May 26, 2015

Poetic Movement in a Robotic World: Specimen Products’ Ian Schneller at 41st CreativeMornings in Chicago

CreativeMornings’ global theme for May 2015 was “Robot.” However, the focus of Chicago chapter speaker Ian Schneller, a sculptor and luthier, was on the polar opposite: the value of the human touch.

Robots can tirelessly execute rote commands and movements with superb precision. Humans can’t match this artificial might—the human touch is not 100% accurate in its precision, but rather, its nature is variable. Where a robot excels in repetition, the human touch is nuanced. Where robots excel in singular rote memory with tasks over time, the human touch is charged with unique moments over time. Robotic touch relies on energy powered by an on-and-off switch or an artificial clock, but human touch relies on natural cycles of energy. Nuance. Moments. Natural cycles. These types of movement speak to poetry and not fully replicated by a machine.

Schneller spoke like a poet in the talk, and even looked like a bard in his long coat. When describing making of custom stringed instruments, horn speakers, and amplifiers, he presented them in a poetic manner, with remarkable lyricism, evident in phrases, such as “tactile interface,” “whimsical shades,” “exotic geometry,” and “spatial soundstage.”

The most poetic quality that Schneller emphasized was emotion: “There are aspects of me that are robotic, but I do feel love.” Emotion invokes layers of meanings. It makes the human touch deepen in impact.

Being a consummate craftsperson, Schneller derided the proliferation of ephemera in the modern world. To him, mass production leads to pollution. He takes pride in having produced rare items (600 thereabouts) in his studio over his career—in contrast to the rapid machine-assemblage of things (millions of units) produced by factories in the same time period. His deliberately limited output testifies to both a one-of-a-kind approach and a lasting shelf-life.

The robot excels at making many-of-a-kind, but to Schneller, to the fidelity of sterility. To him, the robot is a numb entity: “Robots do not dream,” “Robots can’t feel anything.” These provocative claims amplify Schneller’s bias for the handmade, which result from a heartbeat, the unique (and ultimate) human factor.

It’s easy to share in Schneller’s mute reception to robots. But it also ignores (for humans excel at being dismissive) and highly underestimates the profoundly unknown changes brought on by evolution. With each of his claims that robots don’t do this and can’t do that, I reacted with: It’s only the current state. Who knows what the next millennium will technologically yield? Or the one after that? Or the one after that? Or the one after…

Who knows what technology will mark future generations? One pattern will persist: Technology evolves, relentlessly.

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Big thanks: to Braintree (Host), Artisan TalentRazorfish, WeWorkGreen Sheep Water, for being Partners of Chicago CreativeMornings #41; to organizer Kim Knoll and operations manager Kyle Eertmoed of Knoed Creative, who spoke at Chicago CreativeMornings #7; to the team of volunteers for greatly helping to make CreativeMornings happen monthly in Chicago.

Especially big thanks: to Tina Roth Eisenberg—Swissmiss—for inventing CreativeMornings in 2008. The fifth chapter was launched in Chicago, June 2011—my write-up and photos.

Read more about the people who make the Chicago chapter of CreativeMornings possible.
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2011 was Chicago CreativeMornings’ debut year. Download the entire collection of selected insights.

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