The wheel was made with the intention of reducing the effort needed to move things around. A few millennia later came the concept of the mechanical advantage and then simple and basic compound machines like levers, fulcrums, pulleys and planes drastically altered the definition of work for a human being. Speaking purely in physical terms, we started relinquishing some of the more physical and hectic jobs that required a larger amount of time, force and energy; and let machines take them over. Then there were machines and tools that were made to make other machines and tools to further reduce the physical involvement of humans in intense labor work. Over the decades, there was a slow drift in the genre of work/occupations in which majority of people involved themselves. Enter electricity the process of operating the machines was also automated. All that was needed now was the push of a button. This drift changed the way of work in two manners – firstly, it almost reduced the need of physical labor to a bare minimum (which was rather sudden and socially unsettling in the burgeoning modern age) and secondly, it opened up and broadened the potential of the kind and the magnitude of work that humans could accomplish. The drift in the genre of work gave us more time to think, create and experiment at the push of a button and so the 20th century witnessed many revolutionary developments in the methods of automation.

With the invention of the computer, logic became the neo-labor work. Things that needed redundant effort and time were now done by the computer. Basic calculations, conversions, analogies and pretty much everything logical could be done by a computer. The beginning of the 21st century was a time when pretty much every activity was moderated by computing machines in some manners or other. Transportation, manufacturing, fabrication, arts, sciences, health and medicine, defense, politics, design, communication and even spying were some of the things that computers were used for. Consequentially, the next big drift in the kind of work in which humans involved themselves arrived and it also changed the way of work in two manners – firstly, it almost reduced the need of doing the functional to a bare minimum and secondly, it opened up and broadened the potential of the kind and the magnitude of work that humans could accomplish.

I believe that thinking something that is not creative has always been met with an implicit and unacknowledged resistance which has been the very reason for inventing the new to do the redundant. Often, the new ends up being the redundant because of a simple thing called boredom. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider Pascal’s thought here – “we seek rest in a struggle against some obstacles. And when we have overcome these, rest proves unbearable because of the boredom it produces”.

This, I think, has been one of the major reasons for several minimalists and modern day thinkers to highlight the importance of keeping simplicity in mind while making products and services for people. We need the things that we need without having to do ten other steps[1] and so we bring in automation to handle the rest of the ten steps. Since our requirements have been constantly changing, that automated machine needs to be intelligent enough to have the outputs delivered to us without BSOD-ing. Crawford in his essay[2] says that for things to be labelled with the overused term ‘interactive’ it is necessary that we define a minimum ‘intellectual dignity’ that those things should have. So if its a machine that is interactive, it needs to have a qualifiable level of thinking and understanding. Defining this intellectual dignity in a logically programmable form is a challenge because the definition will essentially be human and hence nebulous. This is because logic almost always fails when it sees something nebulous and computers rely on basic logic loops. That being said, there are several reasons that lead me to think that this machine, if ever built, should be something that will bring about the next drift in the kind of things we do; and it would be a major drift because then we won’t be the exclusive set of entities in the world endowed with the power to think and labor would then be something ambiguous [3][4].

References –

[1] Don’t Make Me Think. S. Krug. 2000.

[2] The Art of Interactive Design. C. Crawford. 2002.

[3] For a Breath I Tarry. R. Zelazny. 1966.

[4] The Machine Stops. E.M. Forster. 1909.

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  1. Tom Igoe #
    November 4, 2013

    You may also want to look up Malcolm McCullough’s writing. You’re in very similar to what he was writing about in “Abstracting Craft” and other books, you might enjoy reading him.

    I think the mistake here is in thinking that the machine has to be the intellectual match of the person in order to deliver ‘intellectual dignity’. Consider pets. They’re not intellectually the match of humans, but they are generally very engaging when they are responsive to their environment. I think it’s worth throwing out the word “smart” when we consider digital interactive devices and shifting to “responsive”. The latter implies a simpler program, yet perhaps equally as engaging, if not more so in some cases.

    • ssm #
      November 6, 2013

      I agree. Well after reading Crawford, I almost always think whether all the “interactive” things that I come across are intelligent enough to be labelled so. Sometimes I set the barrier too high and end up calling everything responsive but the pet-analogy makes me re-think my stance on that.
      However, in the last paragraph my intention wasn’t to compare the intellectual level of an interactive machine to that of a person. I was merely wondering the consequences (on our occupations) of a hypothetical scenario wherein machines start understanding the vague to a minimal extent. (I say minimal here because I agree with Thomas Nagel when he says that consciousness makes this problem an intractable one which cannot be solved through a reductionist approach.)

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