The Phantom Economy   /   Summer 2010   /    Book Forum: Shop Class As Soulcraft

Agency Versus Autonomy

Pre-empted by choices not our own.

Matthew B. Crawford

Photograph by Alexander Schimmeck via Unsplash.

Some of the current Mercedes models do not have dipsticks. If the oil level gets low, the owner is sent an email. This serves nicely as an index of a shift in our relationship to machines. Lubrication has been recast, for the user, in the frictionless terms of the electronic device. In those terms, lubrication has no rationale and ceases to be an object of active concern for anyone but the service technician. In a sense, this increases the freedom of the Mercedes user. He has gained a kind of independence by not having to futz around with dipsticks and dirty rags.

But in another sense, it makes him more dependent. He has outsourced the burden of paying attention to his oil level to another, and the price he pays for this disburdenment is that he is entangled in a more minute, all-embracing, one might almost say maternal relationship with…what? Not with the service technician at the dealership, at least not directly, as there are layers of bureaucracy that intervene: the dealership that employs the technician; Daimler AG, Stuttgart, Germany, who hold the service plan and warranty on their balance sheet; and finally Mercedes shareholders, unknown to one another, who collectively dissipate the financial risk of your engine running low on oil. There are now layers of collectivized, absentee interest in your motor’s oil level, and no single person is responsible for it. If we understand this under the rubric of “globalization,” we see that the tentacles of that won- drous animal reach down into things that were once unambiguously our own: the amount of oil in a man’s crankcase.

Adapted from Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft (New York, NY: Penguin, 2009), chapter 3, “To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff.”

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