Most people may not be acquainted with the 73-year-old Japanese man Mitsuru Kawai, but his 2017 job promotion at Toyota may be the early saving of humanity.
Kawai is an exponent of monozukuri, which roughly translates from Japanese as ‘making things’, but is best described as the philosophy of craftsmanship in a job.
As robotics, AI and IoT continue to decimate human jobs, the culture of monozukuri is to retain the experience and wisdom of human knowledge, something those in the East seem to value more than in the West.
Kawai has been with Toyota since 1966 and at 73 when the scrapheap is the future for many of his age, he is continuing to improve himself, the people he works with… and the machines he works with.
As Kawai said himself in the Japanese Times: “The point is, you need to be able to evaluate machines’ work by yourself. Many young workers today are relying too much on machines, thinking that they are always right. And that’s what I’m worried about.”
And he’s right to be worried. The pandemic has seen the rapid adoption of non-human technology as the threatened humans cower under their masks, suffocated by lockdown and condemned unless they have any digital skills.
But we need monozukuri if we are to survive. There are countless precedents of humans improving machines. One is the lockdown-inspirational film Hidden Figures where the focus is on three African-American women who worked at NASA in the early 1960s.
A dismaying trope, it is also about the IBM 7090 computer that was deployed to put the first American in space.
Suffice to say its number-crunching was awesome, but not pinpoint-accurate and it was only the intervention from one of the film’s human-heroines – Katharine G Johnson – that John Glenn could become that first American in space.
Moreover, it is also a film about computers and now in the early 2020s we approach another new world that is not about orbiting the earth, it is about what earth actually is and how humans are going to be part of it.
By the look of things, humans are preparing themselves to be part of the machine instead of improving the machine. In our so-called meritocracies where the winners are happy, but the losers feel bad, it must be very easy to see the machine as a sanctuary and fall into it like those migratory rodents – the lemmings.
But there are others, the winners in the meritocracies, who are also happily joining them because they will profit from it.
A lot of people are betting on this, be that cryptocurrencies, which are hard to spend in the analogue and so-called real world, but easy to exchange in the digital world… and this year’s new trend, NFTs.
The hype around these Non-Fungible Tokens (which sound like something you would try and say if you were on magic mushrooms) reached an early peak this week when crypto artist Beeple (which also sounds like something you’d say on magic mushrooms) sold a NFT digital artwork for more than £50 million.
Presumably paid for with crypto, if the auction house Christie’s accepts such currency, this astonishing price for something that does not exist in the real world and cannot be touched with human hands extends the belief that value now lies in the digital world and not the human one.
This is not just because blockchain guarantees digital authenticity, such a purchase also confirms the status of the buyer and also the status of the artist. I’d never heard of Deeple before, as much as I didn’t know three African-American women changed NASA and the history of space, but I do now.
Moreover, it presages further lemming-migration into the digital world as something that appears more important than the physical world. If people aren’t looking around themselves any more, but looking into something and preferring it, then write the doomsday book now; we’re done.
However, it may not be too late. As the world gingerly creeps out of lockdown, their eyes almost blinded by screens and not used to the outside, notions of NFTs may just be a blip, not a trend.
Real-life experiences, not the dismal meta-alternatives offered by screens, are what make us… to feel all five senses with others feeling their five senses. What joy this will be.
As Mitsuri Kawai illustrates, humanity is all about monozukuri and making things, not becoming things that are not what we are. We can improve the machines if we don’t become part of them.
Remember that when you watch Hidden Figures this weekend. You might even cry during the film and while I know the film is on the screen, that’s what the screen is for… to improve you, not the other way around.
He WAS a keynote speaker/emcee/moderator/interviewer at prestigious events around the world until Covid destroyed his conference speaking career… until 2023. He has spoken at more than 200 global events.
He was previously a weekly tech columnist for Forbes in New York, the Telegraph in the UK and continues to write regularly for the BBC, The Economist, The FT and… City AM.