed to become skilled with the rapid change in the technologies: that traditional apprenticeship timescale corresponds to three or four Moore’s law “generations”. These kind of questions are, unfortunately (for me!) outside the scope of Sennett’s work.

Sennett makes it clear how craft is a process both of making and of repair, and that the repair part is where the advances are made. When things are broken, not working, or the tools are not fit-for-purpose, then the craftsman has to become yet more engaged in the process, has to think more about what they are doing, and can make changes, improvements, advances. Sennett distinguishes two kinds of ways tools are not fit-for-purpose: they can be inadequate (such as early optical instruments), so ingenuity is required to overcome their limitations; or they can be too general purpose (like a flat-bladed screwdriver), so that how to use them is not obvious. Here I had an “a-ha!” moment: most software tools are indeed not fit-for-purpose, being both inadequate (clunky) and general purpose (powerful generic tools) at the same time. And much software development is repair (debugging and maintenance), rather than simple building (since copying is so cheap). So maybe we should not be so critical of our clunky, difficult-to-use tools: they are helping us advance. Provided we are suitably reflective when using them, of course.

However, those two cases are only a small part of the overall book. The rest I found mildly interesting, but not deeply informative. For my taste, it is too historical (pre Industrial Revolution), with too little discussion of the present day difficulties of integrating craftsmanship with mass production and super-human machinery. There is a only hint of a way forward here, of how to use machines to augment, rather than replace, people. Personally, I would have liked more on that, and less history.

Richard Sennett.
Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation.
Penguin. 2012

Living with people Who differ – racially, ethnically, religiously or economically – is one of the most urgent challenges facing civil society today. Together argues that cooperation needs more than good will: it is a craft that requires skill. In modern society traditional bonds are waning, and we must develop new forms of secular, civic ritual that make us more skilful in living with others. From medieval guilds to today’s social networks, Richard Sennett’s visionary book explores the nature of cooperation, why it has become weak and how it can be strengthened.