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A plea for the stone carver

by La Table Ronde de l'Architecture



For a week, we carved stone with our own hands. 


Our teacher, stone carver Christophe Mahy, taught us how to shape and mould a Gothic vault made of Belgian blue stone (a sedimentary limestone that is as solid and compact as marble). We needed five different tools: chisel, mallet, sledgehammer, handset and bushhammer. The qualities required for this task were: a sustained physical capacity, patience, meticulousness and perfectionism. 


In the evenings, when we returned home tired from long hours of effort, our little group of apprentice stonemasons would sit down at the table, open a bottle of wine and have dinner together. Our discussions were frank and lively. One question kept coming up: why continue to carve stone by hand when there are much more efficient stone-cutting robots? 


I.

The lie of the "machine that relieves man"


Machines are generally presented as a solution to avoid back-breaking work and relieve the worker. But machines are not designed for this purpose. The aim of new technologies is almost always economic competition, performance or war. Look at the main inventions of the last century (telecommunications, atomic energy, the Internet, rockets, lasers, etc.) and you'll see that their aim is almost always to dominate. Only then, once they have satisfied this goal of domination, can their spin-offs be put to positive use by mankind. Another example: when the engineer Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin to separate the cotton seed from its fibre, his invention was not intended to alleviate the existence of the workers. On the contrary, black slaves on cotton farms suddenly saw their work rate literally explode as the machine imposed a new, inhumane work rate on them. 


SO, even if machines now offer the possibility of replacing all or part of human labour, we must bear in mind that they are mostly designed for the purposes of war or greed, a fundamentally evil purpose. 


II.

Relieving the poor stone carver or making money?


Stone-cutting robots are presented as a godsend for the "poor, worn-out manual worker". Robot salesmen often put forward the argument that the machines will relieve humans of "tedious and repetitive tasks". But have they ever asked the stone carvers for their opinion? Of course not! If they had, they would have learned that stone carvers enjoy every aspect of their craft, and that even the physical exhaustion that follows their long days of work is the gratification of a job well done. The truth is that machines have only one purpose: to make their owners money by reducing labour costs and speeding up work. No charity, no humanism there. The robotisation of manual tasks is all about making money. 


III.

"Robots work as well or better than stone carvers"


Robot salesmen like to boast about the efficiency of their machines. They generally claim that robots do a more meticulous job than stone carvers. In fact, robots can quickly carve smooth, flawless stone. Only an experienced stone carver can match this “quality” of finish. But if the stones cut by the robots are without defect, they are also without qualities. When we look at the product of robotic work, we feel nothing. Nothing but a total absence of emotion, an absolute indifference. These smooth, perfect stones from a 3D printer are as cold and insignificant as a plastic face. This absence of emotion in the face of robotic work is crucial to understanding the nature of art. Art (understood here as "human art") delights us because it is personal, not because it is beautiful.


Why are we proud of our modest carved stones? Because they are beautiful? No: after a week's training, our stones still looked like crude prehistoric flints. We are proud of our carved stones because they bear the mark of our efforts. We have toiled, suffered and sweated so hard to carve every rough edge into our stones. Every groove has a story to tell, every imperfection can be traced back to a distracted chisel stroke, while the smooth surfaces reflect the long hours patiently devoted to removing the protrusions from the raw material. Imagine, those of us who have only sculpted rough stones, our admiration before the prodigious works of Bernini or Michelangelo... This admiration can only be attached to a human work because it comes from a deep bond of empathy between the spectator and the artist. We will never, ever be able to "admire" the work of a stone-cutting robot. We might just be "impressed" by the speed and precision of its work, but it will leave us cold and emotionless. 


IV.

What future for humans among robots?


Our fourth argument is more general in scope. It concerns the future of human beings in a technological society marked by the mass application of AI and robotisation. It could be summed up by the following formula: what we give to the machine, we lose forever. Tasks that humans abandon to robots, such as stone carving, are eventually lost. Stone carvers are few and far between, and soon they will have disappeared altogether. With them will also disappear skills, culture and vast knowledge. 


So we are slowly sinking into a civilisation of incompetence, where man's manual and intellectual tasks will be entirely taken over by machines: no more need to draw, sculpt, build, cook, write, count, think... What will we have left, apart from an infinite ocean of entertainment and leisure? This incompetent man, reduced to simple cerebral functions, compulsive and obsessed with games and entertainment, will look an awful lot like children. This mixture of infantilism and high technology is the destructive cocktail that will tip our world into a mechanically-assisted hell. 


V.

There is no medium ground


To the naïve optimists who would like to find a "happy medium" between human and machine labour, we say this: machines and their propagators will make no concessions to man. What they can replace, they will replace. For love of money and technological fetishism. 


At no time in history has man stopped himself from using an invention that gave him power and advantages on the pretext that it was immoral. Between morality and power, man has always chosen power. The race for technological "progress" is inescapable. If the United States had not chosen to develop the nuclear bomb, it is likely that it would have been decimated or subjugated by a less scrupulous adversary.  


It is an illusion to think that we will find a balance between man and machine. Stone-cutting robots will completely replace stone carvers because they are more precise, faster, longer-lasting and, above all, cheaper. If the survival of the craftsman is at stake, then robots must be seen as harmful, and nothing else. There can be no compromise with machines. 


VI.

Tackling the roots of the problem


We are not advocating a new Luddism (the machine-breaking movement). Machines are merely the steel avatars of their human supporters and the machinist spirit they propagate. We need to get to the root of the machine myth that leads people to believe that their salvation will come from the constant rise of technological progress. We must put an end to the idea that progress is necessarily technological progress. As long as we link our destiny to the progress of our technologies, we will be condemned to suffer the tyranny of performance and, eventually, what Gunther Anders has called "the obsolescence of man". We urgently need to understand that progress can also be moral, spiritual, artistic, qualitative and human. 


VII.

The end and the means


The choice between the robot and the stone carver is ultimately a choice between ends and means. For some, the end (perfect ornaments) is more important than the means (A.I. and robots) of achieving it. But in doing so, we will be creating incompetent, insignificant human beings who will wander like spectres in an apparently traditional setting designed by robots. How can we resign ourselves to such an end? All folk tales warn us against making a pact with the devil, sacrificing part of our soul for the sake of beauty. But beauty obtained by the wrong means is monstrous (see the portrait of Dorian Gray). We must choose the tortuous and difficult path of tradition and manual labour, because it is the only one that gives us sincere joy, freedom and admiration for true beauty.

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