Making things with your hands gets a bad rap today. It’s so blue-collar. You’re a failure if you don’t go to college to get a white-collar job so you can lounge behind a desk. That’s so wrong, I could scream!
To me, working with your hands is not only an essential aspect of being human but also one of the most joyous and uplifting. While I admit that a part of me has always been drawn to the philosophical and the abstract, that’s always been balanced by a passionate need to work with my hands. The best example from my life is, perhaps, when I dropped out of sociology graduate school to establish a career building stonewalls for twenty years.
In a similar tale, Matthew Crawford writes about changing careers from a philosopher to motorcycle mechanic in his book, “Shop Class to Soul Class.” Like me, he needed a physical practice “to serve as an anchor to the world beyond one’s own head”
Now, more than ever, we will all need a secure anchor to the physical to prevent being blown away by Artificial Intelligence (AI), a massive storm on our horizon. We will need our bodies if we expect to survive: They are the essence of what makes us human and our conduit to what’s really real.
Biologically, we are living, breathing animals tethered to Mother Earth by sensitive, flesh-and-blood bodies. We also have exquisitely dextrous hands with opposable thumbs. But they can get us in trouble. Because of their tinkering, software engineers and their masters are concocting a brave, new world where we no longer need a physical form or worry about feeling pain — in other words, a world where we are like gods.
However, if technicians successfully build this virtual world, we will find ourselves not free but captive, reduced to living in whatever world AI projects on our screen. We will forfeit all input, and AI will rule the day. Sadly, our new rulers can probably get away with enslaving us, as long as they continue to sedate us by streaming us irresistible series to watch.
There’s an existential danger here.
By falling victim to AI, we will be stripped of what makes us uniquely human. That’s according to Carrie Barron, M.D. in Psychology today. She has found that creating or tending things by hand enhances mental health and makes us happy. She calls it a primal human need. Spending too much time on technological devices “deprives us of processes that provide pleasure, meaning, and pride.”
She adds,”Making things promotes psychological well-being. Process is important for happiness because when we make, repair or create things we feel vital and effective. It isn’t as much about reaching one’s potential as doing something interesting-less about ambition and more about living.”
Mathew Crawford also sees the eroding of manual skills as part of a much bigger problem: “a fundamental change in how we relate to our physical stuff. As consumers, most of us no longer make things, but buy them instead; we no longer fix things, but replace them.”
As a result, we become passive, dependent, and more easily manipulated. Our physical surroundings no longer hold our attention, and we succumb to what Crawford calls “virtualism” — “a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy.”
I admit it: We humans are real pieces of work: quarrelsome yet endearing social animals, seemingly just bumbling along. Still we must not allow AI to harness our ineptness for high tech aspirations that will undoubtedly be highjacked by nefarious actors.
While we may appear incurable, perhaps we are part of an unfolding masterplan bigger than we can imagine. That’s according to the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Cardin. He says that while we may act like children now, we are not just any children: he envisions us maturing over time to fulfill a great role: to be the ones who reflect the consciousness of the universe.
Let’s not let AI sell us short.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Matthew B. Crawford. Penguin ~ 2010