Technique and Technology

Posted: 2008-07-11

You can use a Swiss Army knife to cut your fingernails in two different ways. Everyone knows the first way and has probably done it at some point in their lives (usually while camping) you open the little tiny scissors and make scissory motions across the ends of your fingernails. In other words: you exploit the technology of a scissors, which is good for cutting through a thin surface, but not much else. By the same token, the only way you can “scissor” something is using a scissors.

The other way requires a little more finesse. You can open one of the blades — the big one works better — and caaaarefully pare the ends of your fingernails. In other words: you apply the technique of “paring,” using whatever sharp edge is available, in this case the blade of a knife. Importantly, if you know how to pare your fingernails with a knife, you can use anything with a sharp edge to do so, including one half of an open scissors.

In studying material culture, the difference between technique and technology struck me pretty forcefully. In a seminar in ethnoarchaeology I watched several short films on Aboriginal life produced by the Australian government in the 1920s and ’30s. They had catchy titles like “Butchering a Kangaroo,” “Collecting Dew,” and “Building a Fire,” but were deeply fascinating nonetheless. Aboriginal people traditionally carried very little on their persons. In “Butchering a Kangaroo” the protagonists accomplished this feat using a small stone flake perhaps two inches across (which one of the men carried with him), and two straight sticks conveniently lying nearby. The men exploited their own voluminous knowledge of the local environment and kangaroo anatomy. In other words, they exploited technique almost exclusively. If you know the party trick of opening a beer bottle with another beer bottle (or a belt buckle, or the edge of a table), you have a sense what this must feel like.

On the other hand, I completed my thesis work with Eskimo people, who are famous for having had a highly advanced Stone Age material culture. Whereas an Australian hunter might carry on his person only a small handful of very generalized tools with which he could hunt a wide variety of animals in many circumstances, an Eskimo hunter would have very complex and specialized weapons optimized for hunting a particular animal in a particular circumstance. The harpoon you’d use to hunt seals surfacing for air during the winter is rather different from those you’d use to hunt seals from the open water, or on shore during the mating season; all of these are probably different from the harpoons you use to hunt walrus. Eskimo material culture places great emphasis on technology.

Of course, Australian Aborigines and Alaskan Eskimos live in very different environments, which explains almost entirely why they place different emphases on technique and technology. If you tried to carry a diverse toolkit of specialized tools across the outback, you’d never make it from one water source to another fast enough to avoid dying of thirst. And if you tried to pare your toolkit down to something that would fit into one hand, you’d never kill and process enough animals in the Arctic summer to make it through the winter without starving. Surviving in the Outback places a premium on flexibility, which favors technical solutions. (If you have the right technique, you can cut your fingernails with any sharp edge). Survival in the Arctic places a premium on efficiency, which favors technological solutions (given the right tool — a fingernail clipper — you can cut your fingernails much more quickly than paring them with a knife.)

I think the history of technology is about the inexorable replacement of technique with technology, improving efficiency at the expense of flexibility.

For example, many years ago, finding your way around required pretty detailed knowledge about celestial motion and the local landscape. You had to use sticks and shadows, or stars, to figure out where North is, and you had to know a lot about the immediate geography (and geographic processes) just to answer “where am I?”.

Maps and compasses turned orientation into a technological task. Reading a map requires a great deal of technique, of course (as does using a compass), but much less than having to orient yourself without either of those things. You have to learn how to read a map, and you have to learn how to calibrate a compass and compensate for the declination of magnetic north. But maps and compasses allow much more efficient orientation than astronomy and local knowledge. If you have a compass and the right maps, you can find your way anywhere in any conditions ... no need to wait for the right celestial conditions (a clear sky), or spend time learning the local terrain.

GPS renders maps and compasses slow and fussy. If you have a good GPS receiver you don’t need to know how to use maps or compasses, and (more importantly) you don’t have to acquire a map before you start out on your journey. The GPS is much more efficient for the unskilled orienteer than maps and compasses, which are in turn more efficient than astronomy and local knowledge.

My discussion of GPS kind of paints technology as the clear winner over technique, but I can think of at least two downsides to a reliance on technology at the expense of technique. From a practical perspective, technological solutions presuppose a certain number of systemic, social, or other technological prerequisites. For example, if the Hubble telescope exploded and took out half the GPS satellites with it, your GPS wayfinder might become a useless paperweight. It would take a a pretty big systemic failure to render a compass and map useless.

But more than that, inattentiveness to technique means putting a lot of knowledge into a conceptual black box. You don’t even have to know what “north” is to use a GPS.

When the topic is GPS and maps, technique vs. technology seems kind of abstract and quaint. But using low-technology techniques allows a craftperson — especially a novice — to peek into that black box. I would rather, for example, hire a designer who started out coding their HTML by hand, even if they use a WYSIWYG tool to do so now. Someone whose only knowlege of orienteering is “I turn where the little box tells me to turn” is not likely to be a creative thinker about how to get un-lost. Just before Orion was born, I got into a little discussion with David Carson(!) about just this subject on the 37signals blog.

Word X 2004The older I get, the less faith I have in technology. (This is surprisingly common among people who work with computers). My French press broke last week, the fourth such press that’s broken for me. I’ve therefore taken to making cowboy coffee, definitely a triumph of technique over technology. With less prompting, I’ve been using a reel mower instead of a power mower, vim in deference to a word processor, and a bicycle instead of a car. (And I’ve started paring my fingernails, which even I admit is pretty pointless.)

I don’t so much fear a technology’s failures (although, with energy prices rising I think it should be a concern), as I appreciate the unusual attention to detail the low-tech method affords me. With the reel mower I can physically feel the way grass grows. Cowboy coffee has literal texture. My commute by bike connects me to all the places between my home and office. Vim makes me slow down and consider my words.