Tuesday, March 08, 2011

will machines save us?

I enjoy talking with my young wood working scholars as they work. This morning we started a project in which students in the 7th and 8th grades will make their own t-squares and then do some simple drafting. I want them to begin to become familiar with technical drawing as one more means of personal and creative expression and communication. And so as we were finishing work, Wyatt told me that now we have things easy and have become lazy, and that's OK... He said that machines are designed to make things easier for us. Obvious, right? I wasn't prepared for what came next. His expectation is that they will continue to do so. And I have been on the earth long enough to know not to be quite so optimistic. As a woodworker, I've learned that not everything goes just as planned or as hoped.

A well earned skepticism leads one to BE READY with PLAN B.

Is there some benevolent intent in the design of labor saving machinery? Do the makers of such things intend that our lives be made easy, and if so, how will they extract payment for their efforts and what value will we extract from the loss of skill and the descent into laziness? Can that journey be taken at no risk? One thing we know about smart tools is that they have no care or regard for the person given the task of operating them. Machines have no care about the personal characteristics of their operators. Give a man a simple tool like a saw or hammer, and he will have some autonomy in how the tool is used. Whether he hits the nail and whether the nail finds home in one strike or a series of blows or bends flat and requires extraction is subject to his skill in the use of the tool and the benevolence of his intent. As tools become more complicated, the level of human autonomy is decreased and the operator becomes less an agent of free will and more subject to the control by those who own the machines. And so what is so deeply disturbing to me about the optimistic assessment of our relationship to ever decreasing skill and ever increasing complication in our tools? Can you see and bear witness to the loss of human autonomy and decline of democratic values?

In contrast to all this, I've been reading Azby Brown's book, Just Enough, about sustainable living practices in early Japan. Azby notes,
"Is sustainable life worth the effort? The problem is that none of us has ever lived in a sustainable society so it is hard to imagine what it will be like."
But it is important that we think about how we can live more harmoniously with the earth, and its no longer so seemingly abundant resources. This book, Just Enough, is a new favorite book. The thoughtful illustrations make me think of the Whole Earth Catalog. Each page offers material demanding reflection. And it is important that, as we move into a renewed view of responsible craftsmanship, that we have some examples to observe and reflect upon. Azby presents one in a lovely book.

Make, fix and create.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:01 AM

    Seems like the logical path for that thought would be "at least our tools are smart."