In Defense Of The Robot Painting
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Politics and Activism

In Defense Of The Robot Painting

Why automation ought to be respected instead of resented

In Defense Of The Robot Painting

Technology is breathtaking. Stop and ponder for a moment. Millions of billions of nodes of information are at your fingertips at this very moment. Right now, hundreds of thousands of vehicles are taking people across vast oceans, over sky-scraping mountain peaks, and through freezing tundras. Technology has built our sophisticated, interconnected world and has turned groaning principalities into booming nations. It is marvelous.

Yet the masses often bemoan the rise of automation. Although automation has its perks – more products for cheaper prices, fewer defects, more leisure for workers -- it is often vilified. Rather than being praised as the banner of human ingenuity, it is cast down and stomped on as the epitome of soullessness. Automation robs workers of their hard-earned jobs. It creates cheap products – products with no soul.

To be fair, there is beauty in craftsmanship. I had the opportunity to watch a friend weld a few times. It’s gorgeous. You just can’t take your eye off of it. The precision he places with every strike of his hammer, the passion with which he watches the timbre of the metal, and the honor that he gives to the blade he is crafting all sum up to a mesmerizing gestalt. Watching him feeds the soul, and when you take the handle of his newly minted knife and work it between your fingertips, you feel the soul and craft hiding in the cracks.

The term and idea of automation don't provoke this vibe. They provoke an apathetic approach. Every item in the supply chain and every worker in the factory is completely replaceable. The product at the end of the system is a culmination of cogs, not a soul. Not art.

But I beg to differ from the societally imposed connotations. Automation can be just as intoxicating as watching a master craftsman. Have you ever seen a 3-D printer meticulously build a product from scratch? Google it. You could watch for days. Or take the wheels of a train, for example, the chugga-chugga matched with the churning coupling rod holds the eye captive. Or even a bowling alley: the pins are set up perfectly every frame as your ball careens down the track back to you. The seamlessness of it is fantastic.

So we can concede that automation can be mesmerizing, but is there not still something unique about the hand-made aspect of human-made goods? Is there not an intrinsic worth that human hands give a finished product?

Picture a scenario where we have two identical paintings. The colors, shades, and designs are all equal; nothing in one diverges from the other. Save for the creator. One is painted by a human being. The other is catalyzed by a robot. Remember – the paintings are absolutely identical. Which would you choose if you could only choose one?

About a month ago I was at a conference, and the overwhelming sentiment in the room was to choose the hand-made painting. “There’s just something to it,” they said.

But then my friend and one-time fellow Odyssey writer, Jon Ham, piped up.

He claimed he would buy the robot painting. I can’t do justice to his passion, his rhetoric, his gusto. It was as if the entire room fell away and he was a Roman consul, making a victorious speech before the Senate. “I would choose the robot painting,” he bellowed. That painting is the height of human ingenuity. A robot, an automated machine, is creating art. The robot is the pinnacle of eons of human design, experimentation, and innovation. Rather than being the craft of one hand, the robot painting is the sum of all hands that ever dedicated themselves to science and to innovation and ultimately to art. Rather than being the death of craftsmanship, the robot painting is craftsmanship at its best.

I will admit I was leaning toward the hand-made painting, thinking there is “just something to it.” But I am convicted by my friend’s thoughts. The robot painting is unfathomably profound. It is the result of years and lives of hard labor, all in the quest for art and for beauty.

Some may find it disgusting to call automation enthralling, romantic, or even beautiful. I will leave you to your opinions. But, as I did at the beginning of this article, I ask you to ponder: the next time you see automation at work, what do you see? Is it not craft? Is it not beauty? Is it not art?

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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