The Wonder Of What We Are

I recently caught a link to a brief video showing a robotic hand manipulating a cube. Here is a longer video from which the short clip was taken, and here is the article describing the technology that imbued this robotic hand with its “remarkable new dexterity.” MIT’s Technology Review tweeted a link with this short comment: “This robot spent the equivalent of a hundred years learning how to manipulate a cube in its hand.”

Watching the robotic hand turn the cube this way and that, I was reminded of those first few months of a child’s life when they, too, learn how to use their hands. I remembered how absurdly proud I felt as a new father watching my baby achieve her fine motor skill milestones. I’m not sure who was more delighted when, after several failed attempts, she finally picked up her first puff and successfully brought it to her mouth.

This, in turn, elicited a string of loosely related reflections.

I imagined the unlikely possibility that one unintended consequence of these emerging technologies might be renewed wonder at the marvel that is the human being.

After all, the most sophisticated tools we are currently capable of fashioning are only haltingly developing the basic motor skills that come naturally to a six-month-old child. And, of course, we have not even touched on the acquisition of language, the capacity for abstract thought, the mystery of consciousness, etc. We’re just talking about turning a small cube about.

It seemed, then, that somewhere along the way our wonder at what we can make appears to have displaced our wonder at what we are.

Ultimately, I don’t think I want to oppose these two realities. Part of the wonder of what we are is, indeed, that we are the sort of creatures who create technological marvels.

Perhaps there’s some sort of Aristotelian mean at which we ought to aim. It seems, at least, that if we marvel only at what we can make and not also at what we are, we set off on a path that leads ultimately toward misanthropic post-humanist fantasies.

Or, as Arendt warned, we would become “the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”

It is odd that there is an impulse of sorts to create some of these marvels in our own image as it were, or that we seek to replicate not only our own capacities but even our physiology.

Yet, it is precisely this that also makes us anxious, fearful that we will be displaced or uncertain about our status in the great chain of being, to borrow an old formulation.

But our anxieties tend to be misplaced. More often than not, the real danger is not that our machines will eclipse us but that we will conform ourselves to the pattern of our machines.

In this way we are entranced by the work of our hands. It is an odd spin on the myth of Narcissus. We are captivated not by our physical appearance but by our ingenuity, by how we are reflected in our tools.

But this reflection is unfaithful, or, better, it is incomplete. It veils the fullness of the human person. It reduces our complexity. And perhaps in this way it reinforces the tendency to marvel only at what we can make by obscuring the full reality of what we are.

This full reality ultimately escapes our own (self-)understanding, which may explain why it is so tempting to traffic in truncated visions of the self. This creative self that has come to know so much of the world, principally through the tools it has fashioned, remains a mystery to itself.

We could do worse, then, than to wonder again at what we are:  the strangest phenomenon in the cosmos, as Walker Percy was fond of saying.

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8 thoughts on “The Wonder Of What We Are

  1. There are so many provocative nuggets in this piece. And it’s making me want to reread The Human Condition to revisit how Arendt views the relationship between a life devoted to contemplation and one devoted to the making of things. My fascination with a.i. and more generally human technology interaction is precisely that in wondering about it, it provides more technically inclined folk with a platform for contemplating more philosophical questions about how human (and conversely) how machine-like we really are. It’s, as it were, a shortcut into philosophy and into the humanities for people who might not otherwise be inclined to venture there. All of this you alude to in your piece. But you also raise a worthy note of caution: that while thinking about humans as toolmakers provides a mirror into the human condition, it’s an imperfect mirror. And that while using mirrors may expand our sense of self, like the technologizing of the word (yes im thinking of Ong here) it may also constrain it. All duly noted!

    1. Excellent observations, Luke. Thank you for drawing those out. I especially like the idea of the short cut into philosophy. I’ve thought that often, although I never put it quite so succinctly. You think about meaning of technology long enough you will inevitably get to big questions about the human.

      I’m going to shoot you an email about your book soon. Thanks again for sending it along.

  2. A truly thought provoking piece.

    Some of the strains in the post and their echoes in the first comment lead me to add my own take by describing the distinction I’ve come to between Technology and human capacity to make things, what was known as Craft before the term, and the practices it describes, came un-moored in a world bedazzled by Technology. The way I see it, Craft, as the words Germanic origins imply, stems from and works with strength. Technology, as I define it, has displaced the connection between making and our using our own strengths, whether physical or mental or spiritual, in the making of things, replacing this physical relationship with a seduction compelled by the promises of Power.

    I define the distinction between Strength and Power as growing out of the difference between an embodied capacity to exert a force and the desire and Will to subsume one’s self in a bargain with an external force. Beyond the obvious differences between, say, wielding a hammer before a forge and putting enormous efforts and Will and sacrifice – mostly by others – into splitting the atom; we have the fundamentally different, opposing, perspectives of the two realms of activity. Strength is gained, earned, and knows its capacities and limits. Power is taken, and in the taking demands that we fall for a fundamental illusion: that we can have something for nothing. That we get what we think we want and whatever harmful consequences might result will not touch us that they will always remain unintended consequences, left off the ledger.

    Another way to look at it is that Craft resides in the hand of the maker. Technology exists as a recipe to be followed and elaborated on, but as with software code, never fully understood. Never graspable by anyone in its entirety. Craft is graspable, but what we can “hold in the hand” is never reducible to a Quantity. Never reducible to a recipe. The hand is a metaphor of an embodied relationship with Quality. The recipe is an aggregate of Quantities, of ever-proliferating piles of dead data.

    What makes this moment we find our selves in so fraught is that we’ve reached a point of erosion of the stores of Craft experience leaving so few with any inkling of what it entails, what it means. At the same time the proliferating immersion within the assumptions of Technology-chasing-Power leaves us within an expanding blind spot in relation to its always more spectacular fantasies. We are increasingly credulous of the most glaringly outlandish claims for what Technology will bring us while we lose the capacity, through a form of learned helplessness, leaving us forgetting what Quality even is so that we fail to see what is lost as we rush after those promises. This mad rush after the Mega-machine now reaching its apotheosis in our concerted efforts to destroy as much of life on this Earth as we can manage.

    Narcissus is the perfect image to represent this situation. Craft does cannot exist without self-mastery. Technology promises the Ego its heart’s desire.

      1. Yes. I do recommend it. In fact the delay in my response is due to having gotten a copy out of our local library to confirm that I read it. It’s an important work.

        My frustrations come from finding that attempts to go deeper into the questions posed by Technology keep running into a lack of a common foundation on which to build a perspective. Technology is assumed to be a fact of life. It’s like the old adage that, “What’s good for US Steel is good for America!” or the two-part Neo-liberal claim that: 1) There is no such thing as Neo-Liberalism and 2) There is no reality outside of the Neo-Liberal perspective. No outside at all.

        It’s a question of imagination and our current imaginations are infested with the assumptions of the Technological view. This requires a deep and wide inquiry. One that is allowed to discover distinctions and then build on their implications. The rest is just bouncing the rubble ever finer, a truly Technological approach!

        Your site is one of a very few I’ve found that addresses these questions at all. I look forward to our future engagement.

        1. Great, I’ll bump that up the list. It looked like a really interesting read, so I’m eager to get to it.

          And, yes, we’re on the same page as to the deeper questions we should be asking and the kinds of perspectives we should be seeking. I noted in the last newsletter that this is precisely why I value older works that address our relationship with technology. They’re valuable to the degree that they don’t share our assumptions.

          Thanks again for the exchange.


          1. One of the most difficult things to be able to do is to see how one’s blind spots are working to…, well keep us from seeing. The situation with Craft/Technology is similar to the way the degradation of bio-mass and biodiversity can hide in plain sight. Each generation takes what they find as a base line and then basically fails to see the loss around them as significant. Fishermen, for example, will always grouse, “There’s plenty of fish!” It takes a concerted and disinterested effort to discover how empty of life the world and the oceans in particular have become. A similar dynamic affects how the attitude that every human act of making is an example of Technology plays out. As fewer and fewer people have any contact and direct experience of anything but the Technological view of making it becomes harder and harder to distinguish that there could possibly be any other attitude towards making.

            This connects with the dynamic of civilizational collapse. I’d always wondered how it was that, say the Roman world and its capabilities and practices could just fade away in a location over a few short years as Roman influence waned. It’s not as simple as, well, everyone got raped and pillaged. A civilization is hollowed out from within as its assumptions become nothing more than unexamined blind spots. This has often been couched in moralistic terms. This hides the underlying reason why we care about mores in the first place. Corruption is rot. And rot proceeds best in the dark. By the time Rome fell its mores, its ways, were being followed by people who had lost any connection with how and why they might have been vital. This is how corruption works and by the time a precipitating event comes along people have lost an understanding of how any of it fit together. Not in the recipe-like way intrinsic to the technological, attitude, but in the lived, embodied sense of understanding that underlies craft. The shock comes and, bewildered, people just wander away, shaking their heads.

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