Monday, November 21, 2016

The Changing Panorama Of Human Artifacts

            The evolution of using things in the external world to obtain food goes back a long way among animals.  Many non-human animals use pre-existing objects in their living environment.  These consist primarily of twigs and rocks.  Twigs can be slightly modified for tool purposes as when a chimpanzee uses a twig to fish out termites from a termite nest. This modification of a twig would constitute a very minimal imprint being made on an object by an animal.   There is not a significant imprint made on the object in its fabrication as a tool.  Furthermore, the products on which these primitive tools are used are forms of food, not another object like a craft product.  The latter would consist of a meaningful made imprint that is worthy of being preserved in and of itself. 

            With the appearance of humans on the planet, we get the first presence of things on which a complex animal both makes and preserves significant imprints.  Stones were struck against other stones to make tools with edges, and these tools included hammers, hand axes, spear parts and blades.  Capuchin monkeys in Brazil strike stones against other stones to produce stone flakes, but then they do nothing with them.  However, the broken stones made by early humans were used as tools for basic survival functions like hunting and preparing food.  They were not for the most part used at that point in human development to create craft products with meaningful made and preserved imprints.

            One major exception of a prehistoric creative product was the cave paintings.  These paintings were made with a combination of rocks, shells, twigs, feathers, brushes of animal hairs and hollow bones to achieve different effects on the walls.  Certainly, this represented an early attempt to make and preserve a product imprint from at least some implements that were made and preserved to be useful in the production of the painting.

            For the purposes of this article, the next span of history that we will talk about covers a period of time that starts when prehistoric humans started to make cave paintings and ends up at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  It’s a long time period, but it represents an ongoing pattern of dealing with human artifacts.  This was a time when people increasingly refined techniques to make and preserve imprints on tools so that these tools could be used to help make and preserve imprints on products.  Because there was no mass production by machines, each tool and each product of the tools had an element of refined craftsmanship.  The person who made the tools was making and preserving his own imprints on the world.  Many times, the person who made the tools was the person who made the products, but eventually, tools and products became separate specializations.  And because the development of the artisan mentality meant that most people had to acquire tools and products from other artisans, market economies were created to allow for the exchange of goods, to allow for people to receive each other’s tool and product imprints.

            With the start of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, a whole different pattern of humans dealing with their artifacts emerged.  Individual innovators designed the machines that were used in the factories.  These inventors were the only people actually involved in making new original imprints with regard to human artifacts.  The people who actually made tools and consumer products were the people who operated the machines, worked on assembly lines, assembling parts to create finished products.  Each new factory product created was a new affirmation of the inventor’s design, a new presentation of the imprint the inventor wanted to make with his machine.  With the creation of the factory system, all the focus turned to the presentation of the established imprints of the mechanical artifact makers.  The imprints of the relatively few innovators distinct from the work of the vast number of factory workers.  Something fundamental had been lost by the factory workers – the opportunity to make and preserve their own imprints through individually crafted artifacts.  The focus in the factories shifted to how much exchange value or money the factory workers could make in order to buy other different consumer artifacts, other already preserved imprints.  Making and preserving new individual imprints among the workers got lost in the factory process.  Only making and preserving already established imprints and receiving other different established imprints remained.

            The workers who participated in this system gave up something very important: an important aspect of their self-worth.  But perhaps even more is going to be lost as the use of 3-D printers starts to grow.  These machines have the capacity to make extremely complex artifacts with only the minimal intervention of a worker who sets the process going.  On the one hand, it is true that in some situations a person can design his own artifact, such as a child designing his own toy.  And that, of course, sounds very creative and very positive.  But the designer is totally separated from the process of constructing the artifact in the external world.  He is totally separated from the process of physically making the imprint in the external world.  There is no focus on his own craftsmanship.  And a lot of people are just going to make a partial imprint from their minds or none at all (if it is a standardized artifact design) and then focus on the imprint they will receive when the 3D printer is done with its operation.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a toy or a gun or a car or even a body organ.  Increasingly, we are going to be moving into an age of very passive consumerism, where our main connection to artifacts is going to be based on receiving them.  Just a minimal participation in the process of constructing them if at all.

            Whereas the process of constructing artifacts was an integral part of preindustrial human participation in the field of experience in the external world, a process that gave a person grounding in the external world, a process that allowed him to feel fully alive and to prepare for death through the imprints he made and preserved, today the average person is left in an experiential vacuum with regard to the artifacts he uses.  His primary connection to artifacts is to take already constructed ones and to use them.  For the most part, he no longer directly makes his tools with his hands, and he no longer directly makes his products with tools.  The exceptions are a relatively few usually professional artisans – people who seem eccentric and anachronistic in relation to the trends of modern life.  Increasingly disappearing is the struggle to put some order to one’s world through the use of basic tools and the creation of other more basic artifacts.  Increasingly disappearing is the possibility of finding the sense of purpose that comes with engaging in this struggle.  We have traveled a long way in our evolution from pre-industrial humans.  The question is if this long way has always been and will always continue to be a uniformly good way.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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