The Bleakness of Objective Tomorrow
Monozukuri (ものづくり) is one of the most important concepts in the Japanese cultural universe. The straight translation of monozukuri is deceptively simple: literally, “making things.” But in practice it is so much more than that.
My colleague Rebecca Chunghee Kim at Ritsumeikan University in southern Japan has a very good one-word gloss for monozukuri: “craftsmanship.” Writing about the founding philosophy of Toyota Motors, Kim defines monozukuri more precisely as “stand[ing] for the development of people as a natural function of “a manufacturing company” (Kim 2018, 15). As the “man” in “craftsmanship” hints, monozukuri is not just about making things, but about building up the people who make them. The thing made and the thing’s maker are paired in step along a lifetime path of developing skills and growing as a conscientious, responsible human being.
In recent years, scholars of Japanese business philosophy have been using the ubiquitous—in Japan, at least (see Kaizen and Monozukuri, npd)—term monozukuri as part of a triad that includes hitozukuri (“making the person”) and kotozukuri (“making things happen”). In their essay on the Toyota business model, for example, Michael Ballé, Daryl Powell, and Kodo Yokozawa write that kotozukuri “refers to the passion to make things happen, value creation from knowledge creation. The energy, the vitality to keep both monozukuri and hitozukuri strong by encouraging doing, not just thinking” (https:// planet-lean.com/monozukuri-hitozukuri-kotozukuri/). As these latter-day iterations reflect, no matter how far one telescopes from the monozukuri concept, the core remains the same, and so do the ramifications. Monozukuri is about human beings as the crafters of material objects (Saito et al. 2011, 1). Ideally, out of this work grow richer human relationships (between a company and its customers, for example, or among workers on a shop floor). It is for this reason that Kim connects monozukuri to sanpō yoshi, or the business philosophy of the Ōmi merchants of the Edo Period that commerce should benefit (yoshi, literally “be good for”) the buyer, the seller, and society as a whole (sanpō, literally “in three directions”) (Kim 2018, 15). At the heart of homo habilis is homo, in other words. In Japanese, this can nicely be reflected by a pun on “mono,” which can mean both “thing” (物) and, when written with a different Chinese character, “person” (者). The term monozukuri is almost never written in Chinese characters, leaving the meaning of mono intentionally ambiguous. What is being made is both the person and the thing, both the maker and the work of his hands.
One of the most eloquent expressions of this very deep Japanese cultural reality can be found at Monozukuri University in Saitama Prefecture. The way that Monozukuri University is translated into English is interesting: Institute of Technologists. Monozukuri University is a technical school, and its website features students designing and building all manner of things, from robots to vehicles to wooden houses (https://www.iot.ac.jp). In the West, we would surely call this kind of university an institute of technology. But monozukuri is different. It means the things and the people making them. Therefore, Institute of Technologists. Technology, after all, is what people do. It doesn’t happen by itself. And the name reflects the reality. As in most other iterations of monozukuri, the mono in Monozukuri University is not written in Chinese characters. The essential ambiguity is preserved.
Monozukuri was one of the central ideas of Japanese philosopher Umehara Takeshi (1925-2019). Umehara’s ideas, and Umehara himself, were behind the establishment of Monozukuri University in 2001. But here we encounter some interesting contradictions in the idea of monozukuri, at least according to the Umehara reading of it. Umehara was a small-“s” shintoist. He hewed to the very, very old Japanese idea of animism, or the notion that there are souls, or perhaps varying degrees of divinity, in everything. For Umehara, monozukuri was about overcoming the Cartesian divide between body and mind. He wanted to emphasize the fact that plants and animals are also alive (Heisig et al. 2011, 1236-1237). Umehara went even further. People with their rational brains had come to occupy the center of ontology, he thought. Umehara declared against “anthropocentrism” and wanted to bring nature back into the human story (Rots 2021, 68). For Umehara, then, monozukuri was about a new—and old—theory of existence. People and nature, all joined in an animistic harmony of creation.
At first blush, it may seem that the idea of monozukuri, of seeing people as inseparable from the things and creatures of the world, bears some resemblance to the much more recent Western idea of transhumanism, or the idea that “science and technology [can] extend human opportunities and potential by transforming the human being so that its [sic] capacities and abilities are capable of overcoming any number of natural human limitations such as aging, death, suffering, intellectual capacity, moral shortcomings and so forth”
(Philbeck 2014, 2). After all, transhumanists seem to play monozukuri thinking to the hilt. For transhumanists, technology is not just something that humans make, but something which also can enhance humans. Transhumanism sees the human form as malleable, as subject to modifications and upgrades. Starting small and working up, transhumanists foresee a future in which, eventually, human consciousness will be uploaded onto a machine, enabling humans to live forever, clad immortally in transistor and motherboard.
But in this extension of the transhumanist ideology we can see the divergence between monozukuri—resolutely person-inclusive, no matter how much Umehara wanted to decenter ontology from the human being—and transhumanism, which is rushing to leave the human person behind. Transhumanism, on my reading, zooms past the human and into a great beyond, or possibly a black abyss, where humans have been left behind (see Davis 2015).
Transhumanist Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology embodies (no pun intended) the nature of transhumanism as aimed at posthumanism, that is, seeing the human as something to be overcome, not just enhanced. The book expands on ideas Kurzweil and others worked out over previous decades positing that, given Moore’s Law of exponential growth in computing power, at some point machines will outstrip humans in intelligence. The trend of human life, Kurzweil and many other transhumanists think, is toward the “singularity,” the point where humans leave behind flesh-and-blood biology and merge with computer hardware. According to Kurzweil and his many followers, this will make us immortal. But for those like me who are stuck in the old “meatware” version of the human being, uploading consciousness to a mainframe and slipping the body off like an old shoe is exactly death. Whatever comes next is not immortality but wishful thinking.
I’m not the only one who is skeptical of the transhumanists’ and posthumanists’ claims. For example, literature scholar N. Katherine Hayles’ 1999 book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics provides a history—quaintly humanistic in our Metaverse age— of the disembodiment of information. “As early as the 1950s,” Hayles writes:
[mathematician] Norbert Wiener proposed it was theoretically possible to telegraph a human being [. . . ] The producers of Star Trek operate from similar premises when they imagine that the body can be dematerialized into an informational pattern and rematerialized, without change, at a remote location. (Hayles 1999, 1)
And this is not just the stuff of mad science or television scripts. “Much of the discourse on molecular biology,” Hayles continues:
treats information as the essential code the body expresses [. . . ] A defining characteristic of the present cultural moment is the belief that information can circulate unchanged among different material substrates. (Hayles 1999, 1)
For Hayles, this divorce between intelligence and the body, between mind and matter, can be traced proximately to the “imitation game” of computer scientist Alan Turing (1912-1954), the “Turing test” which is still used in some form on many websites to distinguish human beings from machines (Hayles 1999, xi). “Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age,” Hayles laments, “the erasure of embodiment is performed [in the Turing test] so that ‘intelligence’ becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human lifeworld” (Hayles 1999, xi).
One figure who appears in several places throughout Hayles’ book is Hans Moravec, a robotics researcher who:
argues that the age of carbon-based life is drawing to a close. Humans are about to be replaced by intelligent machines as the dominant life-form on the planet. Drawing on the work of [molecular biologist] A[lexander].G[raham]. Cairns-Smith, Moravec suggests that such a revolution is not unprecedented. Before protein replication developed, a primitive form of life existed in certain silicon crystals that had the ability to replicate. But protein replication was so far superior that it soon left the replicating crystals in the dust. Now silicon has caught up with us again, in the form of computers and computerized robots. Although the Cairns-Smith hypothesis has been largely discredited, [for Moravec] it serves the useful purpose of increasing the plausibility of his vision by presenting the carbon-silicon struggle as a rematch of an earlier contest rather than as an entirely new event. (Hayles 1999, 235-236)
The silicon-carbon rivalry may be farfetched, but in the notion of competition between material things and the contingency of the human, one can discern a big difference between the transhumanist and monozukuri philosophies. It is not for nothing that in a 2004 Foreign Policy article political philosopher Francis Fukuyama called transhumanism the “most dangerous idea” (https://www.au.dk/fukuyama/boger/essay/). In a follow-up piece, Reason magazine writer Ronald Bailey set Fukuyama’s misgivings about what he calls a “strange liberation movement” against Richard Dawkins’ notion of the “extended phenotype,” which leads organisms to make use of the physical world, such as by building nests (https://reason.com/2004/08/25/ transhumanism-the-most-dangero/). Bailey sums it up this way:
Our ancestors had no wings; now we fly. Our ancient forebears could not hear one another over 1,000 miles; now we phone. And our Stone Age progenitors averaged 25 years of life; now we live 75. Thanks to our knack for technological innovation, humanity has by far the largest extended phenotype of all creatures on planet Earth. Nothing could be more natural to human beings than striving to liberate ourselves from biological constraints. (https://reason.com/2004/08/25/transhumanism-the-most-dangero/)
Well, perhaps Fukuyama was being paranoid, then. However, Bailey balances his observations by noting that “left-leaning bioethicists George Annas, Lori Andrews, and Rosario Isasi” take a much dimmer view of transhumanism, one closer to Fukuyama’s. What is to stop the liberated, transhumanized posthuman, Annas, Andrews, and Isasi wonder, from seeing “the old ‘normal’ humans as inferior, even savages, and fit for slavery or slaughter”? And oppositely, what is to stop us humans from seeing the posthumans as a threat in this way and killing them first? It’s a recipe for a very dark future for all. “It is ultimately this predictable potential for genocide,” Annas, Andrews, and Isasi write, “that makes species-altering experiments potential weapons of mass destruction, and makes the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist” (Annas, Andrews, and Isasi 2002, 162). I wish I had a soothing retort to these warnings. But I don’t. I find myself in the Fukuyama camp—transhumanism really is the “most dangerous idea.”
However, not everyone views human demotion in negative terms. In Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013) and Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017), English scholar Timothy Morton rings the changes on what has been called “object-oriented ontology” since philosopher Graham Harman first used the phrase some twenty years ago (Kerr 2016; Ivakhiv 2009). In his jaunty style (I rather enjoy reading his work), Morton writes that “destructuring Western philosophy to include nonhumans in a meaningful way” is a question of:
releas[ing] the anthropocentric control on the [human-world] gap and allow[ing] everything in the universe to have it, which means dropping the idea that (human) thought is the top access mode and holding that brushing against, licking or irradiating are also access modes as valid (or as invalid) as thinking. (Morton 2017, 11)
So much for transhumanism as posthumanism, pushing beyond the human form to an improved model on the other side of biology. On Morton’s reckoning, posthumanism sounds more like demoting humans to a level somewhere between a tree sloth and a quasar.
Morton is very much interested in updating the ideas of Karl Marx to remove the “bug” of his anthropocentrism (Morton 2017, 7). But even more than Marx, German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) figures prominently in the work of most object-oriented ontologists, and Morton is no exception (see Wilde 2020, 5). Heidegger was a philosopher of being, of course. But Heidegger deconstructed being, as it were, to bring it down from the Aristotelian-Thomistic heights to what Heidegger called Dasein, “beingthere.” And part of this “being-there” was what Heidegger described as Welt, world. “World,” Morton writes:
is a profoundly Heideggerian concept—it has to do with how Dasein co-creates or correlates or decides on reality (whichever term you prefer). For Heidegger, humans are the ones with a full world: world is a process, worlding, and humans are the worlding beings. [. . . However], the notion of world only works if we allow nonhumans to have it. Heidegger says that ‘animals’ are ‘poor in world’ (Weltarm) and inanimate beings such as stones have no world at all. But in truth, not only can we allow cats to have a world, but even waterfalls. We can do this because world is very cheap. We don’t have to raise cats and waterfalls up to human status to do so. [. . .] Why is world cheap? Because world is inherently lacking, inherently ragged and faulty. World is perforated. There are not perfect, smoothly functioning worlds, and poor people’s versions. To have a world intrinsically is to be Weltarm. [. . .] Our human world is shared with all kinds of other tattered, broken worlds. The world of spiders, the world of tigers, the world of bacteria. (Morton 2017, 90-93)
In other words, object-oriented ontology, at least as professed by Graham Harman in Morton’s admiring estimation, “simply [drops] the specialness of Dasein, its unique applicability to the human” (Morton 2013, 14).
Morton, Heidegger, and Harman’s ideas may seem off the wall. But—and maybe you won’t be surprised to hear this—these wacky notions are at the vanguard of academic discourse today. Fukuyama’s dystopian hand-wringing about transhumanism is passé on college campuses in the third decade of the twenty-first century. And it has been this way for a very long time. Probably the best-known early work of transhumanism is feminist scholar Donna J. Haraway’s 1985 essay “Cyborg Manifesto,” an exploration of the “hybrid of machine and organism,” of “creatures simultaneously animal and machine” (Haraway 1991, 149). For Haraway, feminism has moved very far from the early days when females were defined in oppositional tandem with males. “It has become difficult,” Haraway writes:
to name one’s feminism by a single adjective—or even to insist in every circumstance upon the noun. Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic. With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender, race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in ‘essential’ unity. There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. (Haraway 1991, 155)
In what could be a critique of the Turing test, Haraway argues that “the cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must code” (Haraway 1991, 163). Haraway wants a cyborgism to counter the “organisms and organismic, holistic politics” that “depend on metaphors of rebirth and invariably call on the resources of reproductive sex” (Haraway 1991, 181). In the good old days when I was in grad school, it used to be only Republicans who weren’t welcome in seminar. I wonder how much longer it will be before “No Non-Cyborgs Allowed” signs start appearing on classroom doors.
Reading Haraway confirms what English scholar Anthony Esolen refers to as “the unreality of our time” (Esolen 2020, 7). “Now, in our supposedly enlightened time,” Esolen continues, “we have declared that an insistence upon reality is to be condemned. We do not therefore believe things that are false. We believe in falsehood. We do not merely believe in gods that do not exist. We believe in un-being” (Esolen 2020, 9). Or, to put it another way, we believe in human beings as having no fixed being at all; we see them as being not part of the physical universe or apart from it, but blowing through it, careening through evolutionary changes until eventually we evolve out of our contingent humanity and enter a technological nirvana of no-place. Esolen, too, is a veteran of college campuses. The anti-human notions against which he has bravely fought for his entire career have slipped out of the ivory tower and multiplied like gremlins in the cultural wilds. Now, with object-oriented ontology defining so much of our contemporary discourse via transhumanism and all of its many variations, Esolen’s “un-being” really does take on the cast of object (with supreme irony) of religious worship.
To get a sense of just how far transhumanism has made inroads into the general mode of thinking, consider Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling books Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2011) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015). Both are mass-market primers on the very theme of transhumanism. The last chapter of Sapiens is, fittingly then, “The End of Homo Sapiens.” It begins by reiterating the book’s focus on “history as the next stage in the continuum of physics to chemistry to biology” (Harari 2011, 445). The words link up like boxcars on a train line, or like subjects in a high schoolers’ day—history, physics, chemistry, biology. But what Harari is blithely explicating is nothing less than the end of the human race as we know it. This is transhumanism for the paperback-buying crowd, posthumanism at the airport book store. “Sapiens,” Harari continues:
are subject to the same physical forces, chemical reactions and natural-selection processes that govern all living beings. Natural selection may have provided Homo sapiens with a much larger playing field than it has given to any other organism, but the field has still had its boundaries. The implication has been that, no matter what their efforts and achievements, Sapiens are incapable of breaking free of their biologically determined limits. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, this is no longer true: Homo sapiens is transcending those limits. It is now beginning to break the laws of natural selection, replacing them with the laws of intelligent design. (Harari 2011, 445)
We clever humans are outsmarting our biological captors, liberating our minds from our genes. But what happens when we succeed? Will the victory be pyrrhic?
Will we achieve liberation from both our genes and our humanity at the same time?
At first Harari offers a stridently triumphal answer to these questions, but a few years later he reconsiders the problem in a second book that takes a much darker tone. In his earlier, more optimistic take, Harari argues that “the world of 2014 is already a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology” (Harari, 2011, p. 459). That book ends with an afterword titled “The Animal that Became a God” (Harari, 2011, pp. 465-466). So far, so good. We all get to be Zeus and Hera—hurrah! Harari’s next book, Homo Deus, however, picks up where the first left off. Algorithms and Big Data are becoming a new religion for this Homo sapiens god, Harari warns. Again taking up the thread of Alan Turing, Harari asserts that “dataism,” which “declares that the universe consists entirely of data flows” and that “the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing,” has the effect of “collaps[ing] the barrier between animals and machines” (Harari 2015, 428). Under this powerful new paradigm, “electronic algorithms” are expected “to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms” (Harari 2015, 428).
This dataism could spell our doom, Harari forebodes.
We are striving to engineer the Internet-of-All-Things in the hope that it will make us healthy, happy and powerful. Yet once the Internet-of-All-Things is up and running, humans might be reduced from engineers to chips, then to data, and eventually we might dissolve within the torrent of data like a clump of earth within a gushing river.
. . . Over the course of history humans created a global network and evaluated everything according to its function within that network. For thousands of years this inflated human pride and prejudices. Since humans fulfilled the most important functions in the network, it was easy for us to take credit for the network’s achievements, and to see ourselves as the apex of creation. The lives and experiences of all other animals were undervalued because they fulfilled far less important functions, and whenever an animal ceased to fulfil any function at all, it went extinct. However, once we humans lose our functional importance to the network, we will discover that we are not the apex of creation after all. The yardsticks that we ourselves have enshrined will condemn us to join the mammoths and the Chinese river dolphins in oblivion. Looking back, humanity will turn out to have been just a ripple within the cosmic dataflow. (Harari 2015, 460)
Who will look back? Harari doesn’t say. But it won’t be us. Or, if the singularity is true, then maybe it will be us, in some form. Maybe our humanity is elastic enough to accommodate upgrades forever without giving way to a posthumanism of undefined status. At any rate, the physical world which we have striven to master, and over which we had seemed poised to set ourselves as gods, is overtaken by data, by the invisible and not substantially real. Perhaps transhumanism isn’t, even on the most optimistic reading, all it’s cracked up to be after all.
But even if the most science-fiction-esque scenarios envisioned by the transhumanists do not prove to work in real life, humanity may still “join the mammoths and the Chinese river dolphins in oblivion.” For transhumanism is not just a philosophy, but a way of death for many of us already. For example, the Anthropocene of which Morton and many others write, the notion of climate change and an overburdened planet, have led to startlingly widespread movements worldwide to shame those who have children. On that note, the debate in the United States over abortion has shifted, imperceptibly perhaps, this past decade or so. We are not really arguing centrally over whether a child in the womb is a human being. What an increasing number of those on the anti-life side are saying now is that it doesn’t really matter. No humans should exist, period. This generation of Homo sapiens should be the last. Transhumanism may not kill us by converting us into uploaded electrons, but by breaking our spirit and causing us to commit species suicide out of sheer regret at having been born. Object-oriented ontology is a quirky sub-sub-subfield of academic philosophy. But, like a lot else in that realm, when put into practice it turns lethal.
I return to the idea of monozukuri, and to the deep cultural wellsprings from which it bubbles up into daily life in Japan. Looking for a way to humanize the transhuman, to keep the human person firmly fixed in object-oriented ontology, I think of Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), the master of the tea ceremony who lived during a time of extraordinary violence and political upheaval. He, too, needed to humanize a broken world. Sen no Rikyū was not just a proto-version of an interior designer, someone with very good taste in austere furnishings and whisks and teabowls. Sen no Rikyū was a philosopher. He held, in my view, what today we might call an object-oriented ontology. Or at least close to it. Sen no Rikyū’s idea of “wabi-sabi,” untranslatable into any other language that I know (see Handa 2013, 231), connotes a kind of pathos for the material world, a heart-touching fondness for the chipped cup and the etiolated spoon. It is a way of Einfühlung into the physical world (see Latta 2009, 873). It is, perhaps we might say, a precursor to Umehara’s notion of monozukuri as decentering the human in ontology. It certainly grows out of the same rich philosophical tradition (see Alpert 2016, 41; Sugimoto et al. 2019).
And yet, Sen no Rikyū’s tea ceremony is not a renunciation of the human (see Wakafuji 1963, 96). It is a quiet celebration of the best of who we are. Sen no Rikyū may have spent much thought on objects, their qualities, what they mean. But he thought about all this because he wanted to hold the human person up as high as he could, especially in an age in which death was all around. His core virtue was respect: silent awe in the presence of the other person. Sen no Rikyū borrowed from the Catholic Mass the motion of turning the cup before passing it across to one’s counterpart. This is a beautiful expression, he thought. This is how one should treat one’s fellow human beings. Sen no Rikyū was killed for this belief. (Beauty saves the world but often kills the beautifier.) And yet, Sen no Rikyū won the war after losing the battle. His tea ceremony continues to be practiced in Japan. People continue to learn, through the seemingly insignificant art of whisking tea powder in a bowl, how to be a human being.
We are left, then, with the monozukuri pun. Do we make objects while they make us? Or do we collapse the pun’s waveform and keep just the one or the other side? Are we people without objects, a Platonic vision which denies our physicality? Or are we mere objects ourselves, material without destiny any different than the cosmic swarm of neutrons and electrons? Sen no Rikyū would say that we are humans in a world of things, and that we should humanize by welcoming objects, especially natural objects, into our circle of being. Umehara Takeshi would probably agree.
Modern-day Western transhumanists and posthumanists, however, seem bound to destroy the human, making them more like Sen no Rikyū’s tormenter, the hotheaded shogun Toyotomi no Hideyoshi (1537-1598). Hideyoshi ordered Rikyū to commit ritual suicide in a fit of pique over a trifle. Sen no Rikyū wrote a parting poem—to the knife with which he had been commanded to slit open his own belly (Okakura 1906, 160). Object-oriented ontology had given way to the posthumanism which all of us will encounter in the end. I cannot help but wonder if the object-oriented ontology and craze for postand transhumanism which the West has given itself over to will lead to a similar fate for mankind.
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Jason Morgan is an associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.