8. Some Implications of the Thing Using Mind
Let us summarise the main features of thing using and Spatial Logic before looking at some implications these have for the way we think about engineering and other broader issues.
There is still not much more than 'a table top of fossils' so the hominid story between five and two million years ago remains sketchy and speculative. The 'thing using' hypothesis is simple but it seems to fit the data we have at present from the disciplines investigating human origins.45 It explains bipedalism more simply, by deriving it simply from to need to liberate hands for thing using. The new activity required the brain to work more. The substantial part of the modern human brain which is dedicated to the hands supports the suggestion that brain enlargement was substantially driven by technology.46 Surely creativity was a necessary part of the new mental activity. Finally, thing using thought could have set up the neurological mechanisms in the brain upon which language might graft.47
Even if the early 'thing using' hypothesis should turn out false, the following 2 million years of tool using certainly coincided with a massive growth of the brain. This fact, that the human brain has roughly tripled in size since the first known stone tools appeared, does suggest that the brain is particularly adapted to support technical activity. Tool using is as universal as language, sex and eating - and nobody would suggest that those are not genetically based.
The hypothesis also raises a question about the initial impetus towards the new activity. Evolution is good at explaining why something that already exists gets better - why flyers become better flyers, lions become better predators, and zebras get better at running away from lions. But this does not tell us what triggers off the initial direction of specialisation in the first place. What set ancestral badgers off digging and fleas biting? These are the creative moments of evolution if it is true that specialised organs follow behaviour. It is not enough to point to a new niche as the sufficient cause of new behaviour. The response to that new niche could have taken many other forms. Among wild variety of plant and animal adaptation, one sees many which are unique in the sense of being unusual, but they are not unique in the sense of being the only possible solution.
In technology, likewise, the quasi-evolutionary stages of improvement in steam engines, battleships, computers or ploughs can be followed easily. But the initial creative moment is elusive - the one we cannot 'unthink'. Obviously the new initiative solved a problem - but why that solution and not some other? Equally, in evolution, it is easier to follow the stages of new 'hardware' and we skip the question about the origin of the behaviour that led to it.
Such questions remain useful whether thing using appeared 2,000,000 or 5,000,000 years ago. The new perspective of seeing technology as an innate propensity changes our view of yet more questions. Cultural or economic forces remain important in studying technology, but perhaps the innatist ideas linked with thing using could lead to new insights. It will be a truer image if we see human technology as having a dual nature, both cultural and innate. It is partly cultural, different if the individual grows up in France, Japan or Polynesia; and partly innate, a non-verbal and creative element of being human.
Numerous other species perform quasi-technical activities, like birds and insects building nests or beavers constructing dams. Tailor birds really do sew leaves; hermit crabs really make little houses for themselves. It is not quite safe to say that, in the animal kingdom, the specific and unvarying character of such activity shows that it is instinctual rather than inventive. Termites use new materials like plastics in their nests; blue tits have learned to peck through aluminium milk bottle tops. All one can say is, yes, it is true, but human beings have made invention a habitual technique, whereas the other species do it occasionally.
Technology is not just our western technology. We must not be misled by the huge thrust which science, mathematics and social organisation have given to western invention, into thinking that this is the only viable way by which human beings adapt to their habitat. Concern for the environment is making western technology's long-term direction seem more doubtful - even worrying - and there may be something to learn from other cultures which have achieved a sustainable balance over long ages. In any case, it will always be worth remembering that inventiveness and 'thing using' are not special to any culture but a part of human nature.
The dual nature, both innate and cultural, explains why it is found in every human culture, and is a prime means by which the group survives in its environment. Questions about the emergence of different cultures, the races, the languages and how much of this was the work of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, come later than the conjectural 'thing using' of Lucy's ancestor. It is illuminating to go round a good museum of ethnology, in London, Paris or Cambridge, or the great Pitt Rivers in Oxford, to see the ingenuity and flavour of other cultures, and the mysterious sense of their style persisting through time.
It seems to me that we can look at things made before the great expansion of western technology, and tell where they were made, but not when. Looking at a 20th century artefact, we can say when it was made, but not where. Every part of Asia had its own fighting knives, and one immediately recognises yataghans, Cossack shashkas, Indonesian kris or Japanese swords though they might have been made at any time over the last thousand years. A four thousand year old Chinese bronze looks Chinese even today. But now, design has converged and it is not the place of origin but the date we recognise. There is no mistaking the sit of a 1950's motor car, or the look of a 60's TV or refrigerator - but they could have been made anywhere. Design - or rather technique - has largely become international. France is more retentive of its culture than most nations, but shall we ever see another 2CV? Today's little Peugeots and Renaults, even the Citroens, look like Fiestas and Metros. As manufacturing grows more competitive, with too many cars being made, it will be interesting to see where designs converge or diverge, perhaps showing parallels to evolution.
Our culture is powerful but we find things in other cultures which we could never think of ourselves. The Inuits, formerly called Eskimos, based their whole technology on materials from the seals and other creatures they hunted, for they had little stone or wood. A modern engineer marvels at their boats (bones and seal skin), or fishing tools, or powerful bows backed with sinew, or the way they make anoraks from walrus gut. This ingenuity is to be found in every culture that has not been debased.48 In our own culture, we have lost a great deal. There are not four people left in Sheffield - that great home of cutlery - who can hand forge a blade. Populations in western countries can become de-skilled in one generation. Craftsmen and engineers used to know a hundred different timbers and where best to use them; but my modern engineering students cannot tell me which wood to use for tool handles. They do not know that ash is shock resistant, or that oak splits easily, but elm doesn't (that's why we use it for the seats of Windsor chairs - they do not split when the pegs are driven in).49 A whole folk knowledge has been lost. Human culture is fluid and unpredictable and we should wonder what will happen to it as craftsmanship atrophies.
Supposing that all this is right - that we have evolved as tool users, with a brain adapted to learning forces and materials through our hands, and capable of three-dimensional thought. Suppose, too, that this development of the brain is linked to our creativity, and that language does not control, but merely reflects the deeper levels of thought. You have only to reflect a moment to see how far technology has diminished our skills. Artisans have become mere assemblers of factory made elements - this is true of car-makers, plumbers, electricians, and printers. This article can be set for printing from my floppy disk, and my computer replaces typesetting skills learnt formerly by long apprenticeship. In the 1960's, my first publisher, warned me that it would cost a guinea to alter a single comma in the proofs.
These are the logical consequences of those first steps. Technology or technique is liberating us from physical necessity in the same way that thing using freed us from physical specialisation.50 Technology is a form of liberation. It has freed us from many kinds of drudgery, like washing dishes and cleaning dirty fire-grates. Writing freed our memories; transport has freed us from our legs. Yet it is not a simple matter. Computers free the brain from a lot of boring tasks: but virtual reality frees it from reality - which may not turn out to be so good. These are questions that we should face now. Evolution shows clearly that 'If you want to keep it, use it!' Otherwise you lose it, as with the atrophying of the ostrich's wings or the human appendix. What if technology is freeing humanity from skills and aptitudes that we should retain, that make us essentially human? One can imagine culture having a long term evolutionary effect without descending into the heresy of Lamarckism.
It is interesting to speculate for a moment about the way the culture shapes our own engineering. If there was ever a language of spatial logic, then it was Euclidean geometry. The West's continuous technological rise coincided with Geometry's rediscovery in the mini-Renaissance of the 12th century. It still astonishes many people that such an apparently abstract deductive system fits the world so well, describing levers, elliptical orbits, the six-sidedness of honeycomb alveoles, or gears. Explaining trusses in structures, one shows that triangles are rigid - can not wriggle to another shape - but that a four sided figure is not rigid. Old time engineers would often produce an answer by geometry rather than calculation, getting a square root for instance by drawing a construction based on a semicircle. This spatial way of doing mathematics suits some people better than the maths based on numbers and algebra. In my experience, students studying the aesthetics of design are often happier thinking spatially than with numerical symbols. They find Galileo's geometrical demonstrations easier to follow than the algebraic sort of explanation.
Yet are even geometry and drawing on paper a constraint on our thought? Do we limit ourselves to the design of things which we can geometrise and make on our geometrical machines? Could the engineers we train in modern methods design the
Fig. 3. Tripod stool.
Indian folding tripod (see Fig. 3) which is carved from one piece of wood? My own attempts to copy it showed me that the shapes are very subtle -1 fabricated one from dowel and square section wood, and it just lay flat. Only then did I appreciate the sinuous curves and angles of the original. It exists, so it must be rational, yet I suspect that our methods of design cannot produce it. Perhaps our way of reasoning sets limits on our thought which we are not aware of.
This interest in the nature of three dimensional thinking led me to construct a solid version of Escher's Impossible Staircase (see Fig. 4). It was a deliberate attempt to explore the difference between thinking in two and three dimensions. I found it impossible to imagine a 3D form by distorting the flat image on the paper. I tried to imagine the paper folding over to give horizontal steps, for instance, and could not do it. With the rules of perspective we can reduce three dimensions to two. However, it does not work the other way. We cannot make a unique three dimensional form from a two dimensional image - there is an infinity of possibilities (though not all probable ones.) The problem is compounded, of course, if the two dimensional source is irrational like the Escher. When I finally persuaded my brain to work effectively, I can only describe the sensation as clicking from two dimensions to three. Perhaps we do not think enough about the difference between perceiving in three dimensions, and thinking in them; perhaps we do too much on two dimensional paper.
Designing the model gave me an interesting insight into one of the problems of teaching creativity. Creativity has many parameters. One of them is to do something new with what one has already got - a straightforward application of design skills. But a deeper creativity is to do something that one cannot do with the standard skills, to find new ways to do something. These are the things that might usually be described as impossible.
Fig 4. Impossible staircase based on the drawing by M.C. Escher. Photo: Peter Fisher.
It is important to recognise that there are different forms of impossibility. One sort of impossible is set by the limits of nature. It really does seem impossible thermodynamically to get more energy out of a system than it contains, so engineers are very suspicious of any claims to perpetual motion. But another sort of 'impossible' depends on other constraints, the ones we impose on ourselves in a system that wedefine. We make arbitrary rules that define some things as impossible. It is impossible to built a ship that floats or a 'plane that flies using Meccano - but that is a characteristic of that construction system, not a law of nature. Creativity depends partly on recognising what is considered impossible because of the real laws of nature and what is thought impossible because of an arbitrary system or assumption. Here again, is the importance of, not just knowing, but knowing about what we know.
Much of our thinking is two dimensional, and seldom gets beyond the three dimensional level of a side, elevation and plan drawing. There are not many three dimensional mechanisms - most, like Watt's linkage, are plane solutions. The differential, like the one in the ancient Chinese South-facing Chariot, is a beautiful exception. The idea did not appear in the West until the nineteenth century. Yet it cannot be described in words. Let any reader who does not know the differential's motions ask an engineer how it works. It cannot even be sketched without imagining the paper rotating end over end.
The builders of Gothic cathedral vaults were also high order three dimensional thinkers but I do not think that they could make drawings of their vaulting. The French military engineer Vauban was another able 3D thinker. In all his works the shapes and dimensions of the bastions, tenailles, demilunes and outworks vary. Briangon, in the broken country of the French Alps, is perhaps the masterpiece - it is hard to depict even though it exists - in three dimensions. What was it like to think it out in three dimensions from a standing start? Among engines, I would nominate the little known Bishopp engine for its three dimensionality. Its inward facing truncated cones and swashing disc take some people a long time to figure out.51
How can this three dimensional thinking be taught, when we do so much on paper? It seems to be an intuitive rather than analytical process. Do we, perhaps, limit our thinking to what we can analyse? It is, of course, easier to teach what we can analyse.52 Without wishing to provoke engineers, I wonder whether any of them have failed to follow up an idea because they could not see what equations to use to design it theoretically? (Newton had to invent the calculus to describe his intuition about gravity and the orbits of satellites - but plainly the intuition had come to him first.) Maybe we should see things differently and start, not from the equations, but from a mental picture.
We have to remember that whether we describe a thing in words or numbers, our description is not the same as the thing itself. Whatever my analytical or intuitive ideas are about an arch, they are not the same as that arch and miss some truth about the 'real thing'. This was brought home to me when I built a model beam out of dozens of small rectangles of plywood, held together by rubber cords running through it. It formed a beam when its ends rested on two bricks, and it bent when a weight was put on the middle. I only intended the model to show that bending, and I could have written a computer programme to show it happening on the screen. But then I put the weight nearly at the end of the beam, and instead of bending, the blocks slipped past each other. This is another kind of failure known as shear. If I had not put shear into the computer programme, it would not have shown me that effect. In other words, my conceptual model would not have been as good as the physical model.
Fig. 5. Wobbly Arch. The faces of the blocks are curved so the arch wobbles to a different equilibrium when the weight is added. In both cases, the thrust of the arch runs where the blocks touch.
Of course analytical methods are important and valuable. But we should remember that sometimes we assume that a thing cannot be done because we cannot calculate it first. Perhaps, sometimes, we should do the thing by trial and error and then tackle the analysis. It is, after all, possible to make things before the analytical techniques for designing them exist. This picture of a 'wobbly arch' is an example (see Fig. 5).53 The blocks forming the arch are curved, so that it rolls to different shapes as varying loads are placed upon it. A big concrete version has been built for children to walk over it - but it was designed empirically from models. So far as I know, no theoretical method exists at present for designing the shapes of the blocks.
Perhaps we could take this bow shape as a philosophical model of the problem (see Fig. 6). If we shoot an arrow with it, it becomes a beam and a stored energy problem. Use it to rotate a shaft, and it becomes a fire maker - the problem will be defined in terms of pressures and friction. Now make it a flint tipped drill and the dimensions of cutting speeds and angles take over. Add a bridge and sounding box and it becomes ancestral to the plucked and bowed musical instruments like zithers and violins. This time, you will measure the tension and length of the string and the frequency of vibration. Stand it another way, and it explains the principle of the bow-string girder. Plainly, those different ideas about the function of the bow precede any mathematical analysis.
Phenomena like these are the units or coinage of our spatial logic. They are the sort of things we shuffle in our minds when we are mulling over a design problem.54 Equations and the optimisation of designs come later. When we invent, we think with these building blocks and they exist as concepts before we apply numbers to them.
Perhaps this is where the new Hands-on exploratories have something to offer the budding engineer. Our civilisation is becoming poorer in some respects: in tactile experience; in three dimensional perception and thought; in direct experience of shapes, materials, forces and other phenomena. What sensations does a child in a block of flats, spending its time before a television set, get to satisfy the inputs which our brain has evolved to need?
Children are escaping into the world of their computers. Instead of reacting with the physical environment, they play 'Civilisation' or the shoot-'em-up game 'Doom'. As virtual reality develops, the new artificial environment is offering false perceptions to a brain which has evolved to let us cope with reality. Our brain's accuracy of perception and understanding has been essential to our survival. It is true that simulation devices are of great value in training pilots and giving preliminary practice for all sorts of difficult tasks. But now computers can offer a harlot's reality information without responsibility. Where is the philosophy to let us understand that gigabits alone will never make the qualitative change from information to understanding? Civilisation has always brought a contradiction between the artificial and the natural, and if the civilisation breaks down then the natural wins - it is possible to see Jean Jacques Rousseau and the ancien regime in France in that light. Perhaps 'hands on' learning may help to restore a healthier sense of reality. The exploratories, by offering direct experience, real phenomena in an atmosphere of play, may turn out to be even more valuable than their founders hoped, in supplying a sense of phenomena and richness of experience, to counteract the electronic Babel.55 We have all seen Tom and Jerry films where Tom walks over a cliff and does not start falling until he understands his predicament. Virtual reality games like Doom take us even further into an environment of false reality. Uncorrected errors augment misunderstanding, like the rumours which breed panic. Too much exposure to uncheckable electronic false reality could have analogous effects. The errors in cybernetic terms would take the form of positive feed-back.