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Technology (2): Artifice-ial Beings

… technology predated our humanness… The strategy of bending the environment to use as if it were part of one’s own body is a half-billion-year-old trick at least.

All technology, the chimp’s termite-fishing spear and the human’s fishing spear, the beaver’s dam and the human’s dam, the warbler’s hanging basket and the human’s hanging basket, the leaf-cutter ant’s garden and the human’s garden, are all fundamentally natural.

We tend to isolate manufactured technology from nature, even to the point of thinking of it as antinature, only because it has grown to rival the impact and power of its home. But in its origins and fundamentals, a tool is as natural as our life.

Humans are animals – no argument. But humans are also not animals – no argument. This contradictory nature is at the core of our identity.

Likewise, technology is unnatural – by definition. And technology is natural – by a wider definition. This contradiction is also core to human identity.

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants

Technology without design?

Is a beaver’s dam technology? Does the instinctive tool use of a crow – more “tékhnē” that “ology” – really count? As Kevin Kelly points out, the tools of the animal kingdom (or should that be the “natural” world?) are both the same kind of thing as human technology and not the same thing at all.

Perhaps rather than trying to draw lines between them it’s more useful to observe that almost exactly such animal tools – creations of instinct and the simplest culture – are the ancestors not just of our technologies, but of us. We think that early humans had simple technology – hand axes, spears, fire, huts and even boats – for a long time before they had language (itself a technology), and certainly before they became modern homo sapiens. Did they start using tools because they got smarter, or did they get smarter because they were using tools?

Certainly, such tools enabled our ancestors to survive and thrive, and to develop stronger cultures, the software of the “second nature” our species created. Culture in turn made them better able pass on their knowledge and their tools – themselves a kind of embodied learning – making it easier for the next generation to flourish. Slowly, our ancestors’ bodies and minds adapted to these new conditions. They learnt to do more and do it better. They grew stronger as groups even as, paradoxically, their individual bodies grew weaker.

Technology had begun to make humans long before humans began to make technology.

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