We are not machines

This post was published on Rest for Resistance.

I went to a pottery class last week, and we spent most of the time learning how to softly shape the outer edges of the teapot body while supporting the insides with our other hand. My hands felt too big and clumsy, and the teapot kept sinking down because the bottom could not support the weight that I had piled on top. Then when I was done, the instructor handed us an already flattened clump of clay, set it in the deepest groove of our hands and told us to cut it to fit the opening of our teapot. “That will become the lid,” she said and gave no further direction. I sat there frozen, holding onto my pottery knife and this round piece of clay. I had made the teapot without even thinking about how big the top had to be. I wondered how the hell I was supposed to cut out a perfect circle to fit the size of the teapot opening. I wondered if there was a stencil. I wondered if I was supposed to hold it over the teapot then try to trace it the best I could. I wondered if I was supposed to get a compass and make a circle.

Then I happened to look over at the instructor. And I saw her carve a circle into her piece of clay. No tools, just a free-hand drawing of a circle-like shape. She didn’t look up from her clay, but in between slicing off certain edges, holding it over the teapot to measure the size, then taking it back to adjust it again, she said, “우리는 기계가 아니에요. 인간이에요. 완벽하지 않아도 괜찮아요. 우리는 기계가 아니니까요.” We’re not machines. We’re human. It’s okay if it’s not perfect. Because we’re not machines. It felt like she was talking to me. I silently grabbed my knife and started carving.

I keep thinking back to that moment. The assumptions I made about how creation should happen, how mistakes still strike fear in me, and how her words can apply to so many of the situations that I find myself in these days.

***

The more I grow, both physically and emotionally, I realize how important the process is and how important creation is. And how our society minimizes these acts because they do not fit into the capitalist goal of maximum production. But we are not machines. Our productivity does not have a steady rate that can be calculated, and we don’t produce more just by spending more hours at a certain task. We’re more complicated than a simple input (x) —> output (y) kind of linear function. We require physical rest, emotional connections, daydreaming, food, laughter, purpose. And all of these things prevent us from fitting neatly into a machine model. I don’t think I really understood how this idea of “productivity” led to my habits of overworking myself, pushing myself too far, not scheduling in breaks — because that’s what always worked and got me to places that others deemed to be “successful.” Now I realize that it was because I had run myself down as if I was not human, as if I was a machine — and that was what they valued.

I read articles about how machines are going to eventually replace us at work. Mostly in production of goods. And I kind of wonder if that is a necessarily bad thing, and if it comes from the idea that people always need jobs, or that work defines us. What would happen if you didn’t have to work? What would happen to the profits that come from the machines working to produce goods? Where would that surplus go? I wonder if there could be a science fiction novel about machines taking over the world — and teaching us how to live in a different way. I know that it would essentially require a restructuring of the current capitalist economy, but it would be interesting to think about working in a way that produces things for our community, working based on need, not valuing ourselves by the hourly labor that we can offer corporations. If machines replaced us at some of the machine-like work that we are doing, what would we be left to do? Do we have aspects of our current lives that separate us from machines?

I think that’s why I’m looking for more opportunities engage in work that creates something more than a thesis paper — like gardening, writing, pottery, music. I am slowly learning how the input of my time, energy, and thoughts never directly lead to a final, marketable product. And I also am able to see how the process of creation is so different each time. The same amount of time, energy, and thoughts might create a completely different “product” on a certain day, for a certain person, in a certain time — or perhaps no complete “product” at all. And it brings into question how to quantify or commercialize something like that. How to put a monetary price tag on food / pottery / art / music / time that don’t have a set quantifiable labor input. It’s fundamentally non-quantifiable, and I think that’s something so amazing about processes of creation (and artists!). I wonder what the world would look like if we didn’t quantify our labor in “per hour” units. How it would shift our understanding of cost, value, and worth — especially of ourselves.

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