I’ve Got a Ph.D., But My Passion is Small Engine Repair

The information sector is in the midst of an identity crisis. We are in an era when the world’s gleaming office towers seem to sag a bit with shame, blue-collar work wear is a staple of big city fashion, and even the country’s intelligentsias have turned an envious eye to the refreshingly concrete work of the trades. I present as evidence:
  • One of the best-reviewed books of the year is a quasi-Marxist meditation on the educated class’s misguided effort to “take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy.” Written by the former director of a Washington think-tank, it presents quitting your knowledge sector job and opening a motorcycle repair shop as a model way to hit the road toward self-actualization.
  • Last year a farmer won a MacArthur Genius Grant, which is awarded by a secret Illuminati-ish panel and is one of the most prestigious prizes in existence. Yes, a farmer has been formally declared a genius by some of the world’s foremost intellectuals.
  • College education, long an unquestioned cultivator of valuable human capital, is now predicted to be the next bubble to burst. This means that we, as consumers and employers, may have severely overvalued the worth of non-technical knowledge.

So what’s going on? Why this renewed focus on the value, soul-satisfying and otherwise, of an honest day’s labor? A certain reactionary recession mentality is surely a factor, but I think there is a lesson as well: a mechanic fixes motorcycles. A farmer grows food. What do we do, we that trade in a product as weightless as information? How do we know when we’ve done our work well, and how do we know when we haven’t? How do we value the intangible?

It’s difficult to say for sure, and I don’t have an answer succinct or coherent enough to fit in this space. But to consider these questions, to attempt to find their answers and pinpoint their value, is surely worthwhile. And that makes them a lot like the information we produce every day.