Saturday, December 30, 2023

Monumental Mistakes


Courtesy of Monumental Labs

“But man, proud man, Dress'd in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd— His glassy essence—like an angry ape Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As makes the angels weep.” - William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

This is a rebuttal from an artisan, apprenticed for three years as a traditional stone carver, earning his bread as a heritage and ornamental plasterer, to the recent podcast: The Aesthetic City Podcast #38 – Micah Springut, Monumental Labs: Disrupting How We Build – Robotic, A.I. & Automated Stone Carving

When someone tells you publicly exactly who they are …believe them. Tech entrepreneur Micah Springut is forthcoming as well as his interviewer (and my own recently), Ruben Hanssen who enthusiastically lets it be known to all who will listen where his own sympathies lie. Spoiler alert, it’s not with craftsmen like me. Yes, I’m picking a fight; one I don’t expect to win. My argument will be sound; however, the fight does not lie in the realm of reason nor is it even against human beings. The aforementioned gentlemen are not my real adversaries, merely their fleshy mouthpieces. This essay is little more than a soon to be forgotten skirmish in the war for humanity against the machines. There’ll be no stopping them. Likewise, there’ll be no saving us.


Monumental Labs

So, what’s all the fuss about? Who’s Monumental Labs? Well, the short answer is that they’re not anyone special really. Just one of thousands of public and privately bankrolled startups that are working hard to deconstruct and reassemble every possibly human productive activity into something that can be done robotically under the direction of artificial intelligence. Because the work they’re targeting overlaps my own and because their CEO happened to be interviewed within a few months by the same podcaster as myself, they are the occasion of my critique of the unfolding A.I. catastrophe; however, they are not the cause of it. I’ve been thinking about and increasingly facing these issues for some time.

Now to be fair, below and unabridged is who they say they are on their own home page as of 28/12/23:

“Monumental Labs is building AI-enabled robotic stone carving factories. With them, we'll create cities with the splendor of Florence, Paris, or Beaux-Arts New York, at a fraction of the cost.

Unleashing a Renaissance Monumental Labs is developing the infrastructure to build highly ornamented classical structures on a mass scale and to create extraordinary new architectural forms.

Courtesy of Monumental Labs

 Technology Meets Craft 

We're developing the next generation of stone carving robots. With sensors and AI, they'll complete commissions in hours that previously took months; and execute the finest details flawlessly.​ By imparting human craft to machines, and driving down the cost of 3D fabrication, we'll expand the creative possibilities of artists and architects everywhere.”

Well, it would appear this Renaissance won't be anything like the last one. First of all, it promises to be on the cheap. More importantly, craftsman are to have a limited role in it namely, "imparting themselves to the machine" so that artists and architects can finally be free to expand those creative possibilities. At least until the A.I. catches up to them on the design side. Oh yes, they discuss that too, walking a tightrope of soliciting them as clients whilst promising the algorithmic assist is just to help them along, free them of the drudgery of having to figure it all out on their own. For now.

Honestly, artificial intelligence is nothing new. We've been living under algorithmic codification for quite some time, centuries in fact, longer even than the industrial machines that have characterised mass production or the digital computers that now calculate, surveil, and register all human activity. What we're calling A.I. is just the latest wave of the same tsunami that is wreaking its ecological, cultural, and yes, even economic devastation. Though it's too late, for posterity's sake it's time to take stock of some of the fallacious promises and the faulty justifications that have specifically crushed the craftsman to make way for the machines and their pecuniary overlords.

Beware of the Man with the Measuring Tape

Handcraft costs too much. As it colours every other apology for technology, we might as well face head on the number one justification for replacing artisans with machines (and increasingly designers with A.I. software). This was the point driven home again and again in this particular podcast, a reflection of the general attitude towards human beings: We're just too expensive. But what exactly is being measured?

Does handcraft cost us socially?

Does handcraft cost us culturally?

Does handcraft cost us ecologically?

Does handcraft cost us our physical health and mental well being?

Of course, we know that handcraft doesn't cost, rather it contributes to all of those things yet the above considerations are deliberately bracketed out of any calculations, sacrificed upon the altar of a simplified, short-sighted view of economy. The only permissible definition of "cost" is the immediate expenditure of dollars, euros, or pounds.  Since the so-called Enlightenment, money in the context of short term return on investment has become the sole value everything must be reduced to and measured against. This is acutely the case with human beings who are viewed as an expense, as opposed to machinery and technology which is always presented as an investment. In short, we're stripping bare all the tangible pleasures life may offer for the sake of a hypothetical prosperity. After three centuries on, how exactly has such an utilitarian worldview been working out for us?


We Need Machines, Nobody Does that Anymore!

Admittedly, "nobody" might just be a turn of phrase, a bit of hyperbole. Sure, you can find the crafty odd duck who still piddles around. What is meant is that there aren't enough skilled craftsmen anymore to get anything done practically. There is some truth to the claim as there are far less skilled craftsmen now than in any other time in history; however, the implication is that this is the result of progress, thus both an inevitable, irreversible, and perhaps even desirable state of affairs. The mere thought of promoting handcraft for a Modern man is at best nostalgic, at worst dangerously retrogressive. So ceding the argument that there are not enough skilled craftsman today, at our unique moment in history, the questions become, "Why aren't there? Why can't we build the way we used to?"

Well, for starters we're not at all the same type of people as previous generations because we don't think anything like them. And there's a reason for that. It all starts with education. Formerly, traditional craft education was given by family members, neighbours in the village community, or through a guild system in larger market towns. The key was that children learned practical skills, to work with their hands and care for themselves from an early age. This began to change by the mid-19th century when public education became compulsory, State-oriented, and institutionalised. From the very beginning, public education derided efficacy, the ability to do or make, in favour of a generic, universal literacy and numeracy that served the bureaucratic needs of the State and the technical needs of mass Industry respectively, ignoring where children's interests or capabilities lay. The fact that it made a whole new generation passive and dependent on centralised authority was surely seen as an additional benefit.

Fast forward 200 years and craft has been all but eliminated from public school curricula. In most countries today, apprenticeship, the employ of minors in a traditional craft at the optimal age of their development, is illegal. Everything taught in public school is mere preparation for 4 to 7+ years of further University education. Any other path is derided as unintelligent and socially inferior. The State isn't going to fund it, neither is Industry. Working with ones hands is looked at as demeaning, stupid, and a clear indicator of low social status with a hard life ahead of you. Nothing in the mandated public education has prepared you for it. The average young adult pursuing a career in craft after graduation is starting at least a decade behind with his or her prospects for finding a master to teach them being nearly as dismal as finding a marital partner that would attach themselves to someone generally viewed by society as a loser. 

No, we don't "need" machines because we lack people. There are more people on planet Earth than ever before, many of them unemployed, underemployed, or stupidly employed. The perceived need is psychological, or better stated sociological, intimately tied to an unwillingness to abandon a very narrowly defined progress, a technological progress that supports as much as it controls our mass society.

A.I. and Robots, These Are Just Tools

No different than a compass and rule or hammer and chisel, eh? So goes the argument anyway, that really all these things fit in the same super simple category, just objects that are an extension of man's power. New tools beat old tools. More power, more better. 

Personally, I can do almost anything there is to be done in traditional design with a compass and rule and make it come to life with a couple of hammers and a few chisels. I can and do take these tools with me wherever I go. They don't cost much by any measure that one cares to define the word. For me hand tools represent complete liberty even if at the same time they won't do the work for me, rather they obligate me to discipline myself, to master my means, methods, and materials.

But with A.I. and Robots who is the master and who is the tool? They require massive capital investment, standarisation of processes and systems, all of which are from the start are legally protected as proprietary intellectual property. They eliminate craftsmen and make artists and architects completely passive and dependent on unsustainable technologies that are essentially a black box to them. Human creativity is essentially reduced to the restricted capabilities, the limitations of the machine. If one has never painfully earned, patiently developed their own creativity then such a crutch might be counted as a great advance. However, for an artist, a poet, or anyone who wishes to be honest about his work such a Faustian bargain is an abominable degradation of their humanity.

Stone is Sustainable, Great for the Ecology!

Well yes, it should be. After all we live on a dirty giant rock covered with a bit of flora and fauna so building out of stone, plaster, and wood is potentially as sustainable as it gets. However, there are devils in those details. To convert rock in the earth to stone on a building requires a few basic things: a design, extraction, transportation, fabrication, and installation. How does the sustainability of doing this in a traditional manner compare to the ecological impact of the cutting edge technologies?

We've already somewhat contrasted the simple design and fabrication tools of traditional craft with the robots, computers, A.I., factories necessary for industry. It's not much of a comparison. A craftsman's tools have practically no environmental impact and can last a lifetime if not several. Craftsmen, like all of us, are biologically animals. All the energy we really need to work is about 4 to 5 thousands calories a day. We just need to be fed. Of course, computers and robots don't consume calories, they need fuel and lots of it. Micah repeatedly describes an "ecosystem" of machines as if they were alive. They are not. Rather, they are made of highly refined minerals, energy hogs, polluters, antithetical to life. Why must every harmless human activity be filtered thru a machine only to be transfigured into a destructive pestilence?

Stone is heavy. It takes a lot to move it. That's why stone until recently was overwhelmingly used only where it was available locally or perhaps down river. It accounts for so much of the beautiful variety of materials and the accompanying means and methods adapted to work them. However, the stated goal of Monumental Labs is to move production to a single quarry with a consistent stone, the one that of course is possible for the machines to carve, a "gigafactory" of stone, a central hub from which everything can be trucked out that captures the market of an entire continent. The promise is that the efficiencies gained will enable them to soon drive down costs perhaps as much as 80%. Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, it's always wise to keep in mind that investor driven, highly capitalised industry always operates in a way to maximise profits. This is not a guild, it's not personal, it's just business.

More could be said. One could respond to the delusional claim that these technologies will "usher in a Renaissance", populating beauty everywhere, unleashing human creativity, leaving more time for the artisan to work on the fanciest things the machines haven't yet mastered. We've heard this all before, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Mechanical saws, shapers, grinders, CNC machines, lasers, water-jets, etc. have succeeded each other in their dismal mechanical march for almost two centuries. Has this led to more beauty, cultivated a more skilled artisan who has all the time in the world to focus on the fancy stuff without having to be weighed down with the drudgery of learning the fundamentals?

Quite the opposite. Mass industry has led us into social crisis, cultural decline, impending environmental collapse. The rote response it that there is no turning back; the only possible solution for the blunders of technology is further commitment and investment in yet higher technology. As for me personally, I come from an Arts & Crafts pedigree whose leading ethical tenet is, "Do no harm". I humbly confess my limitations; I'm very small, the momentum sweeping the world along its destructive course is great. Should this essay survive for posterity, my greatest hope is that it will stand as a testament that my generation was fully conscious of what they were doing, selling your future for our present, squandering resources in a short amount of years that could have served you and your descendants for millennia, exploiting and polluting to the point that we've left you a wasteland that we received as a veritable paradise...a Monument to Madness.

Contributed by Patrick Webb