Robot or Artisan?

January 05, 2019

Robot or Artisan?

Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, which is China’s — and by some measures, the world’s — biggest online commerce company, foresaw that in the near future, all of us might only be working 12 hours a week or less because artificial intelligence and robots will be doing the work for us. Is this good news or bad? I think it depends on how you look at it and what kind of future you want for yourself and your children.

Since then, artificial intelligence has become a much-discussed topic. I bet most of us are probably thinking or even worrying about our future.

Here’s a concept I like so much that it’s become part of my personal faith: what you eat will decide what you become. Think about it: why is it that on this planet we have so many different plant species, animals, and different human beings? And in different countries, different people have different dietary habits? Why don’t we all only eat the same things the same way? Why do we all look different? I believe this is the most amazing thing on the planet: the biodiversity. But the sad thing is, more and more people overlook this. Instead, people are trying to create the same food for everybody: Starbucks, MacDonalds, Subway, Burger King, Pizza Hut, DQ…Seriously, this is crazy! All those big food manufacturers, distributors, and chains are everywhere around us. Our dietary habits are no longer biodiverse. We all eat the same things now: the same chicken, same tea, same coffee, same ice cream, same bread, same pizza…

So if what we eat decides what we become, then when we all eat the same thing, what are we? What is difference between us and robots? Robots all eat electricity; and now we all eat the same poultry that went through the same machine!

The point I’m making is that if we don’t treat ourselves as special, no one else will. We are individual and unique, but if we ignore this, we’ll become victims of powerful organizations. In the future, we won’t study how artificial intelligence works and how it can serve us. The future world will strive to make people into robots.

These are my questions, and as of yet, I have no perfect answers for them. Here are some more questions I have. Maybe you can find your own answers to them:

  1. About 20 years ago, I was told by my teacher that I had to learn English and how to use something called a “computer” so that I could communicate and find a job in the future. This was proven true for many. But in the end, I didn’t use English or computers to just find a job. Instead, I’m using them to write this book for you. Nowadays, people are saying our kids should learn computer programming languages so they can find a job in the near future. Are you willing to demand this of your kids because you’re afraid they won’t be able to find a job? Why would you learn a computer programming language?
  2. Scientists can now 3D print functional organs. This could mean that in the near future, when an organ is failing, we could just print a new one to replace the old one. Not only that, we might see robots that have the exact same organs, the exact same skins and faces as us. Who’s to tell which are the robots, and which are the humans? What will you do in that case? Stay in the robot society and work with the robots? Compete for the same jobs as them, eat the same food they eat? Or are you willing to work on yourself so that no matter what, you can maintain your area of expertise and make yourself irreplaceable?
  3. We might not have the occupation of farmer in the future because there will be no need to grow food – we can just print it out. All the land will be controlled by a few powerful people or organizations, and we’ll lose the land and have to rely on printing food. What are you going to do? Eat it or die? The thought makes me despair. This sounds like a horrible future. I know that all might sound crazy, but what if it became true? Just like my teacher told me when I was a kid what was going to happen in 20 years with English and computers, and it came true.
  4. Besides survival, what’s another thing you want to do or become in your life? I don’t believe robots will take all of our jobs, and I especially don’t believe that human beings won’t need jobs at all! It would be great because robots could do all the jobs for us, then we could be totally free to do the things we want to do that robots will never be able to do, no matter how smart they are. Did you ever think about what you can do that a robot will never be able to do, and it’s a thing you really want to do while you’re alive?
  5. I live in China. If you say, “Hey Shana, come over to my place and brew a cup of tea for me today,” and you live in California, would I go? What if the flight was so fast it only took an hour and a half to arrive at your doorstep in California? Sure! I’d do that for you beyond doubt! If the transportation was so fast that it closed the distance between us that much, some people might start worrying that it will bring more competitive pressure to bear on us. We’ll have to do our work even faster…I’m telling you, that’s wrong! The speed of our life is controlled by ourselves. Don’t let other people control the speed of your life. Even if the flight from China to California was only half an hour, you could choose to spend two or more hours brewing the best, ancient tea tree, pure artisanal tea for yourself. Isn’t that amazing?! When we get more time, it doesn’t mean you have to do more things. It could also mean you have time to do better things – and to do those things better.

If we could save so much time on things like travel in the future, I would choose to slow down my life to brew more high-quality tea for myself and my friends. Are you ready to control the speed of your life?

Ok, I still have so many questions I’d like to discuss with you. But the point I’m making with those questions is that I want to help you see that no matter what kind of future we could have, it all depends on us. It all depends on whether you’re willing to participate or not. Just like an app in your smart phone app store, it can only work and hit critical mass if lots of individual people download it. Otherwise, it means nothing.

I know all this discussion may seem to have nothing to do with the business of tea, but in fact, it’s all about tea.

As I said at the beginning, tea isn’t just a thing you can drink or do business with. Tea is a way of thinking. It’s a way to help you feel things you want to understand in the world, and it will help you understand things much deeper and more directly – without the need to “cut” or destroy it. And it will teach you that just seeing things with your eyes is not enough to understand things correctly. It will teach you how you can directly feel the things you want to know – from the inside of the thing. From this perspective, you’ll see things at a different angle and feel things differently, and you can see things in a more comprehensive fashion.

I see the world is changing, and yes, it is changing very fast every day. But after becoming a tea person, I decided to work on my path at my own speed, no matter how fast this world is moving. I’ve been trying to hunt good teas in the mountains for years now. I saw how the lives of lots of tea farmers were changing. I always pay attention to what their focus is, what they believe, and the perspective they come from. In my eyes, no matter what you do, what you eat, who you date, who you marry, how you do your work…it’s all related to only one thing: dealing with humans.

When I’m on my tea journey, of course I focus on the quality of the tea. But another important thing I focus on is who are the people connected to the tea. Maybe I have some special natural talent. Usually, after talking with people only once or twice, I can generally get a sense of their personality, what type of person they are, what kinds of things they would interested in, and what they wouldn’t be interested in. This talent helps me find some of the very few good tea artisans who are not only good at making artisanal teas, but also have a good heart, with good intentions toward other people and Mother Earth. But also because of this talent, it can be very difficult to find the right tea artisans, because it makes me a very picky person, and unfortunately, there aren’t many tea people who meet my standards. So on my tea journey, I always feel very lonely as I search for the right tea artisans. Here, I want to share some of my stories about how I find the tea artisans.

When I’m out tea hunting, I know people look at me as a potential customer. When this kind of relationship is recognized, then naturally people have one common focus: trying to sell their teas to me. How they try to sell tea to me and what questions they ask me easily help me to find out if they’re the right tea person for me. I have some principles that help me find true tea artisans, which I would like to share with you now:

  1. Over the course of their life, true tea artisans can only focus on making one or two types of tea. For example, if someone is good at making artisanal oolong tea, they won’t have time to focus on making artisanal puer tea. When the teas are in totally different categories that require totally different processing, any lack of focus in the tea’s artisanal processing can easily result in failure.

Therefore, if any “tea artisan” would show me they have many different tea categories they’re making, there are only two possibilities: A. This person is not a true tea artisan, but he or she might know some individual tea artisans and collect their teas. B. This person’s tea is not artisanal tea at all, and all teas are from tea factories made from machines. And this is the most probable situation.

  1. If the person can tell you exactly where the tea is from, not only the name of the tea or tea mountain’s name, but which tea garden in which village, the size of the parcel of land, how many years he or she has been growing and making tea; and based on the land size , then tell you the annual output, then you can generally tell if they’re a real tea artisan. Then you can decide whether it’s worth putting more time, energy, and money into visiting the source of the tea.
  2. Drink their tea first, of course. When you drink the tea, don’t just focus on the tea’s flavor. You should try to find the shortcomings of the tea you’re tasting. Then ask the tea person why it has the shortcoming. Pay attention how they respond to you. If it’s a real tea artisan, they’ll take the discussion very seriously and ask you for more specific details. When they confirm the shortcoming you found, they’ll normally nod their head and very humbly accept your suggestion, and even start to discuss with you each step of how the tea was made, which step could have produced the shortcoming you found, and they’ll earnestly tell you they might go back to try again to make it right. If you find this type of tea artisan, I must tell you, you are very, very lucky. This is the kind of true tea artisan that really cares about their craft and has a very open mind. They are open to others’ suggestions and never stop trying to improve their quality.
  3. On the other hand, when you discover a shortcoming, and you ask the seller, if they just make excuses, then forget about it. This is not the right person for you. But unfortunately, 99% of people I meet are like this (maybe I’m not very lucky). Usually, when you point out flaws, especially when you say their tea has a shortcoming, by human nature, people get defensive. They might not be very happy in the beginning, but if a real tea artisan made the tea by himself or herself, they’ll be very curious and want to know how can they improve and prevent the shortcoming in the future. But if the person is not a real tea artisan, just a normal tea seller who doesn’t even know where the tea is from himself, then they won’t care about this at all. The only thing he knows is he has to sell the tea to get money. If you don’t like it, he’ll find other consumers who aren’t as discerning until he gets his money. Because it’s all about business, he’ll focus on where he can purchase low-cost tea and how can he sell it at a high price, rather than on quality. Leave right away if you care about real artisanal teas as much as I do.
  4. There are some who would say it’s simple to solve all the problems above. Just go directly into the mountains and meet the real tea artisans who are making their own tea. Why would you waste your time talking with people like those above? True, this is a more efficient way to find better tea artisans. So now, let’s dig down another level: Are all true tea artisans a good choice? I know it sounds like a silly question. We can’t say for sure whether people are good or not. There’s no black and white way to judge a person’s goodness, it all depend what angle you’re looking from. So here’s my angle on finding a truly good tea artisan:

Based on my own standards, when I check whether the tea artisan is good or not, not only do I have to check whether they can make good quality tea, but I also need to look at a few other very important things:

  1. Live with them at least one week. See how they live, what kind of lifestyle they follow. Only when you see their true living condition and style can you accurately judge whether this is the type of person you’re looking for. People living in the mountains are very different from city folk. They should have a much purer disposition and peaceful lifestyle, working and living in moderation. I respect this type of mountain person. Based on their lifestyle, you’ll know they follow their own beliefs. This is the type of person you can put your trust in. But there’s also another type of mountain people that aren’t like this, and I feel very sad about them: they don’t have specific beliefs and principles. Money is all they believe in. When you appear before them as a stranger, they see you not only as a stranger, but as a source of money. At the beginning, they’ll smile and be very warm and welcoming, but after a few hours or a few days, if you still don’t buy any tea from them, they’ll show their true face. And when you stay with them a few more days, you’ll find out all these people care about is gambling, eating, and drinking. I’ve seen many tea farmers drink themselves to death, and lots overhunted the wild animals in the mountains and ate too much meat, then got heart disease, diabetes, and suffered strokes at very young ages…These people have their own land, they’re able to make artisanal teas, but they don’t care about the environment, they kill animals, they drink a lot, they’re minds are unclear, and when they make tea, their only intention is to exchange it for money. They won’t sit down and seriously listen to you about how you feel about their tea. If you pass any negative judgment about their tea, their smile will change. They’ll push you to drink with them, eat wild animals with them, and negotiate prices with you as they push you to buy their teas.
  2. Visit them every year.

As I said, the world is changing, and it changes very fast every day. People are changing, too. In fact, people changing too fast is what leads the world to change faster and faster. Thirty years ago, hardly any families in China had televisions. Now, we all have smartphones and we’re expecting the robots to take over our jobs.

Leave the outside world behind when you visit the people in the mountains. Because you aren’t a tea artisan who lives their daily life in the tea mountains, and a true tea artisan won’t be checking a computer every day, try not to let your modern habits and differences influence them. Any of your actions could be a potentially damaging influence on these people.

There is a young kid I met about five years ago. He had a pure heart and was very shy when he saw people from outside his village. His father and brother made excellent ancient tea tree raw puer tea. Since then, more and more people from cities in the tea business found his family and wanted to deal with this family. They got a lot of business. Five years ago, when I met him, he was still working very hard learning how to make the best artisanal puer tea with his brother and father. Every year, we would get in touch and I would go visit them, but every year, more and more people brought more and more money to them. People who dressed fancy and drove fancy cars visited this small family and pushed them to produce greater quantities of tea. They even put a bunch of money in the kid’s belt and took photos to make fun of him. As of now, this small family has a huge house almost the size of a castle, and this kid is no longer the shy, hardworking little tea artisan anymore. He started smoking the most expensive cigars brought in from Cuba, driving a BMW, drinking every day until he passed out, chasing girls, and spending all his money to buy luxury junk like LV bags and Rolex watches to give away to girls. He was already divorced 3 times by the time he was only 25. He stopped making his own artisanal tea, and instead hired laborers to produce low quality teas that he then sold at a very high price. All of this happened within only 5 years.

I stopped visiting this kid, especially once he was rich. Once you were no longer one of his biggest customers, he stopped listening to any of your suggestions, and he no longer cared if you came back.

Tea farmers’ lives have changed a lot in recent years. When I look at them, I ask myself this question: no matter how this world changes and how crazy it gets, are you going to stay true to your principles and keep doing things as you have, or are you going to start to change hand in hand with this world, no matter how crazy it (and you) becomes?

It’s just like the question I asked above: Are you ready to eat and drink the same things as others, just like all robots eat electricity? Are you ready to give up your principles to have an unexamined life, until one day the robots can replace you?

I believe human beings can create the most amazing artisanal teas and do things that no robots can, but I also believe that if we all treat ourselves like robots: eat fast, work fast, live only for making money without any beliefs, drink tea without any consideration or consciousness, and don’t care what’s really good for our health or Mother Earth, then yes, sooner or later, we’ll easily be replaced by technology.

Ream more at 5 Element Tea

Shana Zhang

P.S. Let’s save our true Tea artisans, let them know we value their skills that bring so many happy moments to people around the world. Let’s say no to large scale factory produced teas and tea wares and protect these invaluable artisans for the next generation to enjoy.

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