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Labor & Economy

Let’s Talk – Socrates at the Wilshire Grand




Dino Degrassi and Jason Campbell engage in dialogues for a living. They also put the electrical wiring into some of Los Angeles’ largest and most recognizable building projects. Every morning at 6:30 the two electricians ride the street level elevator down into the construction site at Wilshire and Figueroa, where the core of the Wilshire Grand hotel is emerging out of the ground. When finished, the 73-story building will be the tallest west of the Mississippi.

Degrassi is a seasoned journeyman – ostensibly a teacher of apprentices like Campbell who work their way through a five-year program, learning as they go.

Throughout the day, the men’s hard-earned craft knowledge guides their conversation. “I try to help Jason work efficiently,” Degrassi says, as he moves along a cement deck tying in conduit. “I want to make sure he paces himself and doesn’t get hurt.”

“There’s a lot of wisdom to be learned from Dino, tricks of the trade you don’t learn in books,” Campbell adds.

They move in tandem, hunched to the floor, edging delicately around rectangles of iron rebar. The flow of work is a series of questions to be answered. What is the best location for the circuit they are running? Is the conduit pipe bent at the right angle?

For an experienced trades person – the electricians, plumbers, ironworkers constructing a building – an ongoing conversation at work is natural. While the architectural blueprints are essential for providing a general direction, the experienced craftsperson knows that quite often the map is not the territory.

Unexpected problems always arise that need to be wrestled with on the spot, where only practical experience and tacit knowledge can point the way forward. “Things change from up in the office to down in the field,” Degrassi says as he kneels to tighten a power box. “We have to plan for the unexpected.”

The integration of local and practical knowledge is critical for avoiding the hubris and predictable failures of abstract planning and over-reliance on experts. In his book Seeing Like a StateHow Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, anthropologist James C. Scott outlines how top-down plans that ignore the intimate knowledge of how people actually live and work often end in failure.

Scott outlines disasters in Tanzania, Brasilia and the Soviet Union as examples of bureaucratic blindness to the social, economic and ecological details of community life. An imperial approach to planning always “dismisses practical knowledge as insignificant at best and as dangerous superstitions at worst,” Scott writes.

The destruction of local and practical knowledge, and its replacement by standardized and centralized formulas is not limited to bad state planning. It is also endemic to large-scale bureaucratic capitalism. Top-down organizations are not known for accomodating human inventiveness, the natural desire of people to shape their own work and environment according to their lived experience.

At the Wilshire Grand, Degrassi and Campbell’s back and forth adds a dynamic tension that helps them discover solutions to the daily challenges of wiring the complex building. Like a Socratic dialogue, their ongoing conversation starts from practical knowledge — the daily application of their tools to the imperatives of the physical world. While they have both studied the theory of electricity at the apprenticeship school, the transition from book learning to the job is profound.

Some scholars argue that Socrates refused to write down his teachings, insisting that the actual conversation between teacher and student – the so-called Socratic method – was the essence of philosophy. A written text can become codified and stale. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates speaks about the potential deleterious effects of written works that cannot respond to questions the way people in conversation can. Written speeches merely “trundle about everywhere in the same way.”

The proprietary nature of local knowledge is in some ways a threat to the managerial impulse – the conceit that the consolidation of information is crucial for measuring and thereby controlling the unpredictable flow of our social and economic life. The infatuation with formulas for efficiency can reveal a profound suspicion of individual self-reliance and initiative. Very often, a manager’s skill can actually be found under the workman’s hardhat. The most successful managers recognize this.

It is always tempting for leaders to embrace an ambitious plan developed by the smartest people around. But whether it’s at the Los Angeles Unified School District or the Pentagon – whether it’s iPads for students or elaborate military operations – the plan is one thing, its implementation another.

No app will provide a teacher with the ability to teach or give an electrician supple hands and creative insight at work. Those talents require people with accumulated skill and on-the-ground experience – the vital qualities that Dino Degrassi and Jason Campbell proudly display every day.

(Kelly Candaele is directing a documentary film on craftsmanship in the building of the Wilshire Grand hotel.)

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