I For One Welcome My New Infrared Faucet Overlord

Interesting post and discussion at 11d on Sandra Tsing Loh’s latest essay in the Atlantic Monthly, which I read on the train this week. I thought the essay was terrible for a variety of reasons, many of them stylistic. There’s some ingredients in it for an interesting commentary on motherhood, domesticity and family but the alternatively accusatory and wheedling tone was really off-putting.


Tone is a complicated issue in evaluating writing of any kind. It matters: writing is rhetoric, not just content. Content is easier to dispute and correct: this is wrong, this is right, this is confused.

It’s hard to write about tone in a review of a book without complaining that the author should have written the book that you would prefer to have read (or even authored), in which you take yourself as an ideal, typical or important reader.

One example in my recent reading is Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I finally got around to finishing. It’s a strange sensation to finish a book where you agree with the basic premise, agree with many of the specific points, acknowledge that the author is quite aware about the history of the ideas that are important to him and still find yourself frequently annoyed as hell with the way he chooses to say it.

I’m all for teaching what Crawford calls “the practical arts”, I’d agree that visceral experience with the material world has a power that abstract knowledge does not have, and that there’s a power in knowing for yourself how things and machines work.

Part of my problem, I guess, is that he oversells his case. There are people who approximate what he calls craftsmen even in knowledge work, for one, who have the agency and ethos that he sees as systematically absent from that world. He often takes material objects, machines and technologies as artifacts which simply exist for the practical, craftmanslike person to work with, showing little interest in the processes by which new technologies are imagined, designed or implemented until or unless they become something he disdains because they are no longer easily accessible to craftsmanlike tinkering. He’s got a fairly shop-worn (pun intended) critique of consumer culture, which is banal but tolerable until you stop to think a bit about the fact that the business that puts bread on his table is maintaining vintage motorcycles that his customers drive for fun down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hello, 21st Century leisure and consumption! It’s not exactly reshoeing the plow horse for the Widow Stevens so she can plant enough wheat for the coming winter.

Maybe it’s that he complains about erudition but keeps most of his polemic afloat with plenty of readings and citations and some cherrypicking. The best two chapters in the book are his “Education of a Gearhead” about his concrete experiences in motorcycle repair and a small bit of the following chapter on his white-collar discomforts: the rest of it feels, a bit like Sandra Tsing Loh’s essay, like a personal conviction in search of a social narrative, as if his own discoveries and experiences aren’t enough to keep it going. It feels, in that sense, both padded and lacking in confidence, as if he wants his old think tank buddies to think well of him and believes that they won’t unless he speaks their language as well as the new literacy he’s discovered.

Maybe it’s just tone, and personal taste. There was all of what I liked in the book, which was quite a bit. Then I had some more dispassionate questioning of some of his evidence or interpretations. And then there was a growing amount of irritation with the way he chose to say it.

Crawford doesn’t like technologies which automate some aspect of their functioning, which take the manual agency of the user out of the picture. Fine, I guess, but it’s sort of an arbitrary line in a lot of technologies, not to mention a feature of technological history which waxes and wanes rather than moves in a steady line.

What triggered me off, and kept me triggered as I read the rest of the book was a complaint about faucets which have infrared or motion sensors rather than handles.

Crawford writes, “Consider the angry feeling that bubbles up in this person when, in a public bathroom, he finds himself waving his hands under the faucet, trying to elict a few seconds of water from it in a futile rain dance of guessed-at mudras. This man would like to know: Why should there not be a handle? Instead he is asked to supplicate invisible powers. It’s true, some people fail to turn off a manual faucet. With its blanket presumption of irresponsibility, the infrared faucet doesn’t merely respond to this fact, it installs it, giving the status of normalcy. There is a kind of infantilization at work, and it offends the spirited personality.” pp. 55-56

This is like an Andy Rooney monologue that’s gotten in bed with a raging polemic and produced a child more irritating than either. What, a faucet is somehow agency because you turn it? Agency over what? A massive infrastructure which brings the water up through the faucet? Crawford’s got a footnote in which he concedes this very point, as if he read the passage over again and felt sheepish about it. It’s not just the exaggeration of the point itself that annoyed me, however. If you’ve got a first-person point to make, make it with the right pronoun. What’s so hard about, “I find it irritating to wave my hands in front of the infrared sensor”? And seriously, “it offends the spirited personality”? They make spirited personalities pretty fragile where Crawford comes from, I guess.

When the tone is that wrong once, I find I’m much more sensitive to similar off notes and ill graces for the rest of a text. Save for when he’s squarely focused on his own experiences with machinery, Crawford frequently slips into this distanced third-person voice and makes universal and abstract pronouncements on work and agency and human dignity.

It’s not just that I feel a cussed desire to argue with even the statements I’m sympathetic to, but that somehow this voice, this tone, is far away from the substantive argument of the book: not concrete, not practical, not rooted in experience, not visceral. It feels like he’s trying too hard to validate his choices in a sweepingly universal way, as diktat rather than proposition, the same way that Loh feels like she’s writing about anything, everything, that will keep her from having to look too long in the mirror.

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12 Responses to I For One Welcome My New Infrared Faucet Overlord

  1. jfruh says:

    Re: faucets: the sink in the men’s room in the main student union on the center campus at Cornell is (or at least was in the early-to-mid ’90s when I was there) controlled by a pair of foot pedals, one for hot water and one for cold. Based on the industrial design, I’d estimate that the sink was built sometime in the ’30s or ’40s, though it was well maintained. I always found it a delight to use; it had all of the advantages of the infrared sensor method — no germy faucets to touch, and you need to hold your feet down on the pedal to get the water to flow, so there’s no danger of leaving the sink running when you leave — and yet it worked much more efficiently than any infrared faucet, and had a pleasing mechanical feel that I assume Crawford would approve of. It was such a great sink, in fact, that I have fond memories of it more than a decade later, and yet I’ve never encountered another one like it, anywhere, and I’ve always wondered why. Would the mechanical internals of such a sink be particularly touchy? The sink at Cornell was never out of order, as far as I can tell…

  2. Cosma says:

    I could be wrong, but I always thought the point to those sensors was hygiene (not having touch the same tap that others had) more than conserving water. I mean, if C. wants to force others to touch his fecal matter so he has a momentary feeling of control, that sounds more like an issue to bring up with his therapist than a comment on The Way We Live Now…

  3. JLR says:

    I find it amazing that anyone could have (apparently) devoted so much thought to this problem and completely failed to understand the fundamental hygiene issues of faucets in public restrooms. That would certainly taint my sympathy for the author.

  4. Chris Segal says:

    Taking this post as an excuse to rant about writing styles in general, largely because I was thinking of you earlier and thinking that it would be good if I did a better job of keeping in touch:

    I’m working this year as a managing editor of one of the school’s lesser-known law reviews, and the quality of work that passes across my (virtual) desk is appalling. My responsibilities include rewriting footnotes and making the authors’ sources actually make sense (aside: law professors seem to be uniquely bad at writing footnotes – I can only theorize that they know someone like me will fix it for them, and of course the rules make no sense anyway), but I also have a small amount of discretion to make substantive and stylistic changes to the articles when necessary.

    Unfortunately, in many cases the necessary changes would far exceed any sort of discretion, to say nothing of the time I have for such tasks. These articles often need to be rewritten from scratch. Legal writing has a reputation for being unreadable, of course, but it bothers me that the problem is so prevalent in the academic legal community. Court filings are an entirely different beast, and I can understand the reasons for short, clipped sentences in court, even if they come off as awkward: we don’t want to be confusing judges or (God help us) juries. But law professors take their chairs based on academic credentials at least as much if not more than on legal experience, and I really wish that they showed more rhetorical ability.

    I recognize that your post is more about mixing metaphors and going way overboard with a rhetorical style that doesn’t work for the material at hand, but that is merely an extreme in the other direction. Since high school I’ve been taught that good writing is the most important academic skill (although I make no promises regarding my own writing!), and I really do wish that more people would get the same message.

    So, good post, I guess. Tone is a distinct and, I think, more elusive subset of style, but similar principles hold. I think tone is tougher insofar as something can be “well written” but still off-putting to a given reader. You have every right to complain about tone in writing, but I think expecting people to conform to your ideas of tone has a somewhat higher bar than style in general. That said, Crawford is obviously egregious.

    And no, I do not have any profound thoughts on public restrooms.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Very interesting. I think this is one reason I want to temper my criticism of Crawford. Tone and style involve personal preferences, whereas basic clarity of expression is something that a critic or editor can be fairly detached in examining. There are way more people who have a problem at that level who nevertheless make a living doing some kind of written communication. Crawford’s book reads fairly well, it’s making some compelling points, you could easily use it to spur some interesting conversations. All good, and a great credit to him.

  6. As you could probably predict, Tim, I liked Shop Class as Soulcraft an awful lot; I think it’s a great book, and one that will last. You point(s) about tone are worth considering, though–I’ll agree with you that some parts of the book seem much more belabored than others. I would take issue with your small slam regarding his critique of consumer culture, though: I really think that Crawford makes it pretty clear that he is a happy participant in that culture, that he loves its technology and opportunity. He’s definitely not a Wendell Berry, that’s for sure. His qualification of his embrace of consumerism, I think, arises almost entirely from his sense of the distancing, the standardization, and thus the ignorance which absentee capitalism forces upon both the products of the consumer culture and those who make themselves a part of it. The Sunday driver who doesn’t know the first thing about how to maintain his motocycle; the Jiffy-Lube mechanic whose ability to maintain the bike is entirely dependent upon a manual written by outsourced bunch of desk-bound technical writers; the knock-off assembly-line bike itself, machined in Brazil and put together in Juarez: this is the stuff he hates. Maybe you could argue that condemning the cosmopolitan economics of modern consumerism means condemning leisure consumption itself, but I don’t think that’s the case.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Except that I don’t think you can so neatly separate the two, and that playing the kinds of games with authenticity that he plays on multiple registers is bound to slide into a kind of rejection of mass consumption as inevitably inauthentic. The basic way out is the way some (definitely not all) slow food or locavore gourmands take, which is to say a largely aesthetic, pleasure-driven appreciation of their preferred food. E.g., not that slow food is best because it is authentic, or locavore food is best because it is not industrial or mass produced, but because food in that fashion generally tastes better, is more versatile, is easier to know and work with.

    The easier to know part is something Crawford argues about machinery, but he often slides also into the idea that machines which do not permit craftsmanlike tinkering are both inauthentic of themselves and are preferred by inauthentic people, are a sign of soullessness. This is made worse by the fact that he’s got very little interest really in processes of production or technological innovation, and has a universal prescription for our relationship to machinery which is almost by its nature not scalable to mass society. I prefer my artisanal snobs to be self-acknowledged snobs, I suppose: snobbery which poses as emancipatory, democratizing, down-with-the-people gets under my skin.

  8. Snobbery which poses as emancipatory, democratizing, down-with-the-people gets under my skin.

    Ouch. I can’t deny that cuts deep, Tim.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Eek, by no means a dig at you in any respect: you’re about as humble a person as I know in the way you present and argue. What I mean here is that Crawford’s manifesto strikes me as at least half based on his aesthetic view of what makes for the good life. Which is absolutely fine. It’s absolutely fine even to evangelize for the good life as you understand it, and that’s inevitably going to involve suggesting that most other people ought to like what you like, live as you believe they should live. But it’s got to start from a constant recall that this is about good (food) (sex) (wine) (literature) (machines) (daily habits) and an aesthete’s appreciation of their goodness, which seems to me should always be unabashedly personal. That way, when you argue that everybody else should get with the aesthetic program, you tend not to forget that you think you have better taste than other people, rather than tricking yourself into thinking that everybody would have this good taste if the Powers that Be/Consumer Culture/Hegemony/Mainstream Media or whatever weren’t enslaving your mind.

    It’s about not confusing a project of persuasion with a project of emancipation, and I think Crawford really does confuse the two. I think that’s one reason that a lot of cultural conservatives like his book: because this is a confusion that is frequently found among culture warriors (right and left).

  10. Western Dave says:

    I had the same experience with A Whole New Mind. I hated that book passionately. But once I took the fearmongering and bad stats away, I was in basic agreement with the argument.

  11. Carl says:

    To knock off one chip of this large question, I have no problem with automated agency-aids when they work well. This is just a tool ethic. A faucet is already a tool, and a complex one as you note. An infrared faucet sensor is no different than handle faucet or a recipro saw (or a motorcycle) if it gets you along in the project more efficiently.

    But that’s the standard. If the sensor is calibrated so you have to wave your hands up close enough to the nozzle that some fraction of distracted poo-hands are going to brush up against it, the hygienic project is not only not furthered but is actively defeated.

  12. peter55 says:

    I wonder if Crawford every flies. Every landing in fog of a Boeing or an Airbus at a western airport is done entirely by the auto-pilot, with the human pilots sitting idle, twiddling their thumbs. We humans are much worse than machines for some tasks, such as seeing through fog. Crawford may despair at the loss of manual controil such automation implies, but, for myself, I delight in the artistry shown by the software engineers in creating machines capable of such activities.

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