Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.


The Case for Material Intelligence

Originally published in Aeon Magazine, November 2018.

Cover image: At work in the workshop of a blacksmith in Klitten, Germany, 2018. Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek.

Are you sitting comfortably? If so, how much do you know about the chair that’s holding you off the ground – what it’s made from, and what processes were involved? Where it was made, and by whom? What materials are present in the chair, and how were they extracted from the planet? If you are like most people, you will have difficulty answering these questions, even though they seem pretty basic. This object is cradling your body right now. Yet in many ways, it is mysterious to you.


Quite probably, you are surrounded by many other things right now that are similarly enigmatic – among them, the device on which you are reading these words. These days, sad to say, most of us live in a state of general ignorance about our physical surroundings. It’s not our fault, exactly; centuries of technological sophistication and global commerce have created the situation, and we just live in it. But our pervasive separation from material things is a serious problem, and one we urgently need to address.


It is a problem of relatively recent vintage. Until about a century ago, most people knew a great deal about the way their immediate environment was made. If they didn’t, they probably had a good idea of who they could ask. That is still true in some places in the world today, but fewer and fewer, as commodities circulate with ever greater speed. Because of the sheer complexity of contemporary production, even those people who do have professional responsibility for making things – the engineers and factory workers and chemists among us – tend to be specialists. Knowledge has deepened, but also narrowed. Increasingly, the general view is relegated to algorithms: algorithms which are themselves driven by algorithms, in a cascade of interconnected calculation, all in the service of efficiency. This powerful logic is dispersed along the extended production chains through which materials, tools, components, and packaging are sourced today. Nobody - not an assembly line worker, not a CEO - has a comprehensive vantage point. The stores may be doing great, but there’s no one minding them.


In effect, we are living in a state of perpetual remote control. As Carl Miller argues in his new book The Death of the Gods, the rise of automated decision-making has resulted in a crisis of accountability. If no one understands what is really happening, how can anyone be held responsible? This gives rise to a range of ethical dilemmas, chief among them our collective inability to address climate change, which is due in part to our psychological separation from the processes of extraction, manufacture, and disposal. For the same reasons, companies take little responsibility for their outsourced workers. And consumers are implicated too: if you don’t know the people who were responsible for making the things in your life (and indeed, cannot imagine what their own lives might be like), it is difficult to find common cause with them. This gap in awareness is also a crack in the social fabric, where weeds of distrust and hatred can grow. Like any tool, technology in itself is not a bad thing. But the more we trust it to be the binding agent for our society, the more fragmented we seem to become.


So what should we do about it? I have a modest proposal: let’s all try to cultivate our material intelligence. By this, I mean literacy in the physical world: the ability to understand it, just as someone who reads English can understand this sentence. If we can anchor ourselves in this way, attending closely to the objects near to us, we might just be able to regain our bearings, despite the complicated flux of 21st century life. 


Though one does not need to be a maker to have material intelligence, it certainly helps. Knowledge of one craft or trade can inform an understanding of many others. And if you’re not particularly handy (I am not, myself) the next best thing is to watch someone who is. Experiencing a craftsperson at work, ideally in person, gives an immediate appreciation of the intimate choreography that skill involves. The key thing is to cultivate curiosity about the material world: to get in the habit of wondering how things were made, and by whom. This can help, in turn, to develop a healthy appreciation for just how much human ingenuity can be embedded within even an apparently simple thing.


Material intelligence may feel elusive, not only because of our practical detachment from our environment, but also because it is difficult to measure. When trying to describe this dimension of our awareness, people often use the phrase “tacit knowledge” – there is no way to put workmanship fully into words. In this sense, it is quite different from other, better recognized forms of intelligence.  If you have ever taken an IQ test, you will remember that the questions are language-based, geometrical and mathematical puzzles, such as: “Mary, who is sixteen years old, is four times as old as her brother. How old will Mary be when she is twice as old as her brother?” (That’s right: 24.) You may also have heard of emotional intelligence quotient, or EQ, which is to feeling what IQ is to analytical thinking. After it was introduced by Daniel Goleman in a 1995 bestseller, emotional intelligence became a favored term in business schools and sociology departments, which developed means to measure it. Researchers made some satisfying discoveries; for example, it turns out that when solving a wide range of puzzles in a team setting, the average EQ of the team is more predictive of success than the average IQ, or the highest IQ score of any individual team member. The experiment seems to prove that we would all benefit if we really could get along.


Other types of intelligence have been proposed, too. In 1983, the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner enumerated seven different types of mental faculty: musical intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, personal intelligence, and kinaesthetic intelligence (the bodily aptitude that a natural athlete might possess). Other scholars have written about visual intelligence, arguing that it has been on the increase in recent decades, thanks to the rapid development of media with complicated and subtle messaging. This growing typology reflects a progressive mindset, a desire to value everyone’s contributions to a diverse society. The implication, usually unstated because it’s so radical, is that all people may be equally smart – just in different ways.  


Adding material intelligence to the list is an important next step in extending this egalitarian world view. The know-how of material trades – farming, car repair, house construction, hairdressing – simply do not have the same standing in our culture as immaterial pursuits like law, insurance or finance. Why? Not only because they can’t be objectively tested. These skills may be hard to set down on paper, or quantified, but proof of material intelligence is easy enough to see. Nor is it because of difficulty level. If a wall street trader and a tailor were to switch places for a day, neither would acquit themselves well; and while MBA programs usually last two years, the traditional period of apprenticeship for a bespoke tailor is seven. Nor is the higher respect paid to white-collar workers based on some fair-minded calculation of benefit to society. If that were true, many corporate executives would be giving away money, not raking it in.


No, the hierarchical arrangement of occupations, with materially-engaged skills gathered down at the bottom, results simply from the exercise of power. This dynamic has deep historical roots, based mainly in class conflict, and also involving prejudices based on gender and ethnicity. IQ tests themselves are a part of the story: they were developed in the nineteenth century, and their presumptive objectivity derives from the same attitudes that gave us the “social hygiene” movement and eugenics. Our tendency to overrate technical and linguistic aptitude and undervalue manual skills – the fact that we apply the word “smart” to phones and appliances more readily than to our fellow humans – is inherited from a discriminatory world view. It’s for the same reason that creative pursuits historically practiced by well-to-do white men, like painting and architecture, are accorded a high cultural status, while those of pretty much everyone else are granted the lower status of craft.


To redress these imbalances, it’s important not just to accord greater respect to material intelligence, but also to see it in very general terms, as an integrated whole. As mentioned above, those professions that do involve high levels of skill are often very specialized, which obscures connections between them. Craft is often contrasted to industry, for example. To some extent, this opposition makes sense. Artisan production has often been understood as a remedy for the social ills that first arose during the industrial revolution: the grinding, subdivided labor of British mill towns prompted nostalgia for small country workshops. Yet setting craft against industry in this way can also lead to misperception. Whatever the scale, production always requires an understanding of materials, tools and processes somewhere along the line. The machines that make mass production possible are themselves extraordinary feats of craftsmanship.


Nor should we underestimate the role of material intelligence in science. It is easy enough to caricature artisans as instinctive and lab technicians as analytical. But in fact, craft makers possess extraordinary reserves of technical knowledge, while experimental scientists often talk about the importance of having “good hands.” The same goes for medicine. Caring for the human body demands much more than a knowledge of anatomy and chemistry; it’s a tactile business. Show me a surgeon without material intelligence, and I’ll say: thanks, but I’ll have my operation somewhere else.  


Material intelligence also crosses over the conventional divide between production and consumption. Makers and users can equally appreciate the warmth and grain of wood, the cool hardness of metal, the pliability of rubber. Just as a skilled maker anticipates needs and reactions to their work, a really attentive user will be able to imaginatively reconstruct the way something was made. Ideally, an object serves as a bridge between these different perspectives. So material intelligence is indeed shared across many walks of life; it is a continuum of knowledge both wide and deep. Our tendency to chop it up into parts – craft versus industry, art versus science, producer versus consumer – erodes the potential for shared understandings.


Let’s return for a moment to the chair that you are sitting in. It’s as good a point of departure as any for an exploration of the material world. How would you find out about it, if you wanted to? Thoughts turn first to the internet, of course – just Google it. But, unlike many other types of content (celebrity birthdays, nuanced discussions of long-ago military campaigns, full-length episodes of Scooby Doo), it turns out to be very difficult to get solid online information about a given physical thing. That is partly because manufacturers have no incentive to make their internal workings public. But it is also, counterintuitively, because of the conceptual depth of material things.


There is an artwork, over fifty years old now, which serves as a good means of thinking this through: Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965). It seems simple at first: just a chair, flanked on one side by a photograph showing the same chair, and on the other, a dictionary definition of the word ‘chair.’ It exemplifies the stance that Kosuth took in his essay “Art After Philosophy,” in which he boldly claimed that language-based thinking was played out, and only art could make further incursions into theoretical understanding, by exploring the “unsayable.” (The tendency in the 20th century, he wrote, was toward the “end of philosophy and the beginning of art.” Needless to say, professional philosophers did not agree.)


As a thought experiment, One and Three Chairs can indeed be taken in myriad directions. First, as the work’s title suggests, the arrangement could be seen either as one thing seen three ways, or three utterly dissimilar things, bound together through the complex workings of language and representation.  If you have studied a little semiotics, you might notice that the three expressions of chairness conform to a classic tripartite division: we have the referent (the chair itself); an arbitrary sign (the word ‘chair’); and an index (the photo, which mechanically reproduces the chair). One might observe, too, that the evenly weighted triad of one-and-three can easily be broken down into other structures: two flat things and an object; two things that are specific (this particular chair and its photo), and one universal (a definition of chairs in general).


One might also speculate on the cultural content that is inevitably smuggled into the photograph, which has the deadpan, straight-on composition of a mug shot, and even into the dictionary entry, with its anthropomorphic terminology: a seat with a back, legs, and often arms. You might wonder how capacious the definition is, where its horizons might be. Is a rock a chair if you sit on it? If not, why not? And how do we arrive at a definition in the first place: do numerous examples accumulate into the meaning of a word, like arrivals at a party? Or does the concept precede the exemplars, imposing itself on them and giving them meaning?


Inasmuch as this is Joseph Kosuth’s best-known work, and he was one of the key protagonists of Conceptual Art, One and Three Chairs has attracted a great deal of discussion along these lines. That was exactly the artist’s intention. He was primarily concerned to explore the workings of language and representation. There is a little depth charge, though, in the way that the physical chair literally takes precedence in the work, standing front and center. You might catch yourself referring to the chair in the middle as the “real one,” and wondering just what you mean by that.


Consider: which of Kosuth’s three chairs would occupy the most memory in a computer’s hard drive? The dictionary definition is less than 1k. The photograph, in high resolution, would take up perhaps ten megabytes. But the chair is, in a sense, infinite. How would you capture it? The most exacting digital scan will only map its surface features, and even these only to a certain fidelity. And even if you could somehow translate a chair’s atoms into data points, would that get you to the important stuff? The way your body feels as you sit, right now? The subtle messages about style and identity a chair transmits to those who look at it? This one unremarkable, everyday object transcends technology’s capabilities to render the world around us into information.  


It is comforting that the humblest objects resist the ongoing march of technology into our lives in this way, like still rocks in a swift current. This is part of what makes material intelligence special. Understanding even a simple chair, truly understanding it, is an experiential matter. Googling it will only get you so far. Material intelligence is not just about compiling information. Treating an object as a point of entry into a production chain might be clarifying, for example; but it will not get you truly in touch with that thing, both literally and figuratively. There is an aesthetic aspect to be considered, and a kinaesthetic one too.


Another example: I have a favorite coffee mug, which is nothing special. It’s one of those heavy ones that you get in diners, with a shape like a little nuclear reactor and a satisfyingly chunky C-shaped handle. As it happens, I do know a bit about the origin of this design. It was first popularized following the Second World War by the Victor Company, at a factory previously used to manufacture ceramic insulators for telegraph and power lines. They used the same thick, slip-cast porcelain to make the mug, and an American classic was born. That’s a fun fact – but it has little to do with my drinking preferences. When I raise it to my lips each morning, I feel the warmth that’s pervaded the clay, the gentle gloss of the glaze, the round roll of the rim as the coffee flows over. It connects in my mind to other ceramics I have known and loved, in museums and in my kitchen cabinets, sometimes made by friends, other times in factories far away. Every time I use it, I’m situating myself within a broad human fabric.


The pleasure that an object like this can give is a crucial aspect of material intelligence, and the motivational promise it holds. Very often these days, we are reminded of the divisions that exist in society, particularly across demographic lines. Language gets blocked at those boundaries, even as it helps to articulate and enforce them. But objects cross such barriers effortlessly. They have often been the advance emissaries of exchange, as when Chinese ceramics poured into Europe in the 17th century. In those days, porcelain vessels decorated with blue dragons prompted a range of responses, from awe and curiosity to envy – including the desire to imitate the imports using domestic materials. Eventually, knockoffs of Chinese blue and white were made all over the world, from Turkey to the Netherlands to Philadelphia. Was there economic competition and cultural exoticism at work? Sure. But fundamentally, this was a positive process, in which cultures encountered and learned about one another.


A similar potential exists today. Just imagine: what if children in our primary schools were trained to identify and manipulate a basic lexicon of materials, to understand their properties and potential uses? What if vocational training were considered equally admirable as an academic education? What if we were all alive to the things around us, and could browse them as easily as we do their Twitter feeds? The embrace of such connoisseurship could have dramatic effects. I titled my recent book Fewer Better Things, in hopes of communicating the value of this sort of focus and discernment. This is not the same as encouraging luxury production. “Better” does not mean precious. It does not imply rare substances, or extraordinary expenditures of workmanship. It just means an object that extraordinarily feels right to you, as my $7 diner mug does to me. Once I found it, I didn’t need to keep buying coffee cups. I was satisfied.


I try to look for the same sense of resolution in all the things I own: the curtains in my house, the leather bag I use to carry my laptop, the jeans I wear as I type these words, and yes, the desk chair I’m sitting in, which was made back in 1969 by a fellow called Art Carpenter (his real name). I could not have made any of these things myself. It so happens that I met all the people that did, though, and they are daily reminders of those makers’ skill and enterprise. In their materiality is contained the workings of human creativity, care and commitment.


As a museum curator, I am lucky to have landed in a line of work that brings me into contact with makers, and that constantly reminds me of the beauty and vitality of things. But the feeling that I am trying to describe is open to all. And it is instinctive – even if we’re not all in touch with that instinct these days. Reconnecting with it shouldn’t be hard: it can be simple as picking up a pretty pebble while walking along the beach, in serene solitude or in the company of loved ones, and bringing it home as a reminder of a day well spent. For this purpose, any pebble will do. It takes just a moment to invest it with specialness.


It may sound utopian, but if everyone could extend that same simple attitude to the things in their lives, the benefits would be incalculable. The bad news is that the atomization of our society is getting worse all the time. The good news is that, though it may appear otherwise, we actually are all in it together – together with one another, and with material things, which can give us purchase in an increasingly disorienting world. We live, day by day, in a torrent of negativity. Often it seems unbridgeable. But objects can be our stepping stones. Recognize them for what they are, and we might just get to the other side.

WritingMarci LeBrun