Book Review: Made by Hand

I know very few people that know how to make or fix “things” (things like desks, kitchen utensils, or even cars). Most of the people I know work in the information economy and spend their days parked behind a desk working on a computer. The very fact that we live in an economy where this is possible for a large number of people is largely considered to be a remarkable human achievement. And, in many ways, it certainly is. In fact, in almost all measurable objectives, living standards are getting better and better. However, there is a serious problem that remains largely unaddressed, i.e., people are reportedly feeling subjectively worse despite the fact that things are getting objectively better. Gregg Easterbrook dubs this phenomenon the progress paradox.

As our work has become increasingly digital many of us have lost touch with the physical world. In essence, we’ve become divorced from working with our hands (I mean building “things” by hand) and I suspect that this is affecting our well-being. I’m not alone in this belief either. Mark Frauenfelder, founder of Boing Boing and Make Magazine, thinks this as well. In his book, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, he elucidates on this problem.

Initially, Mr. Frauenfelder and his family tried running away to an exotic island in the South Pacific in order to live a happier life. He, like countless others, was disappointed to find out that your problems follow you where ever you go and found himself back in Los Angeles less than a year after he moved. The main purpose of his book, as I see it, is to get readers to realize that there is literally potential happiness and fulfillment stored in their hands, not off on exotic islands. Rather than sit back and merely analyze his ‘digititis’ from his armchair, Mr. Frauenfelder took matters into his hands and got them dirty.

The book is largely a collection of tales about reconnecting with the physical world with hopes of curing the unhappiness that stems from a nasty case of ‘digititis’. Mr. Frauenfelder describes his adventures in growing his own food, the epic quest in brewing a Godshot, raising chickens and bees, making guitars out of cigar boxes, woodworking, and citizen science.

Mr. Frauenfelder has dabbled in many different types of DIY (Do-it-yourself) projects, some of which he mentions he enjoys more than others. His stories, at times, will make you laugh and his jovial tone makes for a wonderful read. Also, many of the stories include an array of practical tips that will help motivate newfound DIY’ers to get started.

Those, like me, who are cursed with an economist’s mindset will surely, at least initially, scoff at these types of projects with disdain because they just smack of inefficiency. Why raise your own chickens when you can buy eggs at the grocery store for a relatively cheaper price? Hasn’t Mr. Frauenfelder heard of Adam Smith and his famous concept called the division of labor? Theoretically, if we all specialize in what we have a comparative advantage in we’ll create more wealth for society, right?

What Mr. Frauenfelder understands (and what many of our policy makers and economists fail to understand) is that happiness doesn’t necessarily increase when GDP does. In my opinion, efficiency that leads to unhappiness defeats the purpose. Caring about what I’m doing, inefficient as it may be, seems to bring me more fulfillment and happiness than doing something efficiently that doesn’t matter. Many efficiency aficionados seem to have a hard time wrapping their mind around this concept.

In a world in which we are inundated with the books about how to be more efficient, I found the inefficient stories contained in Mr. Frauenfelder’s book to be refreshing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go ‘make’ my dinner.

[click the following for and copies of the book]


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