Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Instinct of Workmanship lives on

I once attended a Veblen conference where academics presented papers on the life and thoughts of TBV.  The mere fact that there are still folks who have university-level jobs while specializing in Veblenian scholarship is, when you think about it, pretty damn amazing.  His status in the eyes of the economics world is virtually non-existent in this age of neoliberalism while he has been relegated to fuddy-duddy status by the sociologists and cultural anthropologists who once found room for his thinking.  One reason for his decline in polite academic society concerns his now politically incorrect idea that humans possess an instinct to do wonderful work.  So there was paper trying to deflect the embarrassment that some at the conference obviously felt when associating with an historical intellectual who shamelessly embraced the idea of human instincts.

Me, I sat and listened in amazement.  After all, The Instinct of Workmanship was Veblen's personal favorite.  I believe it was his best by far.  The central idea of I of W was that force and the threats of force which so many consider central to workplace relationships is simply unnecessary and counterproductive.  It is impossible to overstate the importance of such a notion to all discussions of economics.  Besides, I believe in the instinct of workmanship because I have seen it in action.  All my friends have it in abundance—which is reason #1 why they are my friends.  So as I listened to some fourth-rate academic try to sweep this powerful insight under the rug I could only mutter, "The ONLY people who don't believe in the instinct of workmanship are those who don't have much of it!"

Tonight I watched the Apple presentation of their new fall product line.  I have gotten hooked on these things over the years mostly because it was so much fun to watch Steve Jobs get so excited about how Apple was advancing the state of the computer-building arts with some new device or new way of servicing the customer.  Then there were the graphics.  Apple's most loyal customers were the creative professionals so they had to be impressed.  Apple's graphics department has only world-class practitioners and every slide in their presentation had probably been selected from thousands of interesting possibilities.

Well Jobs is gone but his legacy lives on.  The guys running Apple may not have Jobs charisma but they are still very dedicated to advancing their art.  Apple's business plan is to build devices that are so noticeably better than their competitors offerings that people will pay premium prices for them.  For example, the new iPads only weigh 16 ounces (454 grams) yet have ultra-high definition screens, 64 bit architecture, and a 10 hour battery life squeezed into a case only 7.5 mm (.3 inches) thick.  They run over 450,000 apps.  You can record and edit a high-def video or compose music with this one-pound device.  Amazing.

It seems the way Apple intends to justify its premium prices is to package their most popular software with all their devices.  For example, you can now create a coffee-table photo book on their freaking iPhone—that used to be a pretty big deal on their desktops.  It was only a few years ago that I made some of those books for some especially generous donors to a preservation society I was part of.  Everyone was impressed including the donors.  Now on a smart-phone!  And just to show we desktop folks will not be forgotten, there's a new version of OSX that fixes some of the more glaring problems of Dictation—the speech to text application I hope to master.  Again for no cost.

Anyway, it was delightful to see again what is possible when folks are allowed to indulge their instincts of workmanship.  These are truly remarkable devices designed by a company that has the money to spend on excellence and the desire to spend it on making their products more useful.  Folks who believe that one of the routes to true value is to avoid making things on the cheap.  Apple is proof that the Producer strategies are still the best.

Now imagine what would happen if we allowed this obsession with excellence to tackle the big problems like climate change.  Because if we do not and let the folks with slumlord mentalities continue to run things, we will ruin the planet.

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