For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Skilled Perception, Authenticity, and the Case Against Automation"

by Zoller, D (2017)


It is common to argue that doing things ourselves, by skill and without automation, is more “authentic.” Yet it is infrequently explained what this means, or why it is desirable. Here I explain the value of skill in terms of the effect that widespread automation of skills—from driving to cooking—would have on our perceptual lives. The phenomenological tradition has long held that to have a skill is not just to have a productive capability; more than that, skill enables me to perceive elements and aspects of the world that are not accessible to the unskilled. Automating my skills thus amounts to losing the ability to see and know certain “niches” of reality. By showing that skill, and the determinacy of perception that it brings us, is linked to some clearly recognizable human goods, I show that the potential loss of perceptual skill through automation is worthy of moral consideration.

Key Passage

Crowell offers a way to defend the goodness of a limited, skilled perceptual life in terms of Korsgaard’s concept of “practical identities”: this is to say that, while I am of course a human being in general, I consider and value myself more specifically as a parent, as a professor, etc.; my particular roles permit me to value and understand my life and agency. On Crowell’s model, what it means to “be” some practical identity—say, a parent—is precisely having and following out the skilled, trained perceptions particular to parenting. Like Sennett and Crawford, Crowell considers that in much daily activity, true success is more than what “merely suffices” to finish a job. In the terms that Crowell borrows from Heidegger, I am in my daily actions tacitly “concerned about my own being,” that is, concerned existentially about who and what I am. Building a birdhouse involves both success in the act of putting it together, and also success at building it in light of who I am trying to be. Am I trying to be a parent? A master carpenter? These roles specify very different success standards. Building a birdhouse with my small children and trying to be a parent will result in, to say the least, a less-than-perfect birdhouse. Yet a crudely built birdhouse is obviously compatible with having had relative success at being a parent. Even if I am aiming for a perfect birdhouse as a master carpenter, I cannot meet the relevant standard of success by just 3-D printing one: part of my goal is being a master carpenter, which requires skilled perception and performance. Moreover, I do not succeed or fail to “be” a given identity inside my own head. Everyday performances of caring for children, biking them to school, cleaning up, playing— these are the sites where I realize success or failure at being a parent, because these for me are all attempts at being a parent (on top of getting the tasks completed). I cannot “attempt to be a parent” merely by thinking or willing to be one, while my daily tasks are accomplished for me. To pretend that I can be anything merely in my own head, by wishing it so, is to chase after a fiction. While I do occasionally think explicitly about being a parent or professor, I most importantly have my sense of those vocations in more silent and automatic way, as my trained perceptions pick out objects and opportunities relevant to those goals in particular situations . Part of how I get to be a musician is that, out of the wealth of sense data passing through my eyes at any moment, I “stick with” the unfolding of a song over time, and each phrase manifests itself to me full of value and possibilities. If I never do this, whether because I am ill-trained or because I am too busy to attend to this slice of the world, then I am a musician emptily, in name only. If we imagine an Automanian whose attention brushed busily past all things—who, as it were, skipped over the surface of perception—we might suppose she would hold many of her identities in this empty way. (p.7)


Automation, Skill, Skilled Perception, Heidegger, Robot, Ethics, Phenomenology, Perception


Skills, Automation

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