Tools and Nature

Technology involves the manufacturing and use of tools.  Tools are created extensions of ourselves that help us adapt and find solutions to pressing problems.  Biologists once thought that humans were the only creatures to use tools, but it turns out other animals use them as well and for many different reasons.  Jane Goodall was one of the first scientists to document tool use in other animals, noticing chimps used blades of grass to harvest ants, and since her initial observations, there have been a number of other documented cases of tool use among such animals as birds, chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants.

Typically the reasons for tool use among animals center around food access, shelter, camouflage, and protection.  Some of them are ingenious and involve adaptation in the moment or at least within the span of a lifetime.  One of the great examples of this is the adaptable crow. It’s not by chance I think that Aesop used the crow as a model of ingenuity in his famous tale of the crow and the pitcher.  Crows can adapt easily to use new phenomenon in their environment for procuring food.  Here’s a video of a crow using several tools to complete a task:

Here’s another of crows using traffic to crack nuts:

But it’s not just the crows.  Elephants use sticks to swat at flies,  chimpanzees sharpen sticks to hunt, dolphins use sponges to protect their noses from being scratched while foraging on the ocean floor, and herons use bait to catch fish.  Of course, some and not all animals have been observed using tools, but this certainly gives us an impression that tools are an interesting feature of the animal kingdom and not simply the human species.

Modeling Tools From Nature:

What can’t be denied is that we humans take tool use to whole new levels.  In human society, technology invades every aspect of our lives.  It is  not only part of the context in which we live,  It is the context in which we live.  The way we have chosen to create this context is one in which the local world becomes subject to the global.   We in our local communities are dependent on outside sources for our tools, our education, our food, our shelter.  These dependencies we equate with the progress of technology, but it’s not the only way tools or technology could be designed or developed.  It’s simply the way we have chosen to manage and create them.

I just watched a great lecture by Andrew Feenburg last night where he challenged different beliefs that society tends to have about technology.  One thing he talked about was this illusion of technology, that the tools that we use have no affect upon us, its users, but are somehow radically independent of us; that we can use tools and somehow maintain immunity from them changing our habits, our lives, our social systems, and our relationship with the natural world. He points out that these affects are the important factor when assessing new technologies.  In other words, we shouldn’t be as thrilled with what our technologies do in the utilitarian sense (whether they are bigger, better, or faster than the older, outdated models)  as much as  we should concern ourselves with how this technology will help or hinder our  relationships, our environment, our bodies, and our psyches.

This disconnect between the creation of the tool and the affects that it has on humanity and nature I think is evident due to the way we manufacture and distribute our tools.  Feenburg makes the point that

This illusion is less of a problem in traditional societies.  There, craft knowledge and everyday experience are in constant communication.  Lessons learned by using technical devices are absorbed into the craft tradition where they limit and control technical activity.

What we see in nature is the type of tool use as found in these traditional societies, localized and adaptable, and for this reason this experience with the tool is maintained and tools are developed that don’t affect the user in detrimental ways.  The experience of the tool gives the user the advantage to adapt a tool to fit a specific need at a specific time, and in a particular locale.  It gives the user as the manufacturer or else in a community with the manufacturer, the ability to  manage the how the tool affects their community. If for example the user sees that the tool is hurting the health, environment, and relationships of his or her community, then the tool can be fixed to address these problems immediately instead of waiting for bureaucracy to take hold.

Adapting our natural resources to make a tool is akin to creativity and ingeniousness.  It’s the creative birthright of all animals, including humans to use the resources that are set before them in unique and innovative ways.  It is our birthright to create and this means to adapt.  Unfortunately due to the way we have chosen to create our technological systems creativity and ingenuity also have been centralized, specialized, and have replaced the creativity that comes natural to our species with a subtle sedentary life of dependency.

What I’m not saying is that everybody needs to be self-sufficient land holders that know how to do everything from computer programming to genetic screening to chicken plucking.  No what I’m saying is that these systems of dependencies seem to work much better at a local level as nature shows and that at this level there is much more creativity and ingenuity to go around.  More creativity, means greater technological advancement and a technology that is appropriate for local, human-scale use and fits the needs of the place for which it is created.

Of course, as nature shows there will always be those systems that interact with one another like the migration of birds, butterflies, and weather patterns.  There are interrelationships on this earth that are global and not local.  But it seems that we emphasize in our systems what nature doesn’t.  While nature emphasizes the local, decentralized, adaptable use of tools, we tend to create systems that are centralized and use materials and labor from around the world to create our tool.     I’m not then proposing that we totally be insulated from the world outside our local communities, but instead, that we intend to regain this traditional society in a very robust technological way and in communication with other local communities.  Currently the global village is emphasized in disregard to the local.  We need to take the opposite tack.  De-emphasizing the global and re-emphasizing the local.  It’s not that hard to imagine doing so.   When the only thing we had to move around the world on was sailing ships a few centuries ago, this is exactly what commerce was like.

Focusing on the local will allow our experiences to inform the technologies we create to actually benefit us, the users and the environment in which we live.  Again we see that face to face interaction is relevant.  When a community is intimately involved in the creation of its tools, action is not regulated simply by how much money can be made, but rather how it can benefit the community as a whole.  Feenburg calls this the means is equal to the ends.   In other words, the way we design and choose to manufacture a tool (the means) will have necessary consequences and affects in our social systems (the ends).  Because we are designing technologies for a global system, local communal concerns are not taken into account.  Instead what we are left with is a system designed to pollute, to take advantage of people, and to destroy social bonds.  With a local system the concerns are heard and tools are made that not only respect these concerns but also designed to encourage them.

A few posts back I mentioned that human beings are in a unique position in history.  We are experiencing a rampant disconnect from nature due to the way we have chosen to design our technologies.  One of the main critiques of an industrial society by the famous back-to-lander and iconoclast John Seymour was that a direct connection between resource and product is not found in industrialism.  Seymour argued for a more traditional way of life where products were made from the materials that could be grown, wildcrafted, cut or mined locally; where there is a connection between manufacturer and the raw material, a relationship of quality that is then reflected in the quality manufacturing of the product. Things typical of our industrial society like planned obsolescence for example is not a mark of a handicraft society.  Because the laborer and the manufacturer knows how much time is spent creating the product and also because he knows how valuable the raw material is, nothing is wasted, raw materials are used and reused.  All of nature’s resources are treated like gold.

What would a technology that is local and decentralized look like?  How would we design our machines if we had to depend on local resources for their manufacturing or would we have machines as we now know them?  What would a creative process of not just a few educated manufacturers look like, but a whole nation and even a whole world of people developing and tinkering, growing and forging, each one in their particular communities, each one gaining insight on how to design appropriate tools, sharing ideas with other communities which in turn would adapt these ideas for their local uses and needs?   How much more advanced could we be in our technologies then?

I don’t know how this would change our tools but the ramifications for society are evident.  The manufacturer would listen to those who had experienced the affects of their tools, their creations.  The means and the ends would be in constant communication and the system would be tweaked right then and there, wrongs would be righted, without the great debates that we now have in our political systems on whether to regulate or not.  Again a face to face transaction is much easier to control then a centralized faceless one.  As nature provides for its creatures, so we too could learn to model provisions for our fellow human beings and the natural world around us.  Systems could be managed to take care of energy needs, food needs, housing, clothing, etc.  without needing large industries to go across the globe and harvest resources that are not ours to use.  And these systems would be managed well or risk desertification of natural resources, the consequences of users actions would immediately make themselves evident.

I realize there are no utopias and I am not trying to set one up here.  But what better way to affirm that there are indeed no utopias than in modeling our societies in nature’s variety and adaptability through allowing local communities to set up their own trials of tool use and system design and supporting their efforts by committing ourselves to the  local and decentralized?  Utopic visions are the parlance of these centralized institutions that think one should always travel one way or the other, that technology under the control and design of the few will direct and shape and make a society in their particular dogma.  A decentralized social and technological society has none of this, no utopias only adaptation, only variety.

Next post I want to highlight the change that is already afoot, to bring technologies back to a human and decentralized scale.  In many ways the internet is a grand paradox in this.  It is this global system bringing information near, and people are using it in their particular locales to dream and to create, and to teach others how to follow them in this kind of tinkerer’s revolt.

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