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Artisans and algorithms

July 11, 2013

I just read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechnical Reproduction.” Fascinating essay–but I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about a blog post I read today that can be seen in a way as a response to Benjamin. It’s titled “You Are Not an Artisan”, and it’s fills me with one part fascination, one part schadenfreude, one part horror. It’s about the “threat” of automation, the lure of “artisanal” labor, and the real place of human work in an AI-dominated economy. All things I’ve been thinking a lot about recently now that my wife and I are gradually seeing our liberal-arts-college idealism to be confronted by economic reality.

The first point to be made is this: the “creative” versus “uncreative” distinction is irrelevant as far as computers are concerned. This is mostly because “creative” is an empty token. When we say “creative,” we mostly mean “sexy” (as opposed to “schleppy”). We apply the word not to the jobs that only humans can do, but to the only jobs humans want to do. But there’s no reason to think that the jobs computers leave for us will be the jobs we want to do. A lot of what we think of as creative can be done by a computer, and a lot of what we think of as boring cannot:

Machines don’t see the world in  sexy-versus-schleppy,  creative-versus-uncreative or production-versus-consumption terms. For the moment, they don’t consume at all.

For the moment, computers only produce. The world according to computers (and by extension, robots and soon all machines) offers two kinds of work: algorithmically scalable and algorithmically unscalable.

The big point here is that computers are an industrial age technology. Algorithms are codified processes that deliver economies of scale in narrowly circumscribed kinds of information work. They are information processing assembly lines.

We forget this obvious point that computers are an economies-of-scale technology because the processes are very high-resolution.  So we mistake fine-grained combinatorial variety (think Starbucks drinks or the dizzying variety of cellphone plans) for the sort of true variety that computers still leave humans to handle. It’s another matter that we don’t like having this unsexy work left for us.

So: computers are bad at variety. Artisanal products are all about variety. What’s the problem? I won’t like, this is one reason I really enjoy reading this essay: it does a great job explaining what’s wrong with the hipsterly “artisanal turn,” as an English professor might call it. Basically, artisans delude themselves into thinking that the variety in what they produce has value. It doesn’t.

They do this by confusing economically essential variety (such as handling all the potential variety and ongoing evolution in an online payment system) with economically optional variety (such as uniqueness in hand-crafted coffee mugs). This is the artisan delusion.

If the uniqueness in the product mainly makes the producer feel more special and unique, without leading to profitable differentiation, it’s the optional kind, like latte art.

The former is variety that must be handled to make a market  profitable. Essential variety exists in even the most low-end, mass-produced version of an economic good. Optional variety only matters, if it matters at all, in premium niches that can only sustain a few producers. When too many producers swarm into these niches, a lottery economy is created and customers essentially enjoy free variety sustained by a churn of deluded producers offering under-priced goods.

Often, the optional variety doesn’t matter even to the most refined customers (who care least about what they get in return for marginal dollars). So an unprofitable amount of marketing effort  must be expended simply to convince people to care about distinctions that make no difference.

The artisan delusion is important because almost everything artisans want to do — all the local-and-sexy work — is actually algorithmically scalable once you filter out the noise. There just isn’t much requisite variety there. Which means it is more vulnerable to being taken over by post-industrial modes of automated production, not less. Because software makes assembly lines more capable, not less.

Another way to express this, I think, would be: the desire to be an “artisan” is basically a desire to do work that feels meaningful without actually paying enough to attention to the world to learn what work has meaning. The presence of automation changes what work has meaning, and we can’t just ignore it. We can pretend that automation is soul-destroying and insist on doing everything by hand, but that won’t add real value to the product of our work, and so it won’t give real meaning to our work, either.

So if the most meaningful work-life in an automated society isn’t a symbiotic relationship between hipsters producing artisanal goods and well-paid programmers buying them, what is? Venkat says we should see machines less as metaphorical overlords and parasites, and more as metaphorical children and hosts. We’re the parents; we’re the intestinal fauna.

Put the two together and you get a view of technology as a giant child we’ve given birth to, that is probably never going to grow up and take care of us in our retirement. Instead, we’ll have to live in its guts and take care of it forever, doing the complex schlep work it cannot do.

So one way to understand the historical change transforming human society today is by analogy to parenthood. Life as we know it is over. It’s all about taking care of the big, messy brat now (this is another way of describing what I called hackstability in an earlier post). It likes to play chess, drive cars, fly fighter planes, make coffee mugs, win at Jeopardy, compose music and maybe in the future design clothes, do elegant mathematics and so forth.

And we get to do none of those things. We don’t get to be bards; we get to be chimney sweepers. So the point really is to be a cog in some great machine–a human cog, without which the machine cannot run.

Do I buy all this? Well, I certainly think the critique of the artisanal dream is spot-on. But I think the hipsters know that too. I’m reminded of the first verse from Fleet Foxes’ “Helpless Blues”:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

Alas, I’m not sure what it would mean to be both intestinal fauna and parent of the ghost in the machine. Are some people one and some the other–labor and capital? The real problem with that dichotomy, to my mind, is that it assumes we can actually identify “capitalists” who are responsible for what is going on, when really the life of the chimney-sweep (which Venkat strangely cites as a positive exemplar) disturbs us not just because it’s nasty, brutish, and short, but most of all because it follows that course without anyone in particular saying it should be like that. The real danger is that automation has no parents, at least none capable of civilizing it.

One final complaint: this analysis, like most economic analysis, leaves leisure out of the equation: leisure becomes consumption. But what if the purpose of social life isn’t to maximize production or consumption, but to achieve some goal that cannot be understood in economic terms? What happens to this critique of the artisanal delusion then?

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