Ben Bartosik

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.

May 31, 2024

Writing about computer assisted design in city planning, Sennett makes a fascinating statement on how it fails to consider the incomplete.

"The calculations draw a false inference about how well the finished object will function. Overdetermined design rules out the crinkled fabric of buildings that allow little startup businesses, and so communities, to grow and vibrate. This texture results from underdetermined structures that permit use to abort, swerve, and evolve."

It's hard not to think about AI while reading this book and there's something in this idea that I am intrigued by. Computer driven responses tend to deal in the complete or finished. We ask a question and we get an answer. Yet Sennett's point here is that the real world is harder to predict. Life happens in the unfinished parts of the structures or rules we design.

I think of it as potential, something perhaps machines are incapable of considering.

May 22, 2024

"Bedded in too comfortably, people will neglect the higher standard; it is by arousing self-consciousness that the worker is driven to do better."

Continuing in the Craftsman, Sennett is asking what it is that gets people to do good work. He explores several problems in oversimplifying an answer and then draws us to what he calls a "liminal space between problem solving and problem finding." It is here, he seems to say, that self-awareness elevates craft.

Perhaps what makes a craftsman great is thoughtfulness, a cyclical and perhaps even obsessive reflection on what you're making. It sits in you, inhabits you. You consider it, then do, then reflect, and do again.

May 21, 2024

Took a bit of a Richard Sennett detour and decided to go back and read the other two books in this trilogy first. So I'm going through The Craftsman right now.

First, I love this way he talks about Hannah Arendt as a teacher.

"The good teacher imparts a satisfying explanation; the great teacher — as Arendt was — unsettles, bequeaths disquiet, invites argument."

In a book about craft, I appreciate the nod to what skilled teaching is a capable of. A significant portion of my interest in reading this book in particular is in thinking about craft and skill in the age of AI. I think it is Sennett's separation here between good and great that we risk losing.