What happens when we think of technology as central to what it means to be human?
It is often thought material and machines obscure our relationship to our selves and the natural world. But philosopher Martin Heidegger suggested that technology is a path to fulfillment and greater clarity of being. In treating human life as a search for an ultimate truth concealed from our consciousness, he argued that technology is not only the materials and machines but also the mindfulness, expressiveness and creativity that leads to their design and development.
Referring to the essence of modern technology as ‘enframing’ – a force that compels us to go out into the world, reveal its mysteries and challenge all barriers to the emergence of that ultimate truth – he saw technology as a fundamental source of revelation that allows previously concealed truths to be uncovered, and inspires new searches and achievements. As both a physical and metaphysical tool, any piece of technology is part of the existential quest to understand what it means to ‘be’ in the world.
These are some of our favorite technologies. You won’t find them in the usual electronics gift guide, but all of them have shaped how you see, know, experience and organize your world.
The Archeulean Hand-Axe
Increased cutting capacity aside, the bifacial design of the Acheulean hand-axe got its innovation credentials from how it shaped human evolution and social life. With Homo habilis able to cut into animals like never before, carnivore culture reached new highs and gave our ancestors easy access to fatty acids in bone marrow that were key to the evolutionary boost in brain growth and development.
The Covert Listening Device
When we think of the covert listening device – the bug, the wire – our immediate associations are largely cinematic; after all, the movies are where surveillance technologies most often get their due.The reason it makes for such good drama is that the bug changed everything. It enhanced the ability to ‘know thy enemy,’ increasing the capacity of governments and gangs alike to gather intelligence, to predict, pre-empt and even prevent attacks by adversaries. Moreover, this technology fundamentally altered, and rendered forever vulnerable, the notion of privacy itself. Wiretap technology has been steadily streamlined, miniaturized, perfected, and today, most listening devices are positively nano. And they aren’t just coveted by intelligence agencies or drug lords. Recently, wiretaps smaller than viruses have been used in medical procedures, where they are uniquely able to chronicle bodily processes by ‘spying’ on cells.
Prophylactic, rubber, shield, glove, or “a little something for the weekend.” Call it what you want, but the fact remains, condoms are awesome because they mean you can ‘do it’ and not get in trouble. An uncomplicated tool with an enormous impact, the condom offers important insights into the importance of simplicity in human- centered design. The value of the condom lies in its utility; a little piece of latex that can be produced and distributed cheaply and easily, its form is perfectly suited to its function. Designed to meet the most basic of human needs, the condom is proof that sometimes the most valuable design is the most simple.
Much like a dining table, a drum is a social catalyst. Large drums bring groups together. Sets of smaller drums coordinate and engage people in collaborative effort. Drums amplify rhythms that coordinate dancers, they inject energy into social gatherings, and make people bob their heads as they feel the beat together. A drumbeat can encode messages in signals telling troops what to do. It can induce ritual trances. A drum can even talk. In Dagbon in Northern Ghana, drum masters play a goblet-shaped tension drum in a way that mirrors the way the Dagbani language rises and falls. People hear the words in the rise and fall of the tuned drum and respond to the tales told in the music. These are things no simple gadget can do.
The man-made harnessing of fire and light. The lantern extended the human world, culture itself, into the night, making it one of the most radical expansions of time and space ever invented. With the indoor lantern, the day no longer ended at sunset, allowing indoor chores and duties to take place with a reliable and widely cast light source. The lantern also extended human mobility and transport in ways heretofore impossible, facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas, the transmission of inventions, news and mail at speeds not previously available. The lantern enabled a human diversity and social mobility in ways never before imagined. From a design perspective the lantern is magic. It is the simplicity of metal and glass that harnesses one of the greatest simultaneously destructive and creative forces: fire. To be able to carry a flame in one’s hand, in a way that both tamed and unleashed the flame’s thermal and illuminatory potential, is a triumph of form and function and made civilization as we know it today.
Over time the eraser has more than fulfilled its functional attributes, allowing paper to become a template of infinite possibility. In doing this, the eraser has at the same time embraced its position atop or alongside the pencil to become a design and cultural statement. Now available as any and every novelty shape the eraser lends both functional and aesthetic purpose. Widely under- stood as a gadget with purely negative properties, it is, ultimately, the eraser that has liberated the pencil and thus the writer themself. This is no small feat for a simple piece of rubber.
As far as greatest gadgets go, the wheel’s a no-brainer. Though it likely took a lot of brains to come up with the first one, sometime back in the late Neolithic era. Somewhere in Mesopotamia and then later in the Caucasus or northern Europe – where a 3500 BC Bronocice piece of pottery excavated in Poland depicts a wagon – we figured out the value of movement by the wheel. With cars, bikes, engines, disk drives and most other mechanized systems today working on a symmetrical component moving in a circular motion on an axis, the wheel is arguably the most important innovation of all time – hence the phrase ‘re-inventing the wheel’ to describe radical new ideas and disruptions. The funny thing is, of all the things to disrupt we just can’t seem to reinvent the wheel itself.
This article originally appeared in MISC Spring 2013, The Gadget Issue.