The Meat Grinder of Modernity
Preserving Good Diversity
What is diversity, anyways?
I have just finished reading The Nature and art of Workmanship by David Pye - it's not a long read, and if you are interested in that sort of question, I would recommend it. Pye focuses on a key tension between the "workmanship of certainty" that machines provide as opposed to the "workmanship of risk".
What struck me most, though, was his use of the word "diversity" - a word that is now incredibly loaded. Pye is writing in the 1960's, so the movement of "DEI" hasn't come about yet. He uses this word in a unique way.
If I were to summarize what Pye means by diversity, I would do him a disservice (go read the book), but I can point to a great exemplar which he uses: wood in a cabinet. The wood grain isn't static, random noise, but a sort of fluent harmony built around a set of random seeds. The grain of a piece of wood has order, but no two pieces of wood will be identical. It is also only observable at a certain level, and beyond that level, different sorts of diversity come into play. In fact, this chaos resolves into order under the hand of the skilled craftsman, who tames the wood and makes it into a useful and orderly cabinet.
Cabinetmakers slay the dragon of chaos and use its carcass to store and shield your precious belongings.
The free-form concrete sculpture (which is unpleasing) is fundamentally opposite from the altar built of wood (which is) - we desire both chaos and order, but we desire to see the chaos resolve into order.
This reminds me of a realization I've had over the past few months:
Modern machinery is akin to a meat-grinder.
Or, to use Pye's terms,
The machinery of certainty we have built destroys diversity.
Now of course diversity, understood this way, isn't something that is necessary at every level (or even necessary at all) - but it is an enrichment. The steak is better than the hamburger. Although, certain sections of a cow are not suitable for consumption as they are - and certain sections of a tree are not suitable for consumption as they are. They can be ground up to serve a new purpose - and it turns out, quite cheaply.
There is an interesting sort of general cultural phenomenon which has occurred since the industrial revolution, though. The phenomenon goes something like this:
The Machine (tm) has ground up everything into uniform paste. The original powers that be, along the same vein of thinking, put the paste into a mold, and produce identical things of the same paste. We rejoice at the material abundance this produces, but over time, this does not speak to our taste - we have an innate desire for diversity of the sort Pye speaks. So, someone comes along, creates a new mold, and puts the same paste into the mold. This is a commercial success, capitalizing on an innate desire for novelty, fueled by cheap paste-making. All the while, what we truly desire is not new forms of paste, but the steaks-that-could-have-been, which cannot be reproduced from this paste. We desire the resolution of micro-level divergence into macro-level order.
We see this pattern in cinema, food and restaurants, music, furniture and construction - even in our approach to politics or religion.
Which then leaves an interesting question: what would the inverse pattern look like?
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