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The Soft Tool Culture. Who do we think we are!

This site will focus on my academic work through which I plan to explain our modernistic techno-culture enslaved by programmable electronics. This page is my flowery elevator pitch.

Tools

Tools project the will to be bigger and better than our flexible physiques and plastic brains permit. Tools are imbued with meaning, at once promise and limitation, vessels of knowledge, ideas and intentions of their makers for those who would be extended through them.

Some half-million to a million years ago our early sub-human ancestors found themselves walking erect and using their former forepaws as manipulative organs. With the transformation of the first finger into an opposable thumb the organic foundation was laid for the continual use and improvement of tools. Tools were used, and then they were used to make tools. Slowly but surely an accelerative process got under way; a process almost mysteriously self-propelling, as it were, in the cultural and material environment of [humans].

When simple tools are used, the intended consequences become readily identifiable. Eventually they become organized in more complex groups as aims. The experience of a tool can then stand as the experience of something not present, something hoped for in the future, something deliberately to move towards — though absent — or a thing to be accomplished. In short, a tool is the simplest kind of manipulative sign or symbol. When tools are used co-operatively by more than one creature, there is that marvelous experience of a common aim.
Horace Fries, 1945, p.449

Reflexivity

We travel on a sea of media1), the siren-song of delicious usability and novelty begging our attention. We conjure addictive new recipes with little effort beyond mere thoughts, changing ourselves, ever-primed for whatever comes next.

In considering these transactions that change us, that convey meaning between minds through media, reflexivity is instrumental.

The cumulative complexity here is genuinely quite staggering. We do not just self-engineer better worlds to think in. We self-engineer ourselves to think and perform better in the worlds we find ourselves in. We self-engineer worlds in which to build better worlds to think in. We build better tools to think with and use these very tools to discover still better tools to think with. We tune the way we use these tools by building educational practices to train ourselves to use our best cognitive tools better. We even tune the way we tune the way we use our best cognitive tools by devising environments that help build better environments for educating ourselves in the use of our own cognitive tools (e.g., environments geared toward teacher education and training). Our mature mental routines are not merely self-engineered. They are massively, overwhelmingly, almost unimaginably self-engineered. The linguistic scaffoldings that surround us, and that we ourselves create, are both cognition enhancing in their own right and help provide the tools we use to discover and build the myriad other props and scaffoldings whose cumulative effect is to press minds like ours from the biological flux.
Andy Clark, 2008, pp.59-60

So we become who we think ourselves to be. Then, who exactly do we think we are?

Software

Our Earth's watery seas support a world of life, plus all that's needed by those lives and all that they produce, churned by tides, currents and winds, the vast interface with the land and air highly permeable. The seas of media consist of electronics, globally interconnected, with a world of software driving it, churned by successes, calamities, social tides and technological change, the vast interface with humanity highly permeable.

Like any tool, software is a vessel of knowledge and intent, promise and limitation. And, like any stored medium and unlike physical tools, software has no substance, being just data kept somewhere and transmitted elsewhere. Importantly though, beyond other stored media through which we share and perceive meaning, software directly impacts our physical world. Embodied as syntactical constructs called programming languages, software is the ultimate tool.

I've coined the term, tool shop effect, to help explain what's going on here. Woodworkers, for example, modify and adapt their tools, and make new ones with the tools they already have. A busy woodshop is festooned with jigs and templates for controlling processes and augmenting existing tools. In a machine shop, it's the same story. Machinists use machines to make other machines and parts, which are used to change the machines that made them.

The tool shop is a generalization of places where process and product, product and process, mingle and feedback on one another. Tools, readily created and discarded or kept at need, mediate in the creation and transmission of knowledge, techniques and patterns to ultimately create salable products - products that may well be tools themselves. And so it goes for software engineering, except that the reciprocity of tools and minds, the tool shop effect, is amplified by software being so soft. With software developers at the helm, we are cast on the programmable sea, enthralled by its reciprocity with our seafaring selves.

There is language and then there are languages

The conception-day gift2) that enables us to discern and convey meaning so creatively is language. Languages are the brilliantly expressive cultural tools we use to encode and decode meaning; language endows the ability to do that. We can evoke language deliberately but meaning emerges, seemingly unbidden, from the locus of a yet opaque, non-linear calculus of agency, experience, culture and circumstances. And it works in both directions, turning meaning into some kind of transmittable medium, such as a language, and incoming media into meaning.

I contend that all tools are inconceivable without language and, therefore, a product of it. And it's the stimulation we feel when creating and perceiving meaning that drives us to employ media to communicate incessantly. Meaning is everything and without it there is nothing.

He was a linguist, after all, and it seemed entirely possible to him that religion and literature and art and music were all merely side effects of a brain structure that comes into the world ready to make language out of noise, sense out of chaos. Our capacity for imposing meaning, he thought, is programmed to unfold the way a butterfly's wings unfold when it escapes the chrysalis, ready to fly. We are biologically driven to create meaning.
Mary Doria Russell, 2007, p.431

Communication and culture

No discussion of language and media can proceed without mentioning the mother of all reciprocities, communication and culture. You can’t have culture without communication to carry it; and meaningful communication can’t exist without the explanatory context that culture provides. This mutual embrace of communication and culture is an old saw for those who study the humanities.

One might wonder if there would be a great nothingness if there ever was a moment when neither communication nor culture existed to buoy the other. We actually have no idea what that would be like because to be human is to communicate incessantly regardless. Little cultures form instantly and existing cultures change constantly. Entrenched cultures entrench further and fray at the edges. The instrumental communication that we can neither withhold nor ignore is carried by media (communication tools), most often as speech until relatively recently.

Within a culture, its members are both privileged and doomed by the media and cultural appurtenances they accept and use, striving and struggling under their power as they change and improve them. The pace and scope of cultural and technological change is a rough measure of what people tend to accept as progress. For many, as our global connectedness exposes so many opportunities, change can seem immoderate. Yet for the purveyors, a constant drip of change-induced endorphins has always been irresistible. Fresh ideas for improved media and tools at the ready, they create and adapt existing media and their tools to better communicate and to change their various cultures, salient and ambient, pervasive and small.

Written languages

The advent of writing was significant in the extreme, transforming what we could say into a permanent record for others to consider later and elsewhere. It's not that oral traditions didn't serve; they've existed for millennia and into today. It's that even early writing offered a new kind of experience and a permanence that changed us forever. The story I have to tell thus starts in Mesopotamia.

The writing system [of Mesopotamia] is impressive in itself. It is also the earliest one attested in world history, and was perhaps the most shining and generous contribution of the ancient Mesopotamians to the development and the progress of our understanding, when we consider, right now, to what degree the transition into the written tradition has profoundly transformed our intelligence, by reinforcing and multiplying its capacities. (my emphasis) Jean Bottero, 1987, p.4

Homo significans

So we have minds reaching outside their bodily containers to share meaning through media; and external media pouring in through senses stimulating the emergence of meaning.

In constructive models of the making of meaning, the active role of all participants is now well-established. Far more than simply Homo loquens, Homo scriptor or even Homo faber (makers, or toolmakers) we are, above all Homo significans: meaning-makers. We now need to devote more attention to exploring our modes of making meaning with the media involved, and to the subtle transformations involved in all processes of mediation. We must also acknowledge that media do not simply ‘mediate’ experience; they are the tools and materials with which we construct the worlds we inhabit. The recognition and study of processes of mediation underlines the constructedness of reality. Engagement with media may even be fundamental to the construction of consciousness.
Daniel Chandler, 1995, pp.225-226

What now?

It would seem that the ultimate emergence of the Soft Tool Culture was inevitable given human abilities and predilections. My task is now to tell the story of our journey on seas of media, starting in ancient Mesopotamia, culminating today. We've done all we could at every stage of cultural and technological development to become more than our mere selves, both physically and mentally, through new media. This view of our use of media helps explain how it is that humans have changed without evolving genetically since becoming hunter-gatherers whose evolutionary influences had so little to do with anything we do and experience today.

Knowing who we are and how we came to be like this should be useful going forward.

1)
Mark Baker coined this notion in 2012.
2)
I've lifted this term from the works of W. Lambert Gardener (1935-2011) of Concordia University, Montreal.
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