Tools, HoloLens, Disposable Reality, and Homo erectus
February 2, 2015
I've been pretty happy to get back into building things. Before my stint in the world of technology I took a turn as a carpenter and woodworker. The work was, and is, incredibly gratifying. There is magic in transforming an imagined thing, like a cabinet, a house, a boat, into a real thing...a thing with reasonably objective standards of quality and durability, against which the results of the builder are measured. You know when you've built something great, or something shitty, as do most others, which results in the kind of direct accountability for results and outcomes I found in short supply in the arena of the "information worker."
Part of the joy of making things is the joy of using tools. I'm inclined to mark tools down in the list of real things. There is an incredible legacy behind some tools, extending for thousands, even millions of years into our past. The framing squares and plumbs pictured on the left would be immediately recognizable, and usable, by a tradesperson today -- and they were made well over 3500 years ago! Volumes of books are devoted to tools, and not a little bit of philosophy as well. Consider The Anarchist's Tool Chest, in which the author makes the case that the proper selection and use of tools represents not a set of consumer decisions, but a set of counter-consumerism decisions and practices. When I'm holding tools like the humble hammer, or a framing square, I feel connected to thousands of years of human ingenuity, and perhaps a little more disconnected from the abstract world of the knowledge worker, the virtual world of the web, the disposable world of consumer electronics.
It turns out that my ability to hold and use these tools at all may be a deeply fundamental part of human nature. Some recent archeological efforts have dated a humanoid hand bone fossil to almost 1.5 million years ago:
But this fossil was rarer still, for two reasons. First, it was a type of bone (the third metacarpal in the hand) that, along with other distinct anatomical features, allowed humans, in contrast to other primates, the ability to make tools and perform other manipulative functions that are unique to humans. Second, it was dated to about 1.42 million years ago. It constitutes the earliest evidence of a modern human-like hand, indicating that this anatomical feature existed more than half a million years earlier than previously known.
...Our specialized, dexterous hands have been with us for most of the evolutionary history of our genus, Homo. They are – and have been for almost 1.5 million years – fundamental to our survival.
So tools in the human hand have been, and I would argue remain, a key part of the thriving of our species. No wonder that many people experience a deep satisfaction in their use.
But are all tools created equal? I was thinking about this when I saw the latest technology announcement from my old employer, Microsoft. Last month Microsoft declared the availability of the HoloLens -- a headset worn over the eyes, which projects a holographic reality on top of and intermingled with the wearer's physical reality. You can see a promotional video here. "Technology is all around us," declares the video's narrator, "but what if we could go further?" The video shows a number of compelling applications for this new "tool:" remote collaboration of architects and scientists, interactive and immersive game play, virtualized design, and the use of holographic objects, like a holographic television, in place of physical objects. Pretty interesting notions. But it's also impossible not to notice the limited role of the human hand in this virtualized future. This wonder of evolution and cultural tradition, this key ingredient to human survival over millenia is relegated to vague guesturing and pinching empty space. This new technology will undoubtedly unlock many new possibilities, but we shouldn't be surprised when we also experience loss alongside of these gains: loss of ability, loss of satisfaction, loss of something fundamental.
Matthew B. Crawford writes eloquently about the cost of a shift away from physical work and tools in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry in the the Value of Work. "A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent," he writes.
The philosopher Albert Borgmann offers a distinction..between commanding reality and disposable reality, which corresponds to “things” verses “devices.” The former convey meaning through their own inherent qualities, while the latter answer to our shifting psychic needs.
As an instance of “the eclipse of commanding reality and the prominence of disposable reality,” Borgmann focuses on music. People play musical instruments a lot less than they used to; now we listen to the stereo or iPod. An instrument is “arduous to master and limited in its range,” whereas a stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music instantly available, granting us a kind of musical autonomy.
The stereo as a device contrasts with the instrument as a thing. A thing, in the sense in which I want to use the term, has an intelligible and accessible character and calls forth skilled and active human engagement. A thing requires practice while a device invites consumption. Things constitute commanding reality, devices procure disposable reality.
So then perhaps the HoloLens is a tool, or perhaps it is a "device," in Borgmann's definition -- a device which in this case quite literally procures a disposable, holographic reality. In practice I suspect the disposable reality projected by the HoloLens will prove to detract from the physical, present reality of the user. The remote collaborator will benefit, while the coworker (or spouse, or child) in the same room will suffer. The virtual game reality will be more appealing than the job of painting the house, or cleaning the gutters.
But there's a tonic for this ill: put old tools in those old hands and make some stuff! Knowledge work got you down? Deep satisfaction and gratification feeling elusive in your day job? When was the last time you worked with your hands in a meaningful way? Give it a try -- take a class, pick up a new skill, commit to a project in your own home or for the benefit of others in need. New tools and devices might thrill with their newness, but for a solid, dependable dose of satisfaction reaching for a real tool with your highly capable hands might be just the thing...a real thing.