Be it life or death, we crave only reality. (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
Go, go, go,said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality. (T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”)
Most of my morning bus rides into Gotham from New Jersey follow the pattern of grabbing a seat, pulling out the phone, and, for the next 20 minutes, looking down a narrow cone of vision into the screen that, at its end, reverses the narrowness into a wider (cyber) world.
All my fellow bus-riding human mammals are doing the same, and, nicely silo’d, we cross the river and spill through the doors into our separate mysterious existences.
On occasion I don’t get a seat and have to stand, which is a bother because the herky-jerky training that NJ Transit drivers get, (e.g., be sure to stomp on the brake rather than ease into it so that you throw riders forward, then back) makes it hard to grab on with one hand and hold the phone for reading in the other.
I was the last one on before the bus hit the tunnel, which put me right to the right of driver. For the next 15 minutes, I watched this man drive a bus with craft. He kept two lengths distance from the car in front of him so that he wouldn’t have to jam on the brake but could ease the bus to a stop if he needed to stop. He hardly varied in his lane from side to side so that the vehicles in the lane to his left could ease by with confidence.
In short, he gave his passengers the kind of ride that is the best compliment to the conductor of a vehicle: he never reminded his passengers they were on a bus. They could read, do their make-up, muse, or chat in complete safety and convenience and arrive at Port Authority without noticing that time and space had been traveled.
He did his work with care, and it pleased me to watch him do it.
I tell this story because this kind of bodily craft is less valued today, perhaps more than ever, but it has a value that we modernized humans steered by algorithms and other virtual worlds need to revive if we want to exercise some measure of control over the world coming down hard upon us.
This warning is at the heart of Alexanders Langland’s Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, which is in part a gentle jeremiad against the loss of our craftings and the dense history and language that infuse them but also a prescription for what ails us: full-bodied physical engagement in making something and the pride that comes from a laboring that wrests meaning and value from the earth.
In another context, this is what Christian Madsbjerg means by his term “thick data” in his book Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm. Madsbjerg works with companies to improve their businesses not only by crunching their numbers (which he calls “thin data”) but also through deep investigations into the worlds of the companies’ customers. He has on his staff people trained in sociology or art (as well as the mathematicians) who live with the customers and report back on the totatlity of their worlds: thick data.
One can only get thick data by joining in the worlds of others deeply enough to feel, below and outside the words and numbers, what waves of emotion and expectation surge through them that influence their actions and shape their points of view.
I don’t know enough to weigh in on the cultural debates about this: let Jaron Lanier and Ray Kurzweil and Zeynep Tufekci and Cathy O’Neill and Sherry Turkle all battle it out, since they know so much more than I and are far more articulate.
This I do know: many of the times happiness has come my way have been when I have immersed myself in making something to the point where my body thinks and my mind bodies, fused and a bit amnesiac about the “normal” importances of the world. Woodworking, gardening, stage-managing, baking—deeds like this shift the ordinary run, which can pilot itself on automatic, into craft, intentional actions and meditated gestures, learning the logics of materials, formatting one’s independence through labor, listening to the lower frequencies, apprenticing in sweat and common sense.
Nothing my phone or computer gives me compares to this, even when I master a software and make code say what I want it to say. True, there is much reality that is not “crafty” in the way I’ve described it— brutal, stupid, terrifying—and Eliot is right when he says we cannot bear very much of that. But the craving that Thoreau champions is this notion of craft, and we do crave that because it gives us our lives back, and for the time we are makers making, we can have dignity and happiness because we are, and we know we are, more than a resource to be extracted by companies or fodder for the fever dreams of hateful leaders. We are people who make, Homo faber, who in making things make our selves.