The classic definition of “craft” can make you happier in the digital age

Classically, craftiness referred to a kind of wisdom, not just to
Classically, craftiness referred to a kind of wisdom, not just to
Image: Ephrat Livni
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Since the first industrial revolution in the 18th century, people have grown increasingly alienated from their own production. The fruits of human labor became factory salaries rather than real fruit grown in orchards or other tangibles that could act as evidence for individuals’ skills—their craftiness, if you will. Now, we are well into the fourth industrial revolution, which has blurred the lines between the physical and digital worlds, and we’re ever-more disconnected from the materials around us, relying on tools too complex for us to make or fix ourselves, stressed about the relentless pace of information, and confused by the abstract nature of our days.

“Against a rising tide of automation and increasing digital complexity, we are becoming further divorced from the very thing that defines us: we are makers, crafters of things,” writes British archaeologist and television personality Alexander Langlands in his new book Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and the True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. “When our lives once comprised an almost unbroken chain of movements and actions as we interacted physically with the material requirements of our existence, today we stare at screens and we press buttons.”

The postmodern society believes in services and purchases, acquiring whatever we need, and often more. Because we don’t make stuff with our hands and can order almost anything from almost anywhere at any time, goods, generally, are no longer priced at their real value. Things are easily replaced, creating a habit of buying more and more. We don’t wear out our clothes because we don’t have to make yarn, dye it, and knit our own sweaters—we just buy more. We throw out food because we don’t grow it ourselves or slaughter animals with our own hands, and so we fail to understand what’s involved in getting a meal to a table and are more inclined to be wasteful.

This is problematic on a global scale; it leads to an ever-needier society making more and more stuff we can’t get rid of, the production of which demands energy, thus leading to excess fossil-fuel use and environmental damage that threatens the planet and humanity itself.

How to soothe the postmodern soul

Langlands believes this could be easily remedied, however. Getting our heads around what craft represents, and getting our hands on stuff and making things, could shift our perspective on time and value and teach us the true worth of materials, not just monetary costs. That would lead to a more intelligent approach to production and consumption, and more sustainable habits for individuals and on the grand scale. “The goal in being craefty,” writes Langlands, “is not to use as much as possible of the technology and resources you have at your disposal but to use as little as possible in relation to the job that needs undertaking,”

The archaeologist isn’t suggesting that everyone cut grass with a scythe—though he does, and swears it’s more effective and fun than a lawnmower. Nor does he insist we all make our own clothes—though that would probably engender a fuller appreciation of the miracle of having a closet full of garments that fit, and have neat stitches, zippers, even buttonholes, pockets, linings, hems, and all with no labor whatsoever!

Langlands thinks reconnecting with the traditional definition of “craeft” guides us back to a more psychologically healthy and sustainable approach to existence. The belief is supported by social science: A 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology tested the effect of labor on love of a thing. When study participants assembled IKEA boxes, folded origami, and built Lego sets, they were much more appreciative of the resulting products, despite imperfections. They were willing to pay more for their misformed boxes than for the perfect constructions they were not involved in, for example.

Making stuff could also soothe the aching postmodern soul. “It occurred to me that if we spent more time individually converting raw materials into useful objects, we might be better placed to contextualize the challenges that face a society addicted to excessive and often conspicuous consumption,” Langlands writes. “Perhaps more importantly, we might be a little bit happier.” Neuroscientist Kelly Lambert of the University of Richmond in Virginia has studied this proposition. In her book, Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power, Lambert writes that simple activities like knitting, cooking, and repairing things all activate brain circuitry associated with good mood and can help prevent and cure depression.

Physical engagement with materials engage sensations like touch, smell, and looking closely, and this focus is healthy. It puts us in the zone. Engaging with nature acts similarly on our bodies: whether it’s caring for a single houseplant or exploring an acre of forest, involving ourselves in nature roots us in the world and offers a relief from the abstractions of a digital-driven existence. Langlands notes that cutting grass by hand has turned tending the lawn into a meditative practice involving sight, scent, touch, and sound. Now, he listens to birds sing rather than battling with a loud machine that breaks down.

Craft as wisdom

Alfred the Great, the first-century Anglo-Saxon king, was something of a scholar. In his English translations of numerous Latin texts, the word “craeft” comes up frequently. Langlands doesn’t think this is due to a dearth of words in English or to the king’s poor writing or style. Rather, it’s because in the Anglo-Saxon English of the first century AD, “craeft” didn’t refer simply to handiwork, but also to knowledge, merit, talent, intellectual skill, and excellence. “Craeft” was used frequently in early Anglo-Saxon texts “to describe a quality or state of being; an almost indefinable knowledge or wisdom,” Langlands writes.

Only with industrialization, Langlands argues, did “craft” become a quaint reminder of handiwork that stands in stark contrast to machine-made goods. “Craft” perhaps lost its initial luster because it had a shadow side, which emerged long before industrialization. The term was also associated with the dark arts in the first century AD: “witchcraft” made “craft” less attractive.

Langlands frames this history as another way to learn from a “craft” philosophy today. He sees the distaste for witches as a fear of otherness. “Isn’t someone who is crafty also someone who simply has a way of doings things that’s different from our own?” he asks. Langlands proposes we each embrace otherness in our own lives, finding ways we’re especially clever by practicing a craft, whether whittling sticks, fencing, haymaking, knitting, or fixing things around the house. This will develop a different kind of smarts than those we currently employ when surfing the web and scanning articles, but that we desperately need now: a slower, more focused approach to working through information.

The mental dexterity that comes with crafting solutions in our daily lives can be applied to the world at large:

Craeft is a form of intelligence, and ingenuity that can shift in accordance with a changing world. What has seemed intelligent for the best part of 150 years—factory production, mass manufacture, conspicuous consumption, and waste—no longer feels all that intelligent in a world of diminishing resources and increasing environmental instability. So a new crafty-ness is required, a re-thinking of what it means to be powerful, resourceful and knowledgeable…To be crafty is all about…a mindful life achieved through beautiful simplicity.