Saturday, March 11, 2023

Generative Pottery Transmogrifier: An Allegory

The new machine

 The boy shifted his attention to the large screen. He had seen the word “pottery” in the opening title and wanted to follow the news report. At school, he was taking a class in the pottery studio. He liked to make things from clay.

On the screen, people were gathered around a large, shiny box on wheels. The box radiated innovation. It was cube-like, but streamlined—like it was meant to move, like it was capable of guiding itself to its own destination.

From one side extended a flexible silver tube with a nozzle. The nozzle now hung down gracefully, but it was clear that it was designed to produce wonders.

One person punched a sequence of buttons on a remote control panel. The Machine rolled forward slightly and its nozzle lifted.

After a pause it gave a delicate quiver and the nozzle launched an object made of clay. The form traversed a neat arc and landed on a nearby table. What was it?

The camera zoomed in and the boy could see that the form was actually a coffee mug, a beautiful mug. Such a mug would have taken him several hours to make in the studio, if he even could achieve the curves, the symmetry. It was produced by the Machine in a flash, and it seemed perfect.

The nozzle of the Machine was in motion again, raising and firing another object. Another flawless landing on the table. This one was a coffee cup with two handles. It was fascinating to put two handles on a coffee cup. What could the second handle be used for?

The people in the news report were still intently examining the first mug, passing it from hand to hand and pointing out aspects of its lines and surfaces to each other.

The boy noticed that they seemed unaware that the Machine continued to shoot out objects. A group of clay forms appeared on the table and continued to grow. Mug after creative mug: two handles, no handles, three handles, five handles. Then, it produced a cross between a mug and an elegant flower vase, and, then, three ashtrays joined like a clover. It would be too much for the people in the news report to ever have time to look at each piece.

They didn’t seem interested in the other objects, but remained focused on the first mug and were now demonstrating something they had discovered. The mug had no bottom. One raised it to the camera and peered through it. The boy could see an eye staring from the screen at him where the bottom of the mug should have been. The others nodded with approval.

Why were they so happy with a mug without a bottom?

The Machine enters the studio

The boy sat in his work station in the pottery studio. The other students were also at their stations, and they were chatting among themselves.

The boy was impatient for the teacher to arrive and the class to start. He had an idea for what he wanted to make from clay today. Lately, his thoughts had been full of dogs. He wanted to make a water dish for a dog. It would be for a dog to drink from, but also shaped like a dog—with a head, feet and tail coming from the sides. He had never seen anyone make a dog dish in the studio, and certainly not one that actually looked like a dog.

The door opened and the pottery teacher entered the room. She held the door wide and peered expectantly into the hall. The students fell silent, their gaze following the teacher’s.

There was a low musical whir and through the door a silver tube with a nozzle became visible and it soon became evident that the tube was part of a large, shiny box. The Machine rolled into the room. It was the Machine that the boy had seen on the news.

The school’s studio housed a few electric potter's wheels, but had never seen such advanced technology as the Machine. Its shiny metal surface, its futuristic shape, attracted admiration and fascination.

“Students,” the pottery teacher announced, “today we begin a new form of learning. Our school has put out a huge sum for this Machine and has also found the budget to pay the monthly subscription fee. The Machine will help you learn pottery.”

She glanced around the room. The students were listening closely.  

“You will no longer need to learn to hand-build or throw pots. Coil technique, slab technique, mold technique are no longer necessary for you to make a high quality pot. Instead, the Machine will produce an initial piece of pottery for you that is already at the level of an experienced potter, and you will learn by perfecting it. You will learn to produce masterly pieces by starting with high-level work.”

The teacher punched some buttons on a remote control panel. She was focused on the exact sequence of buttons, and seemed to tremble with excitement.

The Machine started to roll around the room. At each workstation, the Machine paused, trembled, and the nozzle lifted. Out of the nozzle flew a clay form, which arced through the air and landed precisely in the middle of the workstation. Each student’s eyes widened with wonder as they each received their own form to work on.

The Machine halted at the workstation of the boy, who watched it intently. The others seemed to trust that the clay form would land on their workstation and not hit them in the face. He wasn’t sure how they were so certain, but he braced himself not to recoil as the Machine quivered and the nozzle lifted and fired in his direction.

With a loud thud, his form arrived on the workstation precisely in front of him. It was a teapot. He observed it with enchantment. It was round and squat, but avoided looking heavy. Its spout was lifted proudly. He peered into the hole at the top to reassure himself it had a bottom. It did. The teapot seemed perfect.

As he studied the teapot, he recalled that he had wanted to make a dog dish. He would have to flatten the beautiful teapot that the Machine had created for him to make a totally different form. He tried to picture how he would completely remold the clay. Tentatively he pinched at the side of the pot—but he couldn’t remember his idea for the dog dish clearly anymore. When he looked at the clay form, all he could see was a teapot.

The teacher said that they would produce masterly pieces. Maybe the dog dish had not been a good idea. Maybe what he had really wanted all along was a teapot. Perhaps a teapot with ears.

The boy set to work and spent the class period pinching out a jaunty pair of dog ears, one on each side of the teapot. He turned his work on his workstation and regarded it from every angle. He certainly could not have produced such a piece from scratch. Would the teacher consider it masterly?

The pottery teacher walked by his desk, and the boy looked up.

“Lovely piece. The ears give the teapot a sense of added lightness. You did a good job.”

The teacher started to walk towards the next student, but then looked back.

“Don’t forget to deposit your pot in the bin of the Machine as you leave the studio. Just open the lid of the box and throw it in. The Machine gives pottery to us, but it is only because we give pottery back to the Machine.”

The Machine leaves the studio

The boy walked into the studio and closed the door behind him. The other students were all sitting quietly at their workstations. It was too quiet. He was missing the musical whirring of the Machine. The large, shiny box was no longer standing in its corner.

He sat down at his workstation just as the door opened again. The students expected to see their pottery teacher, but in walked the geology teacher. The teacher greeted the class and then pointed to three of the students.

“There are some pottery supplies in the hall, please bring them in.”

The students looked at each other in surprise, but quickly scrambled out of their seats and through the door. After a moment, they returned lugging a large, rough wooden box.

“The Machine, as you see, is not with us anymore. Your pottery teacher has asked me to take over the lesson for the day.”

The boy looked around and saw disappointment in the faces of the other students. The box looked like it had been standing in the garage of the geology teacher for twenty years. The outside was streaked with reddish brown. What could they learn from this box?

The teacher motioned the students to move the box to the corner where the Machine had stood when it was not producing clay objects.

“Today,” he announced, “I am going to teach you how to make pottery with wild clay.”

A murmur traveled through the studio. What was “wild clay”?

“I gathered the clay from the bank of a stream that runs behind my house. In this box you will find a bucket of clay soaking in water for each of you. Before you can use it, you need to mix it to make a smooth slip and then sieve it. You’ll find your sieve in your bucket. Then we will let it dry to a consistency with which you can work.”

The students crowded around the box, removed the lid and distributed the buckets. Soon they were all back at their workstations mixing and sieving.

“Here are cloth pillowcases,” the teacher said, moving from workstation to workstation, “take one each for the next phase.”

The boy poured his sieved liquidy clay into his pillowcase, wrapping it around the bucket handle so that it would hang into the bucket and drip. He positioned the bucket in the middle of the workstation. It would be there waiting for him for next week’s class. He gently patted its side, sealing the promise.

The geology teacher passed by his desk. “Looking good. What do you think?”

The boy didn’t reply, but continued to gaze at the bucket. Finally, he looked up and asked, “What happened to the Machine?”

“Oh, the Company that makes the Generative Pottery Transmogrifier is facing some challenges,” the teacher responded. “Their Machine works by processing thousands and thousands of pots. The Machine needs many, many pots so it can mix and match potters’ styles and produce new forms.” The boy knew the basics of how the Machine works from the news, but he hadn’t yet thought deeply about what it meant.

“The Machine spits out clay objects that are delightful and sometimes even dazzling,” the teacher elaborated. “However, it cannot create a pot from formless clay. It needs to start with pots that have been created by potters. All these pots get thrown into its bin, and the machine mixes and matches their functions and their shapes. Plus the Machine consumes whatever you yourself produce. You also feed the Machine by throwing your own work into its bin.

“In the beginning the Company managed to get all of these pots for free,” the teacher went on. The boy listened closely. “But this is changing. Potters from far and wide have joined forces. They are pointing out that they were not being paid for the time and effort they had invested in making the pots used to feed the Machine. They had not intended their work to be used in this way.” 

The boy lightly bit his lower lip. He thought he could understand the rage and frustration of the potters.

“They pressured the Company to publicly acknowledge that the Machine would not function without potters who make pots,” said the teacher. “The general public grew disenamored with the Machine. Respected museums and galleries released reports on how the Machine was consuming rare pottery from Africa, from the precolonial Americas, from neolithic Europe and Asia. The Company was forced to act.”

The teacher sighed. “The Company is currently raising the price of the subscription for the Machine as it tries to respond to the public outcry. Our school can’t afford the Machine any more after the latest price increase. Your pottery teacher is with the school principal at this moment trying to get a refund for the original Machine. Don’t worry, she’ll be back for the next class.”

The boy considered what the teacher had said. After a moment, he remarked, “We’re lucky there’s a stream running behind your house.”

“Yes. I like my stream. There’s enough clay there to make anything you like. We certainly won’t miss the Machine.” He paused before adding, “And there are enough potters around the globe to make whatever we want and need. The world wouldn’t miss the Machine either.”

“I want to be a potter when I grow up,” said the boy.

The boy saw encouragement in the smile the teacher gave him before moving on to the next student.

Standing up to move to the studio sink, the boy realized it would take him longer than usual to get his hands clean. There was nothing to be done about his clothes. He would simply go to his next class still splotched with reddish brown. He didn’t mind.

He glanced at the rough wooden box that held the wild clay supplies standing in the corner where it had replaced the Machine. He couldn’t imagine a group of people on a news report gathered excitedly around this wooden box, like they had gathered around the silver, streamlined, musically purring Machine.

He hoped that the wild clay would remain part of pottery class. While he mixed and sieved the wild clay slip, he understood where pottery comes from. He felt a connection to other potters who had done the same in the past, for thousands of years. Preparing the wild clay raised images in his mind of the pieces he could make in the future.

The boy shook his head. Why would a Machine make a mug without a bottom, even if a potter was waiting to fix it?

If he wanted to re-form an already formed teapot, the boy reflected, he could still do that without the Machine. One of the other students could make a teapot and he would add the dog ears. He smiled to himself. Working together in this way, they would be very sure that the finished piece was theirs and theirs to keep.