Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When Making Toys Becomes Child’s Play

            More and more of the technological processes we produce today seem like magic.  We produce machines that have more and more defined discrete parts: both mechanical pieces as well as digital components that fit together in complicated ways and help to run the machine.  Most of us are not mechanical engineers or computer programmers, so for us, all of the defined discrete component processes that allow a machine to operate, actually seem to blur together  into one flowing blendable continual process that just blurs into and out of the external world.  It is simply too difficult for us to focus on and to understand all of these defined discrete component processes separately.  They simply blend together in our perception into one mysterious magical process.

            This experience is very different from when we use traditional tools to make, repair and operate different things.  In those traditional work processes, we can see what is happening, and to the extent that we are agents using the tools, we can feel a sense of control and dominance over processes in which we are participating.  The processes can be broken down into defined discrete work steps that we can understand.  And we are actively exercising our free will in performing all of the different steps of the processes.

            This contrasts with using a modern machine where we press a button or pull a lever and a complicated process, in which we are not directly participating at each step, starts to occur.  This is where people start to experience a blurry sense of magic.  And there is no machine where this blurry sense of magic is more likely to be experienced than with a 3-D printer.  It seems that different kinds of 3-D printers can be programmed to produce practically anything today from scratch: machine parts, human body parts, a gun.  The list is endless.

            But what I want to focus on for this article is a 3-D printer that children will be able to use to make and design their toys.  This 3-D printer is called a Thingmaker and it is being produced by the Mattel toy company.  This Thingmaker is a modern version of a product sold by Mattel in the 1960’s in which a child could produce toys using molds and liquid plastic.  The modern Thingmaker has much more ambitious objectives.  The Thingmaker does come with fixed designs that can be used to produce standard toys.  But it also has the capability to produce toys designed by the children who are using it.  Furthermore, the Thingmaker is accompanied by an app which allows children to make toys on standard 3-D printers.  To make Thingmaker safe for children, the door to its printer closes when in use, and the printing head retracts when not being used, so that children can’t burn their fingers.  However there is a transparent window through which children can watch the process of creation going on, when the Thingmaker is making a toy.

            And here is where we come to the notion of a Thingmaker as a source of magic.  So many different little things have to occur with so many different parts.  The child is not going to really be able to see fully how a toy is being made in the way that he can see a cabinetmaker making a piece of furniture or a potter making a pot.  The child sets in motion the process of creation by choosing a pre-existing design or else by creating a design of his own.  Once that happens, the Thingmaker is activated and the toy is automatically built by adding layer after layer of plastic.  When a child watches an artisan creating an object, he sees the easily understandable defined discrete steps in the creation of an object and, in seeing the steps, he gets an intuitive grasp of the steps and a sense of mental control over the steps such that he can feel that someday he will make the object himself should he so desire.  And in a larger sense, seeing processes of creation done by tools, gives a child a sense that the world can be controlled and mastered through his own efforts, that he can use his hands to engage the world and make what he needs. 

            But where is the sense of control and mastery using a Thingmaker?  Certainly if a child selects a pre-existing design, there is not only no participation in building a toy, but there is no creativity as well.  Now if a child builds a toy using his own design, there is certainly some creative input in the conception of the product.  But coming up with an idea for a toy and then watching a complicated machine using a process one really doesn’t understand in order to create it, is almost as magical as asking a genie to give him a toy based on a dream idea and then watching it appear suddenly by magic.  There is no meaningful organic friction on the part of the child to allow him to have a rich vibrant experience in building his toy.  Instead, the creation of the child’s dream toy occurs behind a transparent window in what is, for all intensive purposes, an experiential vacuum for the child.  In other words, just providing the conception of something that would traditionally require some manual participation should the child build it, some engagement of the hands, means that the child is leaving a very flimsy, one might say vacuumized organic imprint. At least, when a child builds a toy on the printer using a pre-existing design or buys a ready-made toy, there is no pretense that he is making and preserving a meaningful imprint in the construction of the toy.  The process of conceiving toys that are then made automatically will teach a very important implicit message to children.  That life can truly be a dream, because without some meaningful organic friction, it is hard to know that one is living in the external world.  Dreams are very comfortable, but too much life in dreams means one is unable to have the rich vibrant experiences that come with organic friction.  One becomes too comfortable to make, receive and preserve meaningful organic imprints and one becomes incapable of preparing for death with a meaningful personal surrogate immortality through achievements and relationships.  

            With magic comes a sense that one really has very little direct control over the external world.  Life is not simply a matter of getting the things that one wants to obtain.  It is also a matter of acting in such a way that one experiences organic friction in the process of transforming the external world in some way, leaving some meaningful organic imprint in order to obtain the desire thing.  Meaningful life involves transformative journeys in order to obtain one’s desired things.  When one gets things too easily, one tends to become more passive, even fatalistic.  Fatalism is frequently applied to poor people who feel that misfortunes and disaster are beyond their control.  But fatalism can also apply when a child receives an ongoing flow of good fortune that seems beyond his control.  Nonstop good fortune can, in the long run, be just as predictably routine as nonstop bad fortune.  In both cases, what is coming seems inevitable.  Hence, the fatalism.

            A human without the friction to stimulate the development of a strong will and the consequent capacity to make meaningful imprints can end up being controlled and manipulated himself.  In today’s world, this lack of friction is one of the fundamental factors leading to becoming like a will-less controllable robot.  This is a danger of having a magical machine like a Thingmaker making many different kinds of toys that one conceives of.  The inevitable of the good can paradoxically become a preparation for the inevitable of the bad.  So as machines, computers and robots start gradually to encroach more and more into human space and to take over more and more in the human world, who will have the will to stop them?

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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