Technology’s challenge to autonomous creation and invention: two views from the past with an eye towards the future

Never, it seems, has IP creation and invention ever been so concerned about their relationship to technology. For sure, copyright has always been dragged along by advances in the means of reproduction and distribution, from the printing press to the digital file. And, for sure, the metes and bounds of patent protection have always wrestled with scientific and technology developments.

Ultimately, all these encounters have been about accommodation. As embodied in AI, however, accommodation is increasingly sharing the stage with a brooding sense of threat: will AI, and the algorithms that form it, ultimately replace the human being as the agent of creation and invention.

Against this background, it is worth recalling how two approaches from over a century ago, one looking backward (the “Arts and Crafts Movement”), and the other embracing tomorrow (“the Futurist’s Manifesto”), sought to address the problem in the context of their time, responding to what the English author, Thomas Hardy, called the “ache of modernism”.

The first approach was the Arts and Crafts Movement, which took hold in the later 19th century, radiating out from England to spread its design wings over several continents. In its view, the bugaboo of meaningful creation and design was the rise of the machine and the means of production that it engendered. When the machine became more and more the prime means for production for design, there arose, in the words of Lionel Trilling, a “sense of something intervening between man and his own organic endowment”.

For leaders of this movement, most notably John Ruskin and William Morris, this meant seeking a return to a more organic means for production and creation. The designer ideal was one who created his works by hand and, in particular, the medieval craftsmen. In the words of Morris—
Because craftsmen took pleasure in their work, the Middle Ages was a period of greatness in the art of the common people. ... The treasures in our museums now are only the common utensils used in households of that age, when hundreds of medieval churches – each one a masterpiece — were built by unsophisticated peasants.
The modern factory, machinery, the division of labor, and 19th capitalism more broadly, were out; the manner of production by the medieval craftsman, was in. For some, this was seen as a form of socialism but, if so, of a peculiar kind. Socialism and its notion of progress gazed forward, but the Arts and Crafts Movement took its inspiration from the past. The art and design of socialism was ultimately marked by stark realism; the design of the Arts and Craft Movement was quite the opposite (consider the famous Trellis wallpaper design of Morris, above).

So, for Morris, production by the machine was “altogether an evil”. Actually, not quite. In fact, Morris was prepared to commission work from manufacturers who standards satisfied Morris, even if the production was machine-based. As observed by Fiona MacCarthy—
[U] nlike later zealots like Gandhi, William Morris had no practical objections to the use of machinery per se so long as the machines produced the quality he needed.
The upshot is that the Arts and Crafts Movement, despite its outward appearance of embracing an idealized, pre-industrial past that eschewed industrialization, actually engaged in an accommodation with the machine. In the face of a threat to the human agency of autonomous design, proponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement found a way to employ the outputs of industrialization without jettisoning the integrity of autonomous creativity.

While the Arts and Crafts Movement stealthily accommodated itself to technology, there arose in the early 20th century a movement that sought no such subterfuge. Under the canopy of “aesthetic modernism”, it found its spokesman in the Italian futurist intellectual, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, as set out in 1909 in The Futurist Manifesto. If the Arts and Crafts Movement waffled between present and past, Marinetti had no such hesitation. As described, it--
was a rejection of the past and a celebration of speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry.
Representative of the 11 points of the Manifesto, here in an English version, is no. 4—
4. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
In 1912, Marinetti attacked Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement with the following invective:
When will you disencumber yourselves of the lymphatic ideology of your deplorable Ruskin, whom I intend to make utterly ridiculous in your eyes….With his sick dream of a primitive pastoral life: with his nostalgia for Homeric cheeses and legendary spinning/wheels; with his hatred of the machine, of steam and electricity, this maniac for antique simplicity resembles a man who in full maturity wants to sleep in his cot again and drink at the breasts of a nurse who has now grown old…..
Quoting Lionel Trilling once again--
not the organic but the mechanical is to be the authenticating principle of modern life.
If the Arts and Crafts Movement had sought some form of accommodation with technology, despite its backward gaze, Marinetti’s The Futurist Manifesto seemed ready to subsume human creativity within the doings and output of the machine, somewhere between surrender and capture.

So, what do we make of these two views for our current moment? À la the Arts and Crafts Movement, will there continue to be a role for human and creation, however powerful the algorithm? Or à la Marinetti, even for aesthetics and creation (also invention?), will the machine and its ethos ultimately dominate, indeed replace human agency?

The answer may arrive sooner than we think.

By Neil Wilkof

Pictures are in the public domain.

Technology’s challenge to autonomous creation and invention: two views from the past with an eye towards the future Technology’s challenge to autonomous creation and invention: two views from the past with an eye towards the future Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, March 10, 2021 Rating: 5

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