Ben Bartosik

July 8, 2024

Caught an old podcast interview on the weekend with Jennifer Keesmaat in which she made an interesting comment that connects to what I was reflecting on the other day.

She was talking about the social contract in Holland in which people were willing to forego larger personal spaces in exchange for higher quality and more accessible public spaces. People have less need for larger backyards when they have lots of parks and multi-use paths around them. She also contrasted this with the way in which larger private space is seen as a status symbol here in Canada; a larger home is indicative of moving up the social ladder. Yet she recalls family members in Holland living their whole lives in modest row houses, something here we would likely call a starter home.

The key piece here is that achieving this sort of standard of living requires a value or mindset shift from all of us. We need to see a thriving public realm as a worthy trade off; but it also requires investment. It's not enough to just carve off some land and then leave it. Vibrant public spaces need resourcing and creativity in order for them to bring the sort of joy that makes them worth it.

July 3, 2024

Picked up a book from the library the other day called The Joy Experiments: Reimagining Mid-Sized Cities to Heal our Divided Society. Early on, one of the authors has this interesting bit on Danish culture:

"In Denmark, there’s a belief that there should be a healthy balance between private spending and public good. In other words, an acknowledgment that life is played out in the public spaces of cities as well as in private homes, and the things that give us joy should be in both realms... Without questions, their taxes are high, but the people I spoke to felt they got satisfaction from this form of allocation of their Joy budget. They saw joy as part of their habitat."

This feels like a direct contrast to the values that I see here in my area of Canada. Here, the protection of the private realm is prioritized above all else, even at the cost of the public good. We can see this in the way that public resources are underfunded in favour of private alternatives (healthcare, education, leisure services). It is also revealed in the way our private experiences of shared spaces have become cultural battlegrounds.

Perhaps the major difference is the way in which people in Denmark still see themselves as sharing in the benefits of the public realm. Here in Canada, it increasingly feels like the public-private divide is becoming a class war and those with the means to fund public services are taking their ball and going home, so-to-speak. Advocates for public goods need to make sure that they are drawing their lines of division in ways that include the most amount of people possible.

June 28, 2024

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is concentration and focus. I've always been someone whose attention span is easily sidetracked (a trait I'm seeing in one of my kids now). For most of my life I've just sort of accepted this state of micro bursts of energy towards all sorts of things, shifting lanes and pursuing whatever interests me at the time. It's something I've just always chalked up to how my brain works. However, I'm learning that concentration is something that can be learned.

Cal Newport suggests several practices that can be used to train concentration, including getting our brains comfortable with boredom (time away from devices) and slowly building up increased focus time on a topic (interval training). In The Craftsman, Sennett similarly discusses concentration as physical skill that needs to be honed. Specifically, he talks about how the repetitive nature of skill building becomes more enjoyable as you hone that ability to concentrate on it. This is something I say to my kids all the time, the only way to get good at something is to practice.

But practice feels boring and boredom is a symptom that our present cultural moment has attempted to liberate us from. However, as I reflect on what we have given up in exchange for endless, immediate gratification, I find myself longing for boredom again.

June 18, 2024

Humans seem to have a tendency to introduce a new technology and then consider the ethics of it later. This was a theme that Arendt was wrestling with in the Human Condition, the role of the public realm in debating the ethics of progress. Sennett, in the Craftsman, picks up this idea. Throughout the book he is examining the relationship between human craftwork and the machine.

It's hard not to read it with the normalization of AI in the background; which is, admittedly, part of my own interest in reading it at all.

In a chapter on material consciousness, he discusses the tension between natural and artificial materials and the way in which we attach virtue to these concepts. His point was that we endow a certain 'honesty' when natural materials and processes are used to create something. Machines, however, have challenged our ability to know the difference by replicating the look of handmade things. While a creator might know the difference, the average person does not. AI has brought this replication into the realm of language, expression, and thought; mass producing ideas in a way that is getting harder for the average person to discern. This, in turn, puts pressure on all knowledge workers to embrace AI just to keep up.

The question that I am wondering increasingly is what happens when we replace our human ability to think through problems and solutions? Just as we have 'forgotten' the skills and processes of other crafts that embrace the convenience of machines, will our reliance on prompts cause us to lose the capacity to move a thought from inception to conclusion?

June 9, 2024

"We should not compete against the machine. A machine, like any model, ought to propose rather than command, and humankind should certainly walk away from command to imitate perfection. Against the claim of perfection we can assert our own claim of individuality, which gives distinctive character to the work we do.”

Continuing in my read of The Craftsman (Sennett), I found this to be a really salient point in light of current conversations around machines. Machines set standards of perfection that humans simply cannot compete against; and so we shouldn't. Rather, than perfection we should strive for originality in our craft. Embrace the quirks and flaws that make our work our own.

These are the marks of our humanity imprinted on the objects we make.