2024-05-31 5 min read

Scope Creep, 2024-05-31.

Scope Creep, 2024-05-31.
"Sugar Fabrication." Via the Library of Congress.

To say that something has been fabricated is a relatively small claim. Fabricated things have been made, fashioned, or built, presumably by a person or group of people and as a result of some specific intention or set thereof. Fabricated things have been willed into existence; if an object was fabricated, then there was an earlier time in which it didn't exist. The shirt I'm wearing, the chair I'm sitting in, the laptop on which I type these words – all of these were fabricated. I suppose you could say as well that the concrete slab my chair sits on was fabricated, in the sense that it was made, but then again it wasn't really fashioned, and ultimately there are probably better words (constructed, maybe, or more to the point mixed and poured and allowed to cure).

In earlier definitions, manufactured meant more or less the same as fabricated. Originating from the Latin roots for "hand" and "a working," manufactured things were originally just stuff that had been made. But starting in the industrial revolution, manufacture began to imply repeatability and scale, and today a thing can only be called manufactured if it was made alongside other things, in a system which utilizes interchangeable parts and has at least some concept of repeatable, consistent precision. We can note a few things that it is not generally possible to manufacture, including prototypes, which are of course made before manufacturing commences. Similarly, basically anything that is designed- or engineered-to-order should be thought of as fabricated rather than manufactured.

The verbs to fabricate and to manufacture map imperfectly onto the nouns denoting the places in which they are done: workshop and factory. More or less without exception (if you can think of one, please send me a note), manufacturing happens in factories — but fabrication can and does happen in factories as well. Workshops, on the other hand, are simply places where work is done. Fabrication is certainly possible there; so is research, and development, and maintenance, and repair. Even tinkering counts as work and can be done in a workshop, which derives from the Old English weorc for, among other things, a "discrete act performed by someone."

Let's just repeat that phrase: "A discrete act performed by someone." I find this definition wonderful, and bizarre. I feel myself nodding along with it: yes, discrete; yes, an act; yes, someone. There are certainly other ways to think about work — as directed towards an explicit goal; as performed in a professional or at least economic context; as inseparable from the continuous stream of anthropogenic action. But when I think of my own time in the workshop, I find it comforting to keep this phrase in mind.

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  • Actually, here's a potential counterpoint to my claim that manufacturing happens exclusively in factories: Are fast food restaurants engaged in manufacturing? McDonalds prioritizes repeatability, scale, and interchangeable components; would it be appropriate to call the work done in their restaurants manufacturing?
  • I'm blasting through Hogs Wild, Ian Frazier's collection of "reported pieces," which is read with care and humor by the author. In a thoughtful review in the New York Times, Carlo Rotella notes that the reported essay deserves to be judged both on its informativeness and also "on traditionally literary grounds: elegance of expression, quality of voice, presentation of its subject from a perspective yielding not only insight but also fresh feeling." On all of these counts, I find Frazier's writing to be superlative.
  • Priya Krishna visits the factory that manufactures Smarties (the candy) in Union, NJ.

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks also to Mayo, Nick, Michael, and Anthony for helping source links this week.

Love, Spencer

Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright
Spencer Wright is the (mostly accidental) founder of Scope of Work, which he started writing (as The Prepared) in 2013. Today he serves as its editor-in-chief and chief dilettante.
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