(de)Automation: Or, The Divine is in the Details

There are a lot of corny, fairly sexist images and magazine articles from the 1950’s or so that depicted how people would live in the “future”.

[“Because everything in her home is waterproof, the housewife of 2000 can do her daily cleaning with a hose.” From here.]

Typically they showed how machines or technological advancements would take care of everything for us, from cooking to cleaning to remembering things to raising our kids. One that I can’t find now showed a robot making dinner while the Man of the House sat back and sipped a Gin and Tonic. The promise was that eventually, we’d build better and smarter automaton that would do all our chores for us and we could sit back and do whatever we wanted. We’d be liberated, finally, from mundane day-to-day activities.

These predictions were all wrapped up in the myth of Progress, the upward arch of technological advancement. Technology as the salvation and mechanism for mankind to ascend.

First let me be clear: I’m not anti-technology. First because any true “anti-technologist” who doesn’t reject the simplest artifact (say, a stick fashioned for digging in the dirt) is just drawing arbitrary lines in the sand and declaring this to be technology and that to be… something else. Technology is grand. I like integrated circuits, shoes, penicillin, optical lenses, surgery, radar, and sporks; it’s all neat stuff. I’m not saying technology is bad; tech just is.

A knife is a flat piece of steel ground to an edge. It just exists. A knife in my back is a bad thing, from my perspective at least. A phase-change material that is non-toxic to humans is just some molecules bound to each other in a particular way. A million tons of the stuff dumped into the atmosphere ripping a hole through the ozone layer letting deadly rays from the sun through is far from okay. That’s what I’m getting at: technology is, but how we use it and the stories we tell ourselves about it have value to them.

What I’ve been realizing lately is that the more I use some technology to automate my design work, the more distant from the work I get. I’ve set an insulating barrier between myself and whatever it is I’m doing and I lose touch with it. I’m at the top level and the details of the project are five levels down: I can’t see them.

I catch myself working in broader and broader strokes, until I just sort of wave my hands at the problem, throw some rules of thumb at it, hit the button that makes it go, and call it a day.

This removes all sense of craft from whatever I’m doing, be it a mechanical system design, a drawing, or an event I’m planning.

It’s the difference between working out the flows of energy and matter in a thermodynamic system with pencil and paper, sketching it out, seeing the design, versus throwing some inputs into a calculator someone else built. The result might be the same (although it’s more likely I’ll miss a nuance to the system and mess something up) but I won’t have that intimate connection with the design or analysis.

When I just pull the lever and crank out a result, I feel unfulfilled and bored. I feel like a machine myself. The more automaton I use, the more an automaton I become.

But when I get down into the nitty gritty details of a problem, I just feel good. Scratch that. I feel amazing. I feel fulfilled, vibrant, and alive. It might be 2:34am and I haven’t eaten in 12 hours and I stink and oh damn I’ve needed to pee for a long time without realizing it but I feel like a fucking rock star.

At some level of experience with the details of a particular type of problem, I can start to ease up. When I’ve done something a hundred times and really grok it, I start to figure out how to automate it so I can spend more of my time in the details of something that isn’t old hat to me. The danger lies in skipping straight automating the task: if I never spend the time in the details, I’ll never really understand what I’m doing, and my knowledge will be full of holes. The further I go in that manner, the shakier will my foundation be.

Like everything, there’s nuance and a balance. All automation isn’t bad: in many cases it is extremely appropriate. You will never hear me complain about how computers automate the task of adding and subtracting stuff, or doing statistical analysis on large batches of data. Some automated processes can pull out semantic value from data that a human doing manually would never be able to.

Just… be careful. Critically examine what you are automating. If you start to feel like a lever yourself, take a step back and think it over.

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7 Responses to (de)Automation: Or, The Divine is in the Details

  1. Dan Disney says:

    I agree to a point. I think the process is to automate those details that are of a more mundane nature and typically repeatable to free the thinking for more creative and troublesome design issues, thus making yourself more efficient. I say that is the intent and just as you stated you run the risk of missing some detail nuance or influence that could change things in the design. Thus, is the rub. In an effort to make yourself more efficient you must take risks that you’ll miss some detail that only the craftsman approach would encounter. Thus, the risk of becoming an automaton to gain efficiency is the price to pay for it. Like all things balance and judgement and yes, individual preference factor into the mix. Hey, I posted.

    • flowxrg says:

      Yeah, most things seem immune to concrete conclusions (this is the right way to do things, that is the wrong way, etc) Its all a balancing act…

      Ironic that the son of a robotics engineer wrote the above yeah?

  2. “I’m not saying technology is bad; tech just is.”

    Here follows a rant not related to your main point at all 🙂

    Technology is *not* value neutral. This is a very common belief (and one I once held) but it is false.

    Science might be value neutral (or at least pure logic/math) but technology can’t be. Technology is what we humans use to accomplish some goal (a bad definition but one that will do for now) and as such its purpose is very much wrapped up in the question of its value.

    The atomic bomb is a piece of technology that accomplishes vast destruction. It is not value neutral. Though we might argue that a particular instance of its use is good (prevented a terrible land war) or bad (civilian deaths are unacceptable) it is anything but value neutral.

    Capitalism (tech need not be a shiny gizmo) is a piece of technology that facilitates commerce (another bad definition but you get my drift). I leave the question of its neutrality an exercise for the reader.

  3. flowxrg says:

    Touche, sir.

    Reading back over my post, I think I made an assumed distinction between the human component of technology (the motivations, drives, used cases, etc) and the actual physicality of technology – the artifact itself, the agglomeration of atoms that compose it.

    In retrospect I’m not sure if making such a division has any real use – in any case I dont think its crucial to my main point – but perhaps it does.

    I just went to Wikipedia to find a definition, and there are a good dozen or so, including rather long section on the (ongoing!) debate as to just what technology actually is.

    Ill hazard a statement and say that the three value-containing components within technology are the purposes for which the tech was created (I.e. what the inventor/developer had in mind), the purposes with which the technology is wielded (by whomever uses it), and then what actual impact on humans the technology has.

    So a knife (or an atom bomb) is just a valueless artifact, but useful things can be said about the value of the creation of it (building weapons, pretty sketch), the use of it (spreading butter vs shanking an innocent), and the impact it has on humans (have knives been an overall boon to humans or no?). This last bit really starts getting into the specificity of particular ethical systems (utilitarianism? Deontology? Virtue theory?) Which is way waaay beyond what I’m trying to talk a out here.

    …or is it…

    Thanks for keeping me honest here. 🙂

  4. “I think I made an assumed distinction between the human component of technology (the motivations, drives, used cases, etc) and the actual physicality of technology – the artifact itself, the agglomeration of atoms that compose it.”

    Heh, belief in physicality…I can tell you are a mechanical engineer 🙂

    It should be fairly obvious that lots of pieces of technology are non-physical. Software being an easy example (technically you could say that software has a physical component since it must be stored somewhere but by that logic *any* idea that has been thought by someone has a physical component in their brain).

    “Ill hazard a statement and say that the three value-containing components within technology are the purposes for which the tech was created (I.e. what the inventor/developer had in mind), the purposes with which the technology is wielded (by whomever uses it), and then what actual impact on humans the technology has.”

    I’m down with this locus of value. What ties it together for me is the concept of relationship. Technology is not a platonic ideal that we can examine apart from everything else in the world: it is relational. And that’s where we think about its value, in its relation to its creator (to my mind less important) and its relation to the people (and animals, vegetables, minerals) who use it and are affected by it (of primary importance). It’s all connected (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kB_mOfvDPU).

  5. Keekai Solrain says:

    Aren’t all things “relational”? The physical, technology, science and ideas? “Pure math” is deeply rooted in the fundamental structure of the universe – at least as humans conceive of it! Nothing is value neutral – including our ideas of the underlying principals of this universe. We’ve discovered/conceived/created the universe ourselves (whatever it is we really are – the gaps between, the Divine Details, Whalburg’s “cracks” he’s so worried about maybe!) I know this is way off topic here, but I just want to push this thought to its final conclusion – there is a locus of value on all things, thoughts, existence itself. Discovering (creating?) that meaning is life itself.

    We build on the shoulders of those before us and our fellow travelers, creating at a ever more complex levels by using the multitude of tools available (whether automation or computers or pencil and paper). While depending on the utility of our time saving gizmos and automatons, if we can’t perceive the essence of our designs in it’s most fundamental terms, we’re just automatons ourselves – stamping out carbon copies. This is why a hand sketch on a napkin is just as powerful as a 3D Building Information Model. Still, there is a pleasure in repetitive actions, being mindful of the process itself, a meditative exercise. Craft.

    • flowxrg says:

      “Discovering (creating?) that meaning is life itself.” I agree with that, except that I think meaning and value is always created, not discovered. Value/meaning is a human construct, I believe. Value is created in the relations between humans and other humans, and humans and other things.

      “This is why a hand sketch on a napkin is just as powerful as a 3D Building Information Model. Still, there is a pleasure in repetitive actions, being mindful of the process itself, a meditative exercise. Craft.”

      Very true, I definitely cherish the meditative form of certain work, where my mind goes elsewhere (or is so in the moment I lose consciousness of my own consciousness).

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