Man’s relationship with tools and machines is ancient. So much so that the 19th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle believed that “man is a tool-using animal. Without tools, he is nothing. With tools, he is all”.
But fear is growing about machine dominating man. It’s evident in the zeitgeist as portrayed in movie blockbusters – from The Matrix onwards – and in the emerging realities of robotics, the Internet and Big Data. Self-driving cars will be only one symbol of the coming revolution.
There are many rational and economic reasons to embrace machines and technologies – efficiency, convenience, speed, quality and, of course, profit for those making and deploying them. But what about the reasons to prefer the human factor?
I envision a manifesto for humans: a Humanifesto. The following suggestions may occasionally seem irrational and even whimsical, but this is apropos to the subject – part of the nature of our humanity.
First, go slow. Machines promise ever greater speed and efficiency. But to proclaim our humanity is to recognise that faster is not always better. Benefits abound in taking longer with things, to savour the process and time, and preferring quality over quantity in a range of activities – from work and decision-making to education, exercise and foreplay.
One exploration of the wider philosophy is the best-selling book In Praise of Slow by Canadian journalist Carl Honore, whom I met some years ago in London. But food probably provides the first and clearest example.
A Slow Food movement was born in Italy in the early 1990s and it emphasises savouring the experience of gathering, cooking and dining. Local produce is often favoured, and preparations can take hours – like sous vide cooking. Yet, outside of some idyllic towns in Southern Europe, this is still the exception.
Price and convenience steer many more towards mass-produced, fast food. We wince when the waiter tells us that a dish will take even 20 minutes to prepare. The pressured pace in Singapore and cities across Asia limits most of us to one-hour set menu lunches. So this Humanifesto calls for three-hour meals.
Try it once a week. Savour that fabulously tender meat dish at a French/Italian eatery. Or drive out to some coffee shop favourite where that stockpot of pork ribs, chicken bones or prawns has been boiling all night. Have the meal with friends, be it catching up with old ones or getting to know new acquaintances better.
Touched by Man
Second, this Humanifesto calls for human handiwork. Machines promise to produce uniform goods that usually meet reasonable quality at reasonable prices. But besides a lot of shoddy manufactured stuff out there, even competent, mass-made uniformity can fail to satisfy. As a result, there has been a rise in our demand for craftsmanship and uniqueness, especially in the world of luxury.
For instance, many draw a distinction between Hermes and other leather-makers. The world-famous French house (still family-owned) can boast of tracing products to one or another craftsman, thereby justifying both limited supply and higher prices.
Similarly, Lexus, the Japanese luxury carmaker, has recently been talking up the concept of “takumi”. This identifies master craftsmen who sign off on key parts of the manufacturing process – such as the paint, leather work and stamping of the vehicle body.
That blend of man and machine can be experienced in the new Lexus NX, a hybrid sports utility vehicle (SUV). Despite its large size, it is by no means a “slow living” car – it has a fast take-off when the electric engine effortlessly twins with the smooth, 2.5-litre petrol engine. But it is a car that offers crafted comfort and quietness, alongside the oomph of a sports car and the utility promised by the initials “SUV”.
Uniqueness is all
Looking for the human hand, this Humanifesto calls on us also to avoid restaurants where the big-name chef is absent and designs the menu from thousands of kilometres away.
Instead, try restaurants like Nicolas Le Restaurant, one of my favourites. Here, even at lunch, Michelin-star chef-owner Nicolas Joanny can be seen cooking in the open kitchen. He is one of those who still give personal attention to his food and customers.
What is unique and human is also evident in the jewellery of Lauren X Khoo. Pieces offered in her collection, like the X arabesque or the Garden of Sensual Delight ring, combine high-quality stones with striking and often audacious designs.
Her pieces are far different from the mass-made, bland designs seen in high street shops or even blue chip joailliers like Bulgari and Cartier. The Singapore-born, Hong Kong-based designer is gaining recognition among select customers for her unique sensibility. The Humanifesto calls for us to appreciate craftsmanship and, where possible, seek to shake the hands of those craftsmen. And, yes, to be willing to pay extra or even a premium for that human touch.
Third, accept and embrace the imperfection of what humans make. Rather than correcting all imperfections in the name of quality control or renovating things to make them wholly new, we should be guided by the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.
What is made by humans will almost by definition be less than perfect and uniform. Rather than rejection, wabi sabi extols the beauty in the patina of wear and tear, and the value of intrinsic, handmade imperfections.
This concept was evident when I was drinking tea in Tokyo. When I inspected my cup made by a Japanese pottery master, there was a small indentation in the surface. When I looked at another cup, there was something of a warble in the lip. There were visible inconsistencies and asymmetries.
The master potter could have made these cups uniform, my host explained, but so could a machine. What the master could do – and which a machine cannot — was to make each slightly but noticeably non-uniform. At a stage in the process, before firing, he introduced these “imperfections” deliberately and consciously.
The Humanifesto calls for us to seek out unique, handmade or antique items. This is especially so for things that touch us or have some ceremony to them.
Yes, you can have your latest electronic gizmos. Indeed, there are machines used in the process of what I have described above, whether they are the tools of artisans and craftsmen, chefs and potters.
But in each of these cases, it is the human who controls and uses the tools, and not the other way around. From that human use and control, there is an indelible and unique imprint on what results.
For too long, such words as “I am only human” have lamented our limitations and frailties. No longer. With the ever-growing roles for technology and machines with so many different capabilities making this world ever faster, more pressured and uniform, a frail but noble and true humanity may be our greatest luxury.