Revenge of the Craftsman
“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.”
In a social media post entitled “I lost everything that made me love my job through Midjourney over night,” an artist poured out their anger at an AI model called Midjourney for taking over their job. Midjourney is currently leading the growing pack of AI models that can turn text prompts into images, rendered in any style of choice. Whereas before the artist was sculpting 3D models, their job now is to write prompts for a machine. “I am not an artist anymore,” the post continues, “nor a 3D artist … all I do is prompting, photoshopping and implementing good looking pictures … I am angry.”
This shift to AI generated art resembles the massive shift that took place two centuries ago during the Industrial Revolution. New machines ushered in the era of mass production by allowing goods to be made at the fraction of the cost of handcrafted alternatives. As Nikolaus Pevsner writes in Pioneers of Modern Design, “manufacturers were, by means of new machinery, enabled to turn out thousands of cheap articles in the same time and at the same cost as were formerly required for the production of one well-made object … Skilled craftsmanship, still so admirable when Chippendale and Wedgwood were at work, was replaced by mechanical routine.” The medieval system of guild-trained craftsmen was “swept out of existence.”
In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin separated architectural ornament into two broad categories: servile ornament, in which the workman, like a slave, has to carefully implement the pattern of a master artist, and constitutional ornament, in which the workman is given some freedom to create his or her own designs, and more leeway to make mistakes. Actually, Ruskin also gives a third category, which he calls revolutionary ornament, in which no mistakes or deviations are allowed, but I think this could be thought of as an extreme version of the first, i.e. servile ornament. Considered as two categories, we have a dichotomy: freedom to express yourself and make mistakes on one end, and perfect reproduction of a blueprint on the other.
Ruskin’s categories are based on historical schools. As an example of servile ornament he gives the Greek, Assyrian, and Egyptian schools. They are not quite the same, but they share a preference for perfection. In these schools, the master-workman, who far surpassed the rest, would come up with the blueprint for the rest to implement. The workmen would then toil slavishly to realize the design as closely as possible. He contrasts this with the Gothic school of architecture, which not only forgave imperfections, but allowed the craftsmen to participate in the design by permitting variations. This freedom, Ruskin explains, comes from its Christian roots, which recognizes “in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul.”
As architecture transitioned from the ancient schools to the medieval, we went from armies of slaves implementing the designs of a select few artists, to skilled craftsmen empowered to participate in the work as equals. But with the advent of mechanical mass production, we went back to the servile model. An artist would design a blueprint, and the workmen operating the machines would be tasked with producing it as exactly as possible. The craftsman became the workman, and the workman became an extension of the machine. The machine had turned craftsmen into tools.
Unsurprisingly, Ruskin argued with great force against those developments:
You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves … and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last—a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned; saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity.
As mechanical mass production removed the need for skilled craftsmen by replacing them with workmen operating machines, it left the artist unscathed. Now, the craftsman gets to have his revenge, for technological progress has come for the artist as well. The artist, it seems, is also to become an operator. The result is that both the craftsman and the artist have become obsolete. We are left with two groups: the people operating the machines, and the monopolists in possession of those machines. The means of production has been simultaneously democratized and centralized, with its creative center gutted.
The specifics of this transformation are, of course, different. Ruskin argued against the lack of variety and freedom of expression in mechanized work. The workman was asked to replicate the same thing over and over without being given the chance to express himself, which completely sucked the joy out of what should have been a fulfilling, creative task. AI-assisted production doesn’t do this. It does the exact reverse of this. It demands creative input, while removing the need for the actual implementation. The workman of the Industrial Revolution derives no pleasure from his work because it is purely mechanical. The workman of the AI Revolution derives no pleasure from his work because there is no more work.