Thursday, March 18, 2010

Of Tools and The World

I've stumbled upon two items recently concerning the role of objects and tools in defining ourselves and how we function (or don't) in day to day life. I don’t really know what to make of this experiment, titled "A Demonstration of the Transition from Ready-to-Hand to Unready-to-Hand". It’s seems to be either a na├»ve overstepping of the bounds of empirical data into some pretty heavy german philosophy, or it’s a fantastically cool example of what science can tell us about ourselves and our being in the world. Here's the explanation from Wired magazine.
An empirical test of ideas proposed by Martin Heidegger shows the great German philosopher to be correct: Everyday tools really do become part of ourselves. The findings come from a deceptively simple study of people using a computer mouse rigged to malfunction. The resulting disruption in attention wasn’t superficial. It seemingly extended to the very roots of cognition.
“The person and the various parts of their brain and the mouse and the monitor are so tightly intertwined that they’re just one thing,” said Anthony Chemero, a cognitive scientist at Franklin & Marshall College. “The tool isn’t separate from you. It’s part of you.”
 Chemero’s experiment, published March 9 in Public Library of Science, was designed to test one of Heidegger’s fundamental concepts: that people don’t notice familiar, functional tools, but instead “see through” them to a task at hand, for precisely the same reasons that one doesn’t think of one’s fingers while tying shoelaces. The tools are us. This idea, called “ready-to-hand,” has influenced artificial intelligence and cognitive science research, but without being directly tested.

On a related note, this talk by Matthew Crawford (author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work), addresses the use of tools and the moral significance of working with your hands. Especially relevant was this quote, which contrasts the character of the narcissist with that of the repairman:
Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence. A repairman, on the other hand, puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding. For this very reason, his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.
The repairman is called in when the smooth operation of our world has been disrupted, and at such moments our dependence on things normally taken for granted (for example, a toilet that flushes) is brought to vivid awareness. For this very reason, the repairman’s presence may make the narcissist uncomfortable. The problem isn’t so much that he is dirty, or uncouth. Rather, he seems to pose a challenge to our self-understanding that is somehow fundamental. We’re not as free and independent as we thought.
Here's a longer piece Crawford wrote last year for the NY Times. I'm off to go use some tools.

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