Doing the dishes

I am on a short holiday and holidays often mean, for practical reasons, that I get to do the dishes by hand. To be sure I actually very much like doing dishes by hand. The water is hot, soothing, you get to play with soap, and there is the instant gratification of a job done at the end. It doesn’t take too much time at all, you can do it together and talk a bit, and you do not have to repeatedly place cold dirty sauce-smeared plates and cups in a machine, which to me is a gruesome activity, while putting those dirty plates into the soapy water and just clean them, is fun.

Why did I ever buy a dish washer

Today I want to write a bit about skills. Doing the dishes is a skill, one my children hardly possess if only in the most clumsiest of prestages. Actually the best part of doing the dishes is that it means exercising a skill, and finding you’re getting better at it along the way. It is fun to see that what you are doing works. A few thoughts on what exercising a skill means to a person, and how in our current age we are witnessing the phenomenon of deskilling, and why this should make us worry, even if we don’t want to romanticise it too much.

I will describe my experience of doing the dishes, as a skill. To begin with, already having the skill of holding the brush, and having done a lot of dishes since childhood, most of doing the dishes unfolds as one says ‘pre-reflectively’: I do not think about what I am doing, I am just doing, mindlessly. At the same time, once you get into it, it can be a very ‘mindful’ activity: your attention is, while not one of deliberation and conscious thinking, at the same time a focused one. If you are not focused, you let the glass slip and break. So you are there, even if you are not ‘thinking’ in the usual sense we call thinking. And so you proceed to do the next thing and the next thing that needs to be done.

Then, however, without exception, there will be a moment that you start thinking about how to do what you do, better. It will almost always be triggered by a small problem. When doing the dishes in a place you don’t know, for example, you will be often having to stop and think where to put the dirty and the cleaned items on the kitchen sink. What goes left, what goes right? Especially if there is not enough space, which if often the case in the small cottages or camp-sites that we enjoy our holidays. And that is where you start to put in a sort of strategy. You think wait: what if I put all the big plates in the water, all at once, this will make space for the clean stuff on the right, there. And that means you have to put in a bit more water in the sink to flood the top plate so you can start cleaning that. Or what if you set the rack of plates sideways, so there is water on the right hand side and you can start cleaning them like that? Before you know it, you have evolved a little routine for yourself. And to see that routine work, gives immediate gratification. It is inherently good to have invented a routine that works. Even though the local, situated objective was to solve a certain problem, or speed up a process that you experienced was slacking and ‘didn’t get anywhere’, the real value of the routine does not actually lie in the quality of the end-result. The real value of the routine lies in the fact that it has quality. A working routine is value.

The thing to realise is that at this point, the little routine that you invented which helps you do the process better is not yet divided into any ‘objective’ result (whether or not the dishes actually get done faster, better, with less effort, less breaking etc), and your own experience of being able to do something: your embodied skill. You and the unfolding process of dishes-being-done, are one. And the quality of that process is both seen in the result and in your own affective state: you feel that you have grip on the process, and the better grip you have on the process, the better this process is going, the more quality it has. So in creating and using those small, bespoke improvements in your routine, you are still there, yourself, and the improvement is one that you do: it is you doing the dishes better, and feeling good about it.

But if we look at very skilled people, in highly specialised areas of practice, things change. I do not know if it is inevitable that they change, but in our history and time, they have always changed in this same way. To see how I need to tell you a bit about my neighbour. He’s an excellent amateur carpenter. He has done many courses, and his skill has reached – at least in my poor perspective – near perfection. This man can make just anything. Part of his skill however increasingly lies in having the right instruments. And, tough luck for Heidegger, we are not talking a hammer in 2020. Sure, he has the traditional tools and he knows how to use him. But he also has the most sophisticated, professional sawing machinery, work benches, and what not. It is not that the task becomes immediately trivial having these machines, in fact, it takes a lot of skill and knowledge and careful judgement to operate these machines and still have all your fingers at the end of the day – but it sure does make life a lot easier. Now what has happened here, is that in creating these machines, designers and manufactorers have prefabricated the definition of the routine that the user will be able to perform in using these machines. You cannot do anything with these machines: you have to use them in a specific way, and using them will give a specific result.

What has happened along the way however is that this means a transition from defining the quality of the process on the basis of the skilful experience itself, to a definition of the quality of the process on the basis of the objective end-result. The plank needs to be sawed straight, and the machine is created to make it go straight. As a result, the having the skill is now defined by your ability to use the machine properly, such that it produces the result – not a result that you have defined, but a result that the machine already embodies in its structure and operation. Of course, you select the machine, and put in the powerplug, in order to get that same result. But this decision is at base a cognitive decision, and instead of reflecting on an ongoing practice to design and develop a new routine for yourself, what happens here is that you take the fast lane: you detect a problem and select, rather than develop, the method to solve the problem, and the method is predefined and embodied in the tool. Furthermore, while a brush, or a traditional hammer, or a violin or a football, are tools that can be used in many many ways, and which can be used to develop new personal routines with, the modern, electrified carpenter’s equipment can only be really used in one particular way – again, that is, if you want to keep all of your ten fingers in the process.

What is wrong with the dishwasher? Well, the dishwasher is the prime example of a machine that, even more so than the sawing machinery of my neighbour friend, is based on an objectification of a skilled task, focusing purely on the result. The human task of operating the dish-washer has no quality in and of itself. It is a dirty, cumbersome, tiresome task. The entire idea of the dishwasher is based on a conceptual frame in which the only thing that matters, apparently, is what the dishes look like after they have been washed. While, as I have experienced and you may have too (try it!), the quality lies of course in the travel, not in the destination.

When you are immersed in doing the dishes, and you are, on the fly, as it were, trying out new routines and ‘perfecting’ your skill, becoming ever more ‘efficient’ and better at your job – it may be that you think you are working on the end-result. It may be that you think that you are in fact just trying to get a better end-result, faster, and with less effort. But the reduction in effort and the increase of quality of the end-result – the dishes done, is not everything there is to it. As any person knows how is in the process of becoming better at a skill, be it car driving, running, playing a musical instrument, playing a computer game – part of the value of that improvement is not in the end-result, it is in you. Or rather, you are part of the end-result too. We forget this and this has to do with the fact that people tend to look outwards not inwards. In improving our performance, we look outwards to the external effect of that performance. In many cases this is precisely what is meant with the term ‘performance’: the amount or quality of stuff generated by your actions. But increasing performance also means you change yourself, you increase your skill. Performance is both these things at the same time: it is exercising your skill and producing a result, not as two separate things but as one. When the circus artist makes a double front flip on the high cord, that is the performance. The output, there, is a fleeting momentary experience in the eyes of the audience. It ends the moment the next trick is performed. In doing the dishes, it’s not much else: the shiny clean dishes will be dirty again by the next day.

Ah, I think it is just about time to set the table for dinner!

Requests for Embodied Interaction Lectures?

Sketch of the Embodied Cognition perspective. Cognition emerges from... |  Download Scientific Diagram

In April 2021 I will be giving my Embodied Interaction course again. Last year I have for the first time prerecorded all lectures due to COVID19. You can find them here along with a literature list associated with its contents. I will reuse these lectures, but I may add one or two each year. Who has any requests for specific sup-topics, themes, theories or authors that they would like to see covered in the next edition? Let me know!

Action Perception Couplings

Lecture 5 of the #embodiedinteraction course is about action-perception couplings, and this first part sets the scene for explaining the concept of James Gibson’s affordances (in part 2, soon to follow)

Physical Distance is Social Distance.

Let’s work on being-together again.

(Photographer unknown)

Suddenly we became aware again of one another and of the things about us. People emerged from their seclusion and anonymity through their heroism, their selfless exertions, through acts of kindness and sometimes simply through the acknowledgment of tears and consolations.

— Borgmann (after 9/11)

Somewhere mid March I read a statement on a social media platform that read: “we should not talk of social distancing, we should talk of physical distancing, because we need the social contact, for our health and well-being”. While everyone seemed to understand immediately what was meant with this statement, I felt it could not be both more close to and at yet the same time further from the truth. Variations of this empathic call returned in my timeline in the days to come, and everyone agreed: let’s not forget to make social contact, especially with those we know as prone to loneliness and depression. As best as we could, we made contact with our loved ones, using all creative means available, through skype, tik tok video’s, a voice on the phone, mailing packages with little gifts to offer a bit of comfort, to show empathy, to make it clear we were still there, or here, but in any case: for each other, even if physically apart. 

To think social interaction can be delivered through a screen is perhaps the biggest delusion of our times.

The Corona crisis has put so much of our everyday world up on its head that it would be a shameful waste to let it pass without reflecting more deeply on some of the things we had, up to now, simply assumed to be true and unchangeable. This is not only the time to fight a virus, it is also a time to reconsider some things we took for granted. But to do that we typically first need some space and opportunity to take a step back from our daily lives, and look at it with fresh eyes and wonder. And boy, how these times offer that opportunity, in abundance. Personally, I have felt reflections about human life, the planet, society, economy, health, communication, technology, hit me in rays of ongoing fire so fast and rich that I simply cannot process them all, and I fear that most of it will be lost before I ever get the chance of writing it down. Yet there is one thought that stuck with me, because it is close to my heart, and this has to do with this call to dissociate physical from social distance. Some, especially some of those living in the Bay Area and comparable places of technological futurism, may hope that the crisis will mean the final transformative breakthrough of a completely digital, online life, whether it concerns shopping, education, the office, and even being with friends. Forced to use digital technologies and screens exclusively to do the things that up to now still had a physical, embodied counterpart in the real world, we may think that this will indeed be the time to leave the physical world for good: the world where your feet are located will be useful purely for that purpose: to store your fleshy behind, while at the same time, we meet, interact, trade and educate ourselves in virtual, digital spheres. And these people may very well be right. But if you ask me, it would really be the worst that could happen.

If anything good comes out of the Corona crisis, I hope, it will be that we in fact uncover the shallowness of the digital, and the poverty of the interaction provided by the screens that come along with it.

Instead, if anything good comes out of the Corona crisis, I hope, it will be that we in fact uncover the shallowness of the digital, and the poverty of the interaction provided by the screens that come along with it. The crisis has the potential to surface not a triumph of the virtual, but rather the deep necessity of our physicalbeing-together. Yes, it is true, we do need the social contact: people are social beings, even if we express our particular forms of social needs in a rich diversity of ways. And so the social media statement I quoted is absolutely right: we should not sociallyisolate ourselves, because social isolation, eventually, means death. Even if there is the odd person that can, and wishes to be on their alone for a very long time — and to be sure, such persons are known to exist, and perhaps even more than we think — still it is evident that for the vast majority of human beings social contact is as essential to their survival as the air they breathe. On the other hand, the social media statement is also very wrong to dissociate the idea of physical distance and social distance. To continue the analogy: there is actually no ontological divide  – no difference in ‘kind of being’ – between social contact and the materiality of fresh air in our lungs. While we need both to survive, neither air, nor social interaction, can be fed to us through a wifi connection.

We are currently like divers, on pressed air, and we now have been under water for quite some time.

To think social interaction can be delivered through a screen is perhaps the biggest delusion of our times. Being on the internet is great for many purposes, but in terms of social interaction, it is a being-alone in the illusion of being together. Or rather – it is, at best, a temporal extensionof the actual being-together that grounds it. It works like stretching an elastic band, which can only go so far, and should certainly not be stretched all the time, for if so it will surely loose it’s capacity. We can keep it up for a while, but only because we compensate the loss with renewed physical contact with others. Usually we just about make it through, and then, just in time, we slip back into the actual world of people and things, and we replenish ourselves with relief. We play with our children, we visit our parents, we go to the party, the bar, the neighbors; we talk with the shop owner, the random person on the street. Standing in the street and experiencing people stepping back from you, because we need to be 1.5 meters apart, is not adding to this replenishing, it is killing it. Asking a person not to touch your dog because you are afraid the dog will carry the virus over: the same. It has to be done, today, and perhaps for a while longer, to fight the spread. But it is killing us in another way, on the long run. We are currently like divers, on pressed air, and we now have been under water for quite some time. Like divers, we need to resurface at some point, to take some deep breaths, filling our lungs with the real social interaction that implicates an actual physical being-together. Air – the air we breathe – is not compressed oxygen in a tube, as we now are so aware of, reading about the devastating consequences for those who have been artificially oxygenated for multiple weeks. Likewise, social contact is not the flickering image on a computer screen. It is not the sending of photos and messages and emoji’s on a chat channel. Being in social contact is not a matter of digital information exchange at all: it is about what it is, literally, a being-together. And since our being is not some internal, mental thing, but our whole being, which is to say, our entire living body that is in the world, being-together means living bodies being together. If we had slightly forgotten how to make sense of what that meant, we are now in the strange lucky/unlucky position that we can reappreciate it, because we feel it with a strength that cannot be denied. Physical distance issocial distance.

We are now in the unique position that the ‘digital society’, that we blindly stumbled into in the first decade of this century, is now so much amplified that we can finally see its true shallowness right before our eyes.

If it turns out that, given the developments of the Corona crisis, it would be impossible to survive without completely abandoning physical being-together, if government will call upon us to self-isolate, not for a month, or even three months, but a year, two years, a lifetime: that would be the real crisis. And that would be the crisis we cannot survive – even if it means we stop a virus from spreading. We can feel now, on each day, and on each occasion, the loss, what is missing. It eats on the inside. Each phonecall, skypecall, email, we feel it, we feel what it is about. Let’s take it seriously, this feeling. Perhaps self-isolation, for a while, is also good, in order to really feel it, not as this implicit aspect of everyday life, in which it creeps in slowly but goes unnoticed, like a pick-pocket. Let’s feel it hardcore: stay inside and only have contact with your family and friends through the screen. Try it, for weeks on end. Feel, how that really feels. We must turn to the countries with the strictest quarantine measures to ask: how does this feel? We are now in the unique position that the ‘digital society’, that we stumbled into in the first decade of this century is now so much amplified that we can finally see its true shallowness before our eyes. This feeling, the feeling of wanting to go and have a chat with the neighbours, to meet your dad, but not being able to, to resort once more to this shallow picking up of the phone, and feeling how it just doesn’t cut it – this is the feeling that you should remember, even if we beat the virus, which I have no doubt we will at some point. And if you do not feel it, I urge you to do some soul searching and refind it. Because it is there, somewhere, inside you. It may have been obscured with layers and layers of Cartesian delusion, the age-old delusion that ‘we’ are a virtual mind, not material together-beings.  It is obscured because you may have been brought up in a world that already tells you the lie from the very first day you see the light – which in your case was sadly enough most probably the flashlight of four or five iphones hanging over your crib. Let’s work on a cure and a vaccine for this virus. Yes we we need to self-isolate, to increase the capacity in our hospitals, to give anyone who becomes seriously ill the chance to survive if they need to survive on hospital oxygen, if, for a while, fresh air is not enough anymore. But let’s also work on a cure and vaccine against the virus that is the digital delusion that human value is a purely virtual thing. Let’s work on being-together again. Let’s put screens back to where they belong: in dedicated places, for dedicated tasks. Like hospital oxygen, paradoxically enough, we can use the internet for a good cause. We can use internet to strengthen ourselves, our whole bodies, so much that once the medicine has been delivered and the vaccins are being administered, and once, as we say, life returns to normal, we will have changed so much that we will simply close our laptops, put away our phones, and go out and meet each other again, to touch each other, hug, talk, be together and feel together. To take a deep breath, and be human again.

Robot Rights? Let’s talk about Human Welfare instead

Today Abeba Birhane and I tweeted out our paper on Robot Rights (and why we think the whole idea makes no sense). I am just posting it here so you can find it again if you need it.

The paper can be found here