man vs machine

It’s true. The robot revolution is here, and y’all better be ready.

But before you get out your pitchforks or preemptively unplug the toaster, hear me out for a minute. This could actually be a good thing.

I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. Conditionally.

See here’s the situation: automation is taking the world by storm. The explosion of digital fabrication has brought complex computer-controlled processes to the average consumer. Processes like 3d printing, laser cutting, and CNC machining were until recently too complicated and expensive to be used by anyone outside of industry, but now much of this can be had with a click of the button from your very own home. Websites like shapeways.com allow users to upload their own models, or even use models that others have uploaded, to print objects in materials ranging from plastic, to ceramic, and even stainless steel. The future is here.

Now this sounds pretty fantastic (which it is), and it is most certainly the way of the 21st century. Custom objects will become so affordable that we may never again justify the relatively exorbitant cost of true craftsmanship. Here lies the danger.

While everyone and their grandmother is running around getting worked up about sustainability, I feel like one key element is consistently overlooked: longevity. Now I’m not just talking about how long a bamboo floor will last before it needs to be refinished; material quality is just a small part of what gives an object longevity.

For an object to have great longevity, more than anything else, it is important that it is cared for.

Do you think the pantheon is standing almost 2 millenia later because it was made with miracle concrete? Of course not. The pantheon is still standing because generation after generation has taken lengths to maintain and preserve it.

What does this have to do with automation? Everything. Humans seem to have great respect for craftsmanship. They find beauty and value in the human touch. Small imperfections that reveal the mason’s trowel, the jeweler’s file, or the carpenter’s saw remind us that the object was made with great care and skill. These craftsman valued their work, and as a result we find value in them as well. Somewhere in there lies an intangible connection between the craftsman and the user that can make any object more valuable than the sum of its parts. These are the objects that people hold onto, repair, and treasure. They are the objects that get passed down from one generation to the next. These objects are the most sustainable, because their lifespan is indefinite, because they are cared for.

So what happens when all the things we buy and collect come excreted from a robot’s nozzle? Where is the connection we feel to another human, the value that was embedded by the craftsman’s touch? How can we possibly aspire to be sustainable when we can so carelessly discard objects that no longer carry emotional value?

The revolution is inevitable. We’re too late to stop that. Any attempt to avoid it would be futile and self-destructive. At this point we’re forced to address a difficult question: How can we, as designers, forge ahead into the 21st century without forfeiting the human touch? How can we embrace automation, and still create with humanity?

If we can harness the power of digital fabrication, yet maintain the mark of a craftsman, the robot revolution may not actually be the downfall of mankind. Is this possible? I don’t know, but I’ll likely be spending the rest of my career (and a few more blog posts) trying to find out.

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