week 5

The two documentaries we watched this week were incredibly compelling, providing a look into these complex academic topics with digestible case studies and analogies. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace expertly captured the tension between two views of ecologies — one that promotes equilibrium, which can be seen as embracing the status quo, and another that advocates for (or at least more deeply acknowledges) dynamism and constant change. Watching it, and having our class discussion, I kept feeling paralyzed or defeated by the challenge of changing any complex system, almost regardless of scale. Someone in the class discussion articulated my feelings really well — it seems that the difficulty in changing a system comes precisely from the interconnected nature of our current systems. Usually, there’s no way to isolate one element in order to try something new; every small change can feel monumental because different sections of the whole system are dependent on each other and therefore will be affected. The geodesic dome metaphor for ecology, mentioned in Curtis’s documentary, feels very relevant here: each stick that makes up the dome is individually weak, but together they make an incredibly strong structure. But the sticks have to stay together to achieve that — so what happens if you want to change a section for whatever reason? Can you replace one stick at a time, or in chunks, without the dome falling apart? Even if you can, is that the best or most efficient way to do it? Or should you just tear it down and start over? And what happens when the dome is your family’s relationships, or your company’s culture, or your country’s politics, or your world’s economic system — what does tearing it down to start over even mean?

The discussion of craft as it related to humans and machines was the most interesting aspect of Being in the World to me. As we talked about in class, it seems that machines can’t craft because they lack that human expertise; using the recipe example again, a robot cannot just perform steps from a written recipe — regardless of how well-written or detailed it is — and come away with a perfectly delicious meal every time. There is infinite variability, from environmental conditions (altitude, humidity, or temperature), technical factors (any of the kitchenware used, from ovens to pans to spatulas), down to the organic matter (the ripeness of produce, age of condiments, and so on generating different tastes). An experienced cook will account for this infinite variability and compensate for it: adding oil to balance out the acid, for example. Because a machine can’t taste or feel — because it lacks instinct and judgment —, it can’t craft in this sense that humans can. All the examples of craft and “masters” (the restaurant chef, the carpenter, the flamenco artist, and the jazz player) in the documentary really helped connect these ideas, grounding them in our lives and experiences. The flamenco artist’s argument in favor of a handmade guitar in particular, saying that it feels different from a mass-manufactured instrument  — even saying it makes the music sound better —, because you can feel the devotion of the maker in it, really stuck with me. It made me think of my own handmade-ish objects: some pieces of pottery (a bowl and two plates) I’ve painted with my husband at a studio called The Painted Pot. Technically, these pieces aren’t any different from my other dishware (if anything, they’re a little bit worse because they aren’t microwave-safe), but the joy I find in using them is very real, and any time I find a new chip or crack in them I get way more upset than I would if they weren’t handpainted. Of course, I feel that way because these objects are unique, one-of-a-kind, and imbued with the memories of the time we spent together while painting them. But there are other unique objects that we could have made together — maybe personalized and ordered online, manufactured far away from us. I have to think that I would still be upset if I found a chip in a personalized yet machine-printed bowl, but not quite as upset as I get about our Painted Pot bowl; the effort that we spent in picking out colors, coating it multiple times, thinking about a pattern and then trying to execute it (with dubious, but heartfelt results) — it all adds up to produce a much more meaningful piece, almost with a human character of its own.

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