Thursday, November 11, 2021

This Is The History Of Tools


Pocket calculators first came into my consciousness just as I was entering middle school. They were wildly expensive at first, hundreds of dollars, but as the price came down as they tend to do with new technology, every family soon had one.

Our math teachers were up in arms, of course, as kids started secreting them into the classroom, so they were banned. We were scolded that calculators were for lazy students who would never "grasp the concepts" if all we had to do was push a few buttons to get our answers. Eventually, getting caught with a calculator was considered an offense on par with plagiarizing. Today, most of us carry calculators with us everywhere we go and even if I feel I've calculated correctly in my head, I still tend to check my math, in the spirit of measure-twice-cut-once, using the calculator built into my phone.

Earlier this week, I built a simple frame for a piece of art we wanted to hang in the guest bath. I used a measuring tool, straight edge, paint brush, hammer, locking pliers, and two different types of screwdrivers. Was there a time in the past, when these tools were new, that people would have considered me lazy or to be a cheater? I don't know, but I did hear that attitude when I was a boy, expressed by older people as power tools began to become popular additions to home workshops.

Today, most of us carry what we call "smartphones." IBM had a smartphone on the market as early as 1994, but they didn't really take off as a must-have tool until the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, so there are still kids in high school who remember a time when they were costly and rare. Yet just within the last 24 hours, I've used mine to find my way, check the time, weather, and sports scores, text with my loved ones, research electricians, pay bills, read mail, and look up things such as when the first smartphone was introduced. I did all those things. Or did I? Was it the tool that did the work? After all, if my device is in another room, I can't do those things. Or rather, I can't do them as efficiently. I could still get out a paper map and chart my course from here to there. I could still look at a wall clock or read a newspaper or peruse the Yellow Pages (those thick slabs of paper that used to arrive on your doorstep whether you wanted them or not). I could write checks and mail them. I could actually visit my mom. 

I could still get out a pencil and paper and add up those long numbers.

I could still somehow, I suppose, assemble a picture frame without using tools.

Humans aren't the only animal that uses tools, but we have clearly taken it to extremes. Indeed, there is very little we do that doesn't involve tools of some sort and each tool we learn to use both extends our selves into the world, while at the same time making us a little less capable of doing those things without tools. We see it clearly with newer technology, like the smartphone, but it would never occur to most of us to accuse, for instance, the hammer of making us less human. Is the smartphone somehow different, and therefore more dangerous than the hammer? Only time will tell, of course. Maybe those who are concerned about the "waves" emanating from cell towers will prove to be right. Indeed, those who worried that the hammer would result in more broken thumbs proved to be right as well. 

There was a time, not that long ago, that I stood firmly among those who objected to screen-based technology in the hands of children. It will change their brains, I fretted, but doesn't every tool change our brains? And isn't that kind of the point of tools: to transform us as we transform the world around us?

I'm not saying there aren't side-effects. The toxic side-effects of the mass adoption of the automobile as a mode of transportation is changing the climate. The side-effect of using a calculator is that we become capable of getting the right answer without understanding it. The danger inherent in the smartphone is that we use it as a replacement for face-to-face interactions.

It's also true that our concerns about side-effects are often over-blown. Research on video games is starting to show that there are cognitive benefits, while our concerns that they will cause children to grow up to be soul-less mass murderers has fallen by the wayside. During the early era of rail travel there was great fear over the effects of such velocity on the human body, with many asserting it would certainly lead to early death. And then there are tools that most of us view as pure good, like the plow, that have, in hindsight contributed more to the destruction of our planet than all the internal-combustion engines combined. At the same time, the modern world in which we live would not have been possible without the plow.

We tend to think of education in cerebral terms, but the truth is that most of what we learn in life is learning to use tools, for better or worse. As psychologist Abraham Maslow famously wrote, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." A century before Maslow, the British publication Once a Week observed: "Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds."

The story of humanity, it seems, is to invent tools and to then worry, and rightly so, about what kind of Frankenstein's monster we've wrought. Our tools extend us in many ways and most of us would be reluctant to give up, say, our cutlery, even if we were told that their use has caused us to lose our understanding of the food we eat. The use of any tool has side-effects, not all of which can be known until it's too late.

I think Once a Week had it about right. When a two-year-old approaches the workbench and picks up a hammer, it is on us to show them how to use it, to help them drive a nail. Once they have mastered that, they will inevitably seek out other things that "need" pounding. That is where the teaching comes in, and this may well be the only valid purpose of direct instruction. Because not only do we need to learn how to use our tools, we also need to know which tool is right for the job.

The children in our lives will never remember a time without smartphones and other devices. I wonder if our concern is not so much about the tool as it is about us. After all, we're only just learning to use them ourselves, we are still in awe of how they extend us into the world, which in turn makes it challenging to "teach" these children who are, after all, growing up as digital natives. Our children will have no such worries when teaching their children, but there will be newer tools to worry them.

This is the history of tools. It is the history of humans, the tool using animals.

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"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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