March 30, 2020. By coincidence, Van Gogh’s birthday. His painting — The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring — was stolen from a museum in The Netherlands. Even in the midst of the current crisis, this was global news.
Normally, I wouldn’t have paid too much attention to the theft. More serious things are happening in the world,. It has no direct impact on me. No one was hurt. And I am not an “art guy.”
Under normal circumstances, I would have heard it, logged it, and quickly been caught up in the daily routine of life. Meetings. Phone calls. Email. Traffic. Travel. Presentations. Always in a hurry.
But it was different this time. First of all, it was terrible that the thieves took advantage of the coronavirus. Museums are closed to prevent virus transmissions. And it must have been easier to plan and execute the theft when the museum was distracted by the pandemic.
But there is more. A crisis — any serious and unexpected event — tends to put things in perspective.
We look at things anew. Especially, the things that we ordinarily take for granted or that usually disappear into the flow of our everyday routines. Crises make us question our values and the value we put on things. And, right now, we are all experiencing a crisis.
So, I was surprised that the disappearance of the painting affected me so much. The theft of The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring made me question the value of technology in our world.
It is fair to say that I am “tech positive.” I have always believed that technology makes the world a better place for everyone.
I also had a clear opinion about the “human versus machine” discussion. I was convinced that emerging technology would automate many jobs, but I also believed that we — humans — would be creative. New jobs would appear. AI Business Scientist, Deep Learning Engineer, Blockchain Developer, Chief Ethics Officer, to name just a few.
And I wanted to prepare my students for these new jobs. I wanted them to understand that the old ways of working will disappear in the digital future.
I am still convinced that most of the traditional jobs will be automated. Let’s be honest; a lot of what we do is standardized. Processes and procedures have, for long, dominated our lives.
But, thinking about the theft of Van Gogh’s painting made me realize that I have drastically changed the way I work in the last couple of weeks. My smartphone was my best friend. I always had to be connected.
The fear of “missing out” caught up with me as well. I wanted to know what was going on in the world. Email. Messages. Social media.
Well, that need has changed. My screen time has reduced significantly over the last couple of weeks. And this is surprising now that we are forced to use more and more digital tools to stay connected to work or have more time for being online.
I noticed that living under lockdown and working remotely has made me appreciate my surroundings more. It is springtime, and I am very much aware of how nature is changing. I have never enjoyed walking the dog more.
But I have also started to develop a heightened awareness for human creativity and the arts. Books. Music. Paintings. Things I normally have little interest in pursuing (also because I believed I simply had no time).
In difficult times, I realize how important it is for humans to be and remain creative. And the theft of The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring made me even more aware of this.
The oil painting shows a person — a woman dressed in black — standing in a garden surrounded by trees with a church tower in the background. Van Gogh worked on the painting in springtime, but the painting uses somber tones and not the vivid colors and vibrant style that we normally associate with his work.
And yet, there is something powerful about the woman’s face, as she turns towards us. Caught in a private moment, her stare makes us — the viewer — feel uncomfortable. Our innocent enjoyment of the landscape is instantly transformed into something darker, ambiguous and, I would suggest, more human.
Because what could be more human than a complicated moment shared with a stranger in a parsonage garden in springtime.
I am still convinced that technology will continue to play an essential role in our lives. Our societies will be more and more dependent on artificial intelligence, big data, and sensors. Digital tools will dominate education. Smart contracts and blockchain technology will boost the development of smart cities.
But more than ever, I am convinced that emerging technologies will help us become more human. They must strip away the procedures and routines that dull our capacity to enjoy the rich moments that Van Gogh sought to capture in this and other paintings.
Technology should not become a source of routinization or proceduralization. A different source of “dulling,” in which we lose our capacity to appreciate the value of our humanity. Rather, technology needs to become a new platform for expressing our individualism and creativity.
In times of crisis, our human skills are still relevant. More relevant, I would say. Storytelling. Writing. Painting.
Looking at The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, I am certain that the future will not be about human versus machine. We shouldn’t fear the technological revolution. Machines will never replace us — the human spirit and the human creativity. Machines will always be a tool. They enable all of us to tell our story, experiment, and be creative and innovative.
Technology allows all of us to become an artist, painter, musician, and share our talents and experiments with the world. Technology enables us to collaborate, co-create, and learn.
And, if there is one thing I learned last week, it is that technology will never erode our humanity.