• John Favaro

Mind and Body and the Future of Work

Updated: Aug 6, 2018

I came to this blog post fully intending to write exclusively about a subject pointed out to me by my GRASPnetwork colleague Guenter Koch a few weeks ago. But as I began to investigate, I found myself coming right back, by a tortuous path, to the topic I wrote about in my last blog post – artificial intelligence. (I’m cheating here: I was actually writing about machine learning, a sub-discipline of artificial intelligence.) My readings brought back a memory of a book written by Hubert Dreyfus, legendary professor of philosophy at Berkeley who died last year. He was probably the earliest, and certainly the most famous artificial intelligence skeptic, laying out his arguments over four decades ago in the book What Computer’s Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. When I was a student at Berkeley, I had the opportunity once to attend a panel discussion that turned into a lively sparring match between Dreyfus and the A.I. stars of the day.

The main argument of Dreyfus against A.I. was that computers would never be able to program what is called “common sense knowledge”, as opposed to bare facts that you just have to organize. As he explained, “For one thing a lot of what we know we know just by being in the world and looking around and having bodies. It’s not a bare fact that I can’t chew gum and whistle at the same time. It’s something that I can just sort of try and run and simulate and I can see immediately that I can’t do it.”

Having bodies – that was the key to it all. Having a body enables intuition and insights, things that can’t be rationally analyzed. In What Computers Can’t Do Dreyfus does something interesting from the point of view of us GRASPnetworkers: he brings artists into the picture. “Great artists have always sensed the truth, stubbornly denied by both philosophers and technologists, that the basis of human intelligence cannot be isolated and explicitly understood.” To sum it all up, he quotes Yeats: “Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it.” Humans have bodies; computers don’t. Game Over as far as Dreyfus is concerned.

This argument about the essential inseparability of the human mind and body is what came back to me as I was reading about the original topic of this post: a recent resurgence in manual occupations. Guenter had pointed out an article by Eduard Kaeser, a Swiss philosopher, blogger, and (once again, interesting for us GRASPnetworkers) jazz musician. Kaeser observes that “Today, young people prefer to train in ‘knowledge work’. Instead of manipulating things; they learn to operate on information about things. Laying your own hands on something has become almost exotic for many.” Then he becomes positively GRASPian: “What’s going on here? The world of postindustrial work is immaterial. And within this immateriality, the anthropological core of work disappears – a core that consists of creating something and seeing oneself in that creation.”

Kaeser then goes on to name several authors who have written on various aspects of this phenomenon recently. In its review of the book Craeft by Alexander Langlands about the rediscovery of traditional crafts, the New York Times observes that “ … at a time where our disconnection from the world around us is not just tragic but downright dangerous, recovering our status as Homo faber, the species that makes things, may be our salvation.” Note how Langlands uses the word “craeft”, instead of its modern form “craft”. The New York Times picked up on that and notes that “ … according to Langlands, ‘craeft’ is nearly untranslatable, ‘a form of knowledge, not just a knowledge of making but a knowledge of being.’” Doesn’t that sound a bit like Hubert Dreyfus and his Yeats quote (“Man can embody the truth, but he cannot know it”)? It also sounds a bit like Wittgenstein, the subject of my colleague Guenter's recent blog post: Wittgenstein made the point that a human being has only a real existence when being "in the world"; i.e. he admitted that the human condition is only possible in a real world context. The Guardian notes that the old English meaning of the word craeft is “ .. an amalgam of ‘knowledge, power, skill’.” Mind and body.

The Craftsmen, by Richard Sennett, provides yet another perspective. A Guardian review observes that “ … Sennett views the satisfactions of physical making as a necessary part of being human. We need craft work as a way to keep ourselves rooted in material reality, providing a steadying balance in a world which overrates mental facility.”

Kaeser himself notes that to some degree this has all been seen before, particularly in the Arts & Crafts movement in the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Plenty has been written about this movement, so I won’t do much more here than to highlight some relevant aspects. John Ruskin was an important inspiration for the movement, and it has been observed that “ … Ruskin had argued that the separation of the intellectual act of design from the manual act of physical creation was both socially and aesthetically damaging …” Mind and body once again.

However, as Kaeser and others also note, the Arts & Crafts movement was to a great extent a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, a “back to basics” movement. Not everybody was happy with that attitude, given that the Industrial Revolution ultimately raised the standard of living of so many people. I find it interesting that today’s return to manual occupations and rediscovery of crafts is happening during a second Industrial Revolution: the emergence of the Knowledge Economy. I think there are some lessons in that for all of us (including those of us in GRASPnetwork) who want to do something about this immaterial world that is emerging: the right answer isn’t to try to escape it or to stop it. Just like the first Industrial Revolution, this second revolution is also enriching the world and raising our standard of living. We need to work with it and redress any shortcomings it may have created – such as the imbalance between the mental and the physical.

Fortunately, there are many who also see it this way. In a review of Richard Ocejo’s book Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy, Richard Florida says that “ … Ocejo helps us better understand the opportunities and challenges of reurbanization and the transformation of older manual labor jobs into new hybrid forms of knowledge work.” Hybrid forms of knowledge work – this is a good characterization of what GRASPnetwork is trying to do: rather than avoid or hinder the immaterial knowledge economy, transform it into something that involves both mind and body, both the invisible and the visible. We at GRASPnetwork like this vision of the future of work.

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