Rituals of embodiment

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

This spring I had to buy a new coffee mill. Facing the loss of both my electric coffee grinder and my antique hand-cranked mill, I debated about what to buy. The decision was no small matter—nothing like choosing, say, a brand of toothpaste or a college major. Making coffee is the first thing I do when I get out of bed in the morning. Well, all right, after letting the dog out. And pulling on some semblance of clothing. But it comes before shaving, shower, morning prayer, checking email on my phone, and any other actually constructive or productive activity. Inconsequential as the ritual may seem, making coffee sets the tone for the day. Not drinking coffee, mind, but simply preparing it.

It’s worth mentioning that I gave up on automatic coffee makers several years ago, when a hundred-dollar machine quit working just eight months after I’d bought it—this, the replacement for another hundred-dollar machine that lasted only a year and a half. Possibly I have some responsibility to grease the wheels of the Great Economy, but not that much. Now I do what foodies call “manual drip”: set a three-dollar plastic filter basket on top of my mug, put the filter and grounds in it, boil water in a kettle, pour the water through the grounds, and there’s coffee, better than came out of any machine I ever owned, becaue the water is always the right temperature. And in my old house, served by electric lines that meandered through a half-mile of woods from the highway, to rely on the power company for anything so essential as coffee was an act of purest optimism, because if storms didn’t knock out the lines every couple of months, a squirrel might commit suicide by transformer.

Hence my love of that antique coffee mill, which did its job even when the grid didn’t. But it had other advantages: it was quiet. It gave me something to do while the water heated besides stare blearily out the window and contemplate my inbox. It made me feel better for not needing Duke Power for every little thing. And it made better coffee, because, as I came to realize, its burrs grind the coffee consistently and cleanly, whereas the blades of an electric mill pulverize the grounds and can scorch them. So when I realized that I could buy a modern hand-cranked grinder for little more than the price of an electric one, I bit.

Because it’s 2014, of course, I bought the thing online after reading reviews of a half-dozen externally indistinguishable products. The grinder I chose got a few complaints, particuarly regarding what was described as the extreme difficulty of adjusting the grind, a task that allegedly required taking the whole thing apart, guessing as to the setting, and reassembling it again before testing it with a few beans. But something in the tone of those complaints made me dismiss them. As it turns out, one has to unscrew a locking screw, lift off the handle, and remove a stopper to get to the adjustment wheel, but this takes all of six seconds. And no, the wheel isn’t labeled, but it’s possible to estimate medium by screwing it tight all the way, then counting the turns until it was unscrewed all the way, then going back half. That took about nine seconds, and I found the grind I wanted over the course of three or four mugs. Actually grinding it takes a bit of work, but I can grind enough coffee for two mugs, the morning’s allotment, in the time it takes to boil water for one. It’s a simple machine in more ways than one—scientifically, a couple of screws and a lever; and not particularly complicated in construction or operation. A reasonably intelligent person can easily understand how it works.

But it’s also simple in the sense of being stupid. This is not a “smart object,” and I like it that way. Of course liking my objects dumb puts me rather out of step with the modern world. Smart objects appeal to our desire to rationalize everything, intellectualize it, control it. Not to mention they have a higher profit margin. Apple, it seems, does not like my coffee mill dumb. Nor do Google, Samsung, or Microsoft, but Apple was in the news earlier this summer, announcing its new HomeKit, an “integrated system of smart objects for the home.” HomeKit, explains Megan Garber of The Atlantic, promises “locks that unbolt with an app, lights you turn on with your phone, washing machines that talk to you, toasters that text you,” and though other companies have failed to sell this sort of thing, Apple thinks it can, as its senior vice president of software engineering says, “bring some rationality to this space.” Garber observes that the rationality of HomeKit, and therefore of the homes in which it’s installed, will be Apple’s rationality, not the homeowners’—and their rationality means standardization of the way we “talk with our stuff,” and therefore control. Power. Which Apple gains, and we lose. “You could think of HomeKit,” Garber suggests, “as Apple’s attempt to standardize the world of objects—to standardize our communications with those objects—under its own auspices and protocols.”

Garber makes an excellent point, but it’s a point neither newly made nor of interest to most of the people who buy “smart” objects. The internet was supposed to bring decentralization of power, but in fact it’s consolidated power in the hands of whatever company manages to build the first and/or best standard. Hence, for example, Amazon’s domination of the book market. But while we all know about Amazon, protocols for communication tend to be invisible to the end user. Everything in Apple’s App Store works with no hassle, and nobody wants a hassle, but then every developer has to follow Apple’s protocols. That’s a big deal to developers, but the woes of software developers are of little interest to the average consumer, or even, much of the time, to other software developers.

I admit I don’t much care who writes the protocols for the ways I interact with my home, nor whether I have a choice of two or five or ten such protocols. What I care about is that, if my home is “smart,” the guy writing those protocols isn’t me. What I object to is the very idea of protocols. More fundamentally, in fact, I object to this whole business of “talking with our stuff.” I prefer not to talk with my stuff at all. I think it’s a decent rule of thumb that one ought to communicate with physical objects via physical means, and with conscious, spiritual, verbally aware beings via conscious, spiritual, verbal means. It then follows that, for example, I ought not communicate with my neighbor by whacking him on the head with a stick, and I ought not try to hold a conversation with my refrigerator. Dogs and chickens fall somewhere in the middle, I suppose, but refrigerators do not. Refrigerators fall squarely into the category of things that should shut up and let me do the thinking.

I say this not because I want effortless obedience from physical objects but because I believe there is value in the physical interaction itself: we are embodied beings, and we think not only with our minds or brains but with our hands and our whole bodies. Heidigger was onto something when he argued that we understand reality first though physical interaction, that “the nearest kind of association is not mere perceptual cognition, but, rather, a handling, using, and taking care of things which has its own kind of ‘knowledge.’” Of course the physical means by which we communicate with physical reality have grown increasingly attenuated over the past century or two, and it’s hard to draw a bright line between turning a dial on a thermostat and swiping at a simulated dial on an iPhone. Few people understand how either works, and even those of us who understand thermostats couldn’t fix our own if it broke. It’s a far cry from pulling your chair closer to the fire. Whether it’s central heating or the App Store, we trade control for convenience. We just want our stuff to work, which means that we want it to do what we want it to do, when we want it done.

That attitude, and not the question of power, is what increasingly worries me. Technology and consumer culture promise autonomy by removing the barriers between the will and the world, or at least by pretending to. But to think that one’s will ought to operate directly on the world without interference is narcissism. Matthew Crawford, who by profession is both a philosopher and a motorcycle repairman, makes that argument in Shop Craft as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. “The moral significance of work that grapples with material things,” he writes, “may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self.”

A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotense. A repairment, on the other hand, puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding. For this very reason, his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things: he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine. (pp. 16–17)

My morning coffee ritual thus takes on moral significance — beyond the simplistic idea that the work required to grind the coffee is “good for me” — because in several ways the process requires me to attend to the needs of physical objects. I can’t grind mindlessly, because grinding the machine empty will damage the burrs. If I pour too much water into the filter basket, coffee will run all over the counter; there is no “fill line.” Nor is the grind adjustment wheel labeled, even after I’ve partially disassembled the machine to see it. I can, however, master all of these problems, and thus the objects and the work, simply by paying attention—listening to the grinder as it nears bottom, estimating “full” and “medium” by hand and by eye, feeling the tightness of a screw. If my coffee mill were “smart,” it would pretend to do my thinking for me; it would be integrated into my coffee maker and therefore “know” how my coffee ought to be ground and make the adjustment for me. It would offer “the easy fantasy of mastery.” My will would appear to me to operate effortlessly upon the world, thanks to the expensive intermediation of a global corporation and some underpaid workers in Asia.

I don’t want to overstate the significance of making coffee. I certainly don’t want to suggest that it has political significance. I harbor no fantasy that I’m “sticking it to The Man.” I can’t do anything about the global corporation or the underpaid workers—not today, certainly, not this morning, not bleary-eyed and dim-lit stumbling to the kitchen from the back door while the dog trots off to pee. But I can do something about the way I interact with the world—about, as Crawford’s title suggests, my own soul. Making coffee by hand is inconvenient, and it is valuable precisely because it is inconvenient. It slows me down. It is, in essence, a ritual—a ritual of embodiedness, you might say. It reminds me, first thing in the morning, before I have a chance to work my will on the world or attempt to, that I can’t and shouldn’t simply work my will on the world. And that’s enough for six a.m. What I do with that lesson can come later.

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