The Case for Material Intelligence

by Glenn Adamson

Originally published in Aeon Magazine, in November 2018.

Are you sitting comfortably? If so, how much do you know about the chair that’s holding you off the ground – what it’s made from, and what processes were involved? Where it was made, and by whom? What materials are present in the chair, and how were they extracted from the planet? If you are like most people, you will have difficulty answering these questions, even though they seem pretty basic. This object is cradling your body right now. Yet in many ways, it is mysterious to you.

Quite probably, you are surrounded by many other things right now that are similarly enigmatic – among them, the device on which you are reading these words. These days, sad to say, most of us live in a state of general ignorance about our physical surroundings. It’s not our fault, exactly; centuries of technological sophistication and global commerce have created the situation, and we just live in it. But our pervasive separation from material things is a serious problem, and one we urgently need to address.

It is a problem of relatively recent vintage. Until about a century ago, most people knew a great deal about the way their immediate environment was made. If they didn’t, they probably had a good idea of who they could ask. That is still true in some places in the world today, but fewer and fewer, as commodities circulate with ever greater speed. Because of the sheer complexity of contemporary production, even those people who do have professional responsibility for making things – the engineers and factory workers and chemists among us – tend to be specialists. Knowledge has deepened, but also narrowed. Increasingly, the general view is relegated to algorithms: algorithms which are themselves driven by algorithms, in a cascade of interconnected calculation, all in the service of efficiency. This powerful logic is dispersed along the extended production chains through which materials, tools, components, and packaging are sourced today. Nobody - not an assembly line worker, not a CEO - has a comprehensive vantage point. The stores may be doing great, but there’s no one minding them.

In effect, we are living in a state of perpetual remote control. As Carl Miller argues in his new book The Death of the Gods, the rise of automated decision-making has resulted in a crisis of accountability. If no one understands what is really happening, how can anyone be held responsible? This gives rise to a range of ethical dilemmas, chief among them our collective inability to address climate change, which is due in part to our psychological separation from the processes of extraction, manufacture, and disposal. For the same reasons, companies take little responsibility for their outsourced workers. And consumers are implicated too: if you don’t know the people who were responsible for making the things in your life (and indeed, cannot imagine what their own lives might be like), it is difficult to find common cause with them. This gap in awareness is also a crack in the social fabric, where weeds of distrust and hatred can grow. Like any tool, technology in itself is not a bad thing. But the more we trust it to be the binding agent for our society, the more fragmented we seem to become.

So what should we do about it? I have a modest proposal: let’s all try to cultivate our material intelligence. By this, I mean literacy in the physical world: the ability to understand it, just as someone who reads English can understand this sentence. If we can anchor ourselves in this way, attending closely to the objects near to us, we might just be able to regain our bearings, despite the complicated flux of 21st century life.

Though one does not need to be a maker to have material intelligence, it certainly helps. Knowledge of one craft or trade can inform an understanding of many others. And if you’re not particularly handy (I am not, myself) the next best thing is to watch someone who is. Experiencing a craftsperson at work, ideally in person, gives an immediate appreciation of the intimate choreography that skill involves. The key thing is to cultivate curiosity about the material world: to get in the habit of wondering how things were made, and by whom. This can help, in turn, to develop a healthy appreciation for just how much human ingenuity can be embedded within even an apparently simple thing.

Material intelligence may feel elusive, not only because of our practical detachment from our environment, but also because it is difficult to measure. When trying to describe this dimension of our awareness, people often use the phrase “tacit knowledge” – there is no way to put workmanship fully into words. In this sense, it is quite different from other, better recognized forms of intelligence.  If you have ever taken an IQ test, you will remember that the questions are language-based, geometrical and mathematical puzzles, such as: “Mary, who is sixteen years old, is four times as old as her brother. How old will Mary be when she is twice as old as her brother?” (That’s right: 24.) You may also have heard of emotional intelligence quotient, or EQ, which is to feeling what IQ is to analytical thinking. After it was introduced by Daniel Goleman in a 1995 bestseller, emotional intelligence became a favored term in business schools and sociology departments, which developed means to measure it. Researchers made some satisfying discoveries; for example, it turns out that when solving a wide range of puzzles in a team setting, the average EQ of the team is more predictive of success than the average IQ, or the highest IQ score of any individual team member. The experiment seems to prove that we would all benefit if we really could get along.

Other types of intelligence have been proposed, too. In 1983, the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner enumerated seven different types of mental faculty: musical intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, personal intelligence, and kinaesthetic intelligence (the bodily aptitude that a natural athlete might possess). Other scholars have written about visual intelligence, arguing that it has been on the increase in recent decades, thanks to the rapid development of media with complicated and subtle messaging. This growing typology reflects a progressive mindset, a desire to value everyone’s contributions to a diverse society. The implication, usually unstated because it’s so radical, is that all people may be equally smart – just in different ways. 

Adding material intelligence to the list is an important next step in extending this egalitarian world view. The know-how of material trades – farming, car repair, house construction, hairdressing – simply do not have the same standing in our culture as immaterial pursuits like law, insurance or finance. Why? Not only because they can’t be objectively tested. These skills may be hard to set down on paper, or quantified, but proof of material intelligence is easy enough to see. Nor is it because of difficulty level. If a wall street trader and a tailor were to switch places for a day, neither would acquit themselves well; and while MBA programs usually last two years, the traditional period of apprenticeship for a bespoke tailor is seven. Nor is the higher respect paid to white-collar workers based on some fair-minded calculation of benefit to society. If that were true, many corporate executives would be giving away money, not raking it in.

No, the hierarchical arrangement of occupations, with materially-engaged skills gathered down at the bottom, results simply from the exercise of power. This dynamic has deep historical roots, based mainly in class conflict, and also involving prejudices based on gender and ethnicity. IQ tests themselves are a part of the story: they were developed in the nineteenth century, and their presumptive objectivity derives from the same attitudes that gave us the “social hygiene” movement and eugenics. Our tendency to overrate technical and linguistic aptitude and undervalue manual skills – the fact that we apply the word “smart” to phones and appliances more readily than to our fellow humans – is inherited from a discriminatory world view. It’s for the same reason that creative pursuits historically practiced by well-to-do white men, like painting and architecture, are accorded a high cultural status, while those of pretty much everyone else are granted the lower status of craft.

My Life in the Woods with Werkraum Bregenzerwald

by Thomas Geisler

So, what do you do for work in a place like this? Ideally, you’re a craftsperson. A strong number of whom emerged from the agricultural society in the valley, their endeavours occasionally reaching industrial dimensions. The world market leader in wire hangers, for example, is an inventive metalworker from the region, and there are more of his kind around here. The people who want to stick with manual production and – simply put – remain independent yet united in their battle against globalisation, established Werkraum Bregenzerwald in 1999.