On humans, machines and crows

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

I imagine that the animal world looks at we humans much the same way that we look at crows. We are not exactly beautiful, except to each other and especially ourselves. We are crafty, like crows; exploiting intelligence for what any other animal would call an unfair advantage (if those other stupid animals were smart enough to even know what that meant). We have complicated relationships with our fellow crows, punctuated primarily by loud screeching sounds that seem meaningless to observers, but make total sense to us.

Like crows, we humans are an industrious lot. We’ve not only figured out how to survive the unforgiving dangers of nature, but also how to do so in a way that demands the attention of all other living things. Crows build, invent, seize opportunity wherever it is found. They attract distrust and even hate, but mourn their dead unlike any other bird. As Louis Jenkins writes in his poem, “The Language of Crows”: “… the language of crows is easy to understand. ‘Here I am.’ That’s really all there is to say and we say it again and again.”

So too, we humans.

Here we are! Look at this concrete! Look at what we did to that forest, that mountain, that ocean! Remember those wolves? They’re dogs now. Tiny dogs we dress up in clothes and use special seat belts to keep safe in our giant metal vehicles. There is a trampoline in our backyard that we hardly ever use. Here we are!

This industriousness (“intelligence” we call it) cuts both ways. In many instances, we’ve become so good at being humans that we’ve made humans insignificant to the process of making those giant metal vehicles or plastic miscellany. We’ve made the once mystical bear and the powerful thunderstorm seem like silly inconveniences; but also ourselves. Not “me” of course: other people. “We” are so useful; “They” clearly aren’t smart enough to achieve the promise of our modern times. Don’t bother helping “them.” They’re no use. They’ll go away eventually, just like the bears. If “they” get into the good neighborhoods “we” can dart them and drag them somewhere appropriate. Or we would, if it weren’t for the stupid government. Here we are!

Intelligence brings mechanization. We’ve watched as goods become more affordable and their builders become more expendable. How refreshing, then, to see this headline the other day: “Toyota is becoming more efficient by replacing robots with humans.” In citing a Bloomberg story, Quartz Daily Brief shared the news that the Japanese automaker is testing a return to manual manufacturing of some cars.

“We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again,” project lead Mitsuru Kawai was quoted saying. “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”

The idea at stake is craftsmanship: pride in learning, practicing and innovating — building useful and beautiful things. It’s the most fundamental human trait. It is what the crows do.

We’ve watched as the building of things has changed in 100 years. Tools built to break after so much use. Cars built to shatter like an ice sculpture to save a buck. In all of this, automation was the rally cry of progress. Here on the Iron Range, 12,000 taconite miners became 4,000 at most. That number will drop further when area mines adopt the automated trucks and shovels being developed in other parts of the world.

But still, when a legion of builders becomes an echoing hall of machines, we reflect. What are we building? Who are we? We know which things were built by humans, by our kind. We know which things were built by machine. Certain aspects of automation might never turn back, but surely we humans will always strive to pick up pebbles with our beaks, carry them to nests we made, calling into the cold morning, “Here I am!”

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 13, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. This column expands on a thought expressed in the recent post “Crows keep it real.”

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