Acquiring New Arts and Losing Old Instincts

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is Christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.

To some degree, I believe this to be true. In my own life, for example, I have slowly been realizing how much I don’t know how to do. In benefitting from the improvements of my age – the existence of supermarkets and automation and global trade – I have much, but there is also much that I lack. Perhaps I’m less able to survive in the wild than most, but (beyond a few herbs) I don’t know how to grow my own food, or where it really comes from. For instance, I’ve only recently discovered what cashew plants look like (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cashew – mind blowing).

And although I’ve spent years improving my data analytics skills, I can’t sew my own clothes. I can’t build my own furniture. I have spent my days and years a step removed from the tasks that made up the meat and substance of the lives of humans just a few hundred years ago.

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In Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, he states that genetic adaptations take around 25,000 years to appear in humans. What this means is that our bodies today, our DNA, is 25,000 years out of date. Our DNA is programmed for a previous age, one in which we hunted for our food, erected our own dwellings, made our own clothes, travelled by foot or by beast.

We live in a world where others grow our food for us, others make our clothes for us, others build our homes, our furniture. And these ‘others’ are in many cases not people, but companies. And these companies make it either impossible or very difficult for individuals to do these tasks. Individuals that would love to make clothes are priced out of it. Instead big companies, take H&M for example, make clothes. And thousands of people work at H&M, very few of them actually knowledgable of making clothes. Each one is a cog in a giant machine, seeing only a minute part of the process and not the greater picture.

The individual person is multiple steps removed from the very tasks that used to fill the days of humans. And although our societies and ways of living have changed, our DNA hasn’t. What then is the consequence of this ever growing gap between what our bodies are made for, evolved for, and the way in which we live?

I think of the intelligent beast in captivity – the dolphin or the orangutan. Isn’t there a certain sadness to the idea of these creatures, developed so that they are capable of doing so much, ultimately doing so little? As a society of course we accomplish more, far more, than we have ever in the past. But what might the individual lose during this process?

George Orwell in his book The Road to Wigan Pier paints it quite dramatically. He is of course speaking of the challenges of his age (The Road to Wigan Pier was published in 1937), but his observations are strikingly applicable to our times, especially when considering the changes that AI may bring.

Cease to use your hands, and you have lopped off a huge chunk of your consciousness….[Consider the] men who were digging the trench for the water-pipe. A machine has set them free from digging, and they are going to amuse themselves with something else – carpentering, for instance. But whatever they want to do, they will find that another machine has set them free from that. For in a fully mechanised world there would be no more need to carpenter, to cook, to mend motor bicycles, etc., than there would be to dig. There is scarcely anything, from catching a whale to carving a cherry stone, that could not conceivably be done by machinery. The machine would even encroach upon the activities we now class as “art”; it is doing so already, via the camera and the radio. Mechanise the world as fully as it might be mechanised, and whichever way you turn there will be some machine cutting you off from the chance of working – that is, of living.

If efficiency is our only guiding compass, increased mechanization is the way of things. And with this, a growing disconnect between the individual and his life as well as a diminished sense of his personal utility.

But there are other factors beyond efficiency. And those of us who do make efforts to return to more basic activities – such as growing vegetables in our gardens, taking up woodworking, or even supporting a local farmer’s market – are, whether we realize it or not, implicitly valuing factors beyond efficiency. We are valuing the pleasure gained from the task, the sense of control and agency that it may bring, and the sense of connection we build between ourselves, our environment, and our community.

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