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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

Alexa, Finish These Construction Documents

A book I’m reading, Merleau-Ponty for Architects, mentions a question regarding tools. Where is the boundary for a human and their sensibilities? Some would argue that it occurs at skin, where the DNA ends. But consider a blind woman who uses a cane. This cane, guided by her hand, relays information about obstacles, textures and sounds to her senses. Isn’t that cane an integral part of her sensory system; more a part of her than of the external environment?

I have a late model Toyota. It is not self driving, but not for lack of desire on the car’s part. It will slow itself to keep it from getting too close to the car ahead, it physically nudges me if I cross the centerline, warning lights blink in the side mirrors when someone is in my blind spot, a camera screen on the dashboard relays the view from the back of the car.

When I get out of that car and into my 1997 Honda Del Sol, I feel like Casey Jones. My theft prevention devices are a stick shift and cassette player. I appreciate the comforts and safety of the Toyota, but I feel more vital in the Del Sol; the car and I need each other to go anywhere. It becomes a tool for me to use rather than a virtual conveyance to haul my carcass somewhere.

I had imagined a stop-action film that would trace the evolutionary changes of the automobile over the past 100 years from tiller to steering wheel, open top, roof, enclosure, fins, automatic transmission, air bags and, the crowning achievement: the appearance and profusion of cup holders. But another facet of that evolution would be the diminution of the driver, becoming smaller and smaller until, poof, they disappear; made wholly unnecessary for the operation of the car.

I heard a story that I have been unable to verify. With that caveat, I’ll tell it anyway.

The Air Force had been developing their latest fighter jet that had incorporated all the latest computer technologies including information appearing on the helmet’s visor and a voice speaking in the pilot’s ear about systems, targets, etc.

As a final test, the new jet was put in mock combat against an older fighter jet that didn’t have much more technology than a joy-stick and ‘fire’ button.

Much to everyone’s chagrin, the older plane outperformed the new. After much hand-wringing it was discovered that flying is an art and is performed mostly on the right side of the brain. Language and information are  handled, generally, on the left side of the brain, requiring additional processing and seconds.

In the older plane, the jet was an extension of the pilot, much like the cane for the blind woman. The pilot in the newer jet, in addition to flying and engaging a target, had to process and react to graphic and aural  information, much like driving in a recent car model.

Operation of a car has long been something like the cane to the blind woman, where much of its operation is subconscious and fluid, an extension of the person controlling it. I find the feedback information from more modern cars is often an annoyance, an interruption of being in ‘the zone’ of driving. I included the unverified story above because it aligns with my experience driving, old vs. new.

I wonder if that might have been at least partly responsible for the failure of GoogleGlasses, where the ‘flow’ of life  is interrupted by information that needs to be processed.

The soft-pencil stage of design, with literal pencil and paper, provides a direct, tactile, sensible link to the designer who wields  it, much like the blind woman with the cane. Using a computer for schematic design necessarily includes language, either explicit or implicit, to translate an idea into a mark.

I had provided some unsolicited advice to a young colleague who was joining a new firm, post-COVID, when remote work was commonplace, urging him to opt-in for in-person work for multiple reasons:

Much of the education of a designer takes place with passive listening, hearing phone conversations of more senior members as they speak with owners, consultants, contractors, etc. All senior architects were once junior architects who received some version of this passive education. Questions in the office are answered during the ‘flow’ of work, not collected and reviewed as a sidebar, separate from the work.

The other is a concern that firms, if cost were their greatest concern, may not see a substantial difference between telework employees and overseas employees with AI just a step beyond that.  “Alexa, finish these construction documents” is funny, now.  Like the disappearing driver, the human draftsperson may become less and less vital to the process of creating the built environment which I would hate to see; some of my best friends are humans.

The hard work of interpersonal relationships pays off with a friendships, education and connections that will outlast employment at the firm and creates an energized and creative workplace, which benefits the firm as much as the employees. Beyond the office, the benefits flow to society, with people doing meaningful work for their community.

I have no doubt that AI will continue its march in society in general and architecture in particular; much of it valuable. But some of those tasks will be designed for the sole purpose of lowering costs, which it will, to the short-term benefit of the firm and client, at the expense of experienced designers down the road.

One last story - John Ruskin, English writer and critic, was alarmed by the creeping dominance of the machine age. In an act of rebellion, he pushed the Arts & Crafts movement, using his own home as a showcase for hand-made products. Most of those handcraft industries shriveled. The only product that survived as a new and lasting trend was wallpaper. Why? Because they figured out how it could be printed by a machine.

I’ll leave a link for a song on the topic that has been running through my head: James Taylor’s Millworker. The jobs of the narrator’s father and grandfather, farmer and sailor, are not glorious but there is a simple nobility in the work, wresting a living from the earth or the sea coupled with knowledge of and respect for nature. In the mills, nature has disappeared as a worthy adversary and has been replaced by the monotony of feeding the machine with no imagination, special skills or knowledge required or desired; the tool has become the master.

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