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The internet: the sharpest stone in the cave

March 9, 2011

iPad Caveman - illustration ©Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Human evolution is affected by the tools we use, according to a new study released this week. Research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science suggests that the tools used by our ancient ancestors encouraged the evolution of more dexterous hands through natural selection. This enabled us to use our cutting stones more efficiently.

Researchers Dr Stephen Lycett and Alastair Key of the University of Kent tested the effects of hand size and grip strength on cutting efficiency – using stone tools similar to those used in Africa 2.5 million years ago. Results showed that biometric variation had a strong influence on dexterity.

Dr Lycett, Senior Lecturer in Human Evolution at the University’s School of Anthropology, suggests that this supports Darwin’s idea of a connection between the tools we use and our evolutionary development. “From a very early stage in our evolution, the cultural behaviour of our ancestors was influencing biological evolution in specific ways.” The research paper can be found here.

So there you are. The folks in the cave with the best knife-cutting technique won out. ‘Survival of the nimblest’, you might say. Chefs of the world rejoice!

But does the technology we use now have any influence on who we are and how we’re made? Things have moved on a little since flint knives – though you could probably do a decent job of de-skinning a Mammoth with the latest ultra-thin MacBook Air. Modern humans use technology to augment their capabilities in a million different ways. Surely our world is a demonstration of how we have evolved tools to fit our needs – not the other way around. Is this relationship between human and technology a little more symbiotic than we’d care to admit?

Sumerian Cuneiform inscription - 26th century BC - Wikimedia Commons

History is littered with technological inventions that have changed the way we interact with each other and our world. Ancient societies used irrigation technology to cultivate crops and control their environment. This led to sustainability of food supply and an end to the vagaries of nomadic life. But it also changed the way we lived – and ultimately who we were. Once we were bound to settlements, we needed building technology. We needed laws to govern ourselves – and writing to enable the recording of decrees. We were changed by the tools we used. The wheel. Gunpowder. The printing press. The telegraph. Each development an intricate dance between human and technology that altered the character of both.

Yet there have always been those who have feared the effects that each new technology has on us. Plato believed that the development of writing had a negative influence on human recall – weakening our ability to think by ‘outsourcing’ our memories into written texts. Vaughan Bell, in a wonderful article on technology in history, describes how Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner complained that the modern world was “overwhelming people with data”. Sound familiar? Actually, Gessner was speaking in 1565 – and the evil technology causing this flood of data was the printing press.

In 1936, the invention of radio caused similar panic. Gramophone magazine complained that children had “developed the habit of dividing attention between the humdrum preparation of their school assignments and the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker”. My own childhood was filled with parental warnings about how too much television viewing could “turn my brains to mush”. Yet we all seem to have survived our past technologies pretty well. In fact most would say that –  in terms of social and physical evolution – we’ve never had it so good.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee - inventor of the World Wide Web (not a true likeness) Wikimedia Commons

And so to the Internet – perhaps the greatest tool for communication we’ve ever invented. In recent times there have been numerous warnings about the effects of the Internet on society and human cognition. Commentators like Nicholas Carr have asked “Is Google making us Stupid?“. Some even suggest that the Net is turning us into “digital Goldfish“. The Internet is blamed for the offensive content it contains –  even though very few machines I know like to consume pornography. It is also cited as a tool for extremism – even though terrorists are just as likely to use technologies such as the pen, the book and the telephone for their work. Should those tools also be banned to keep us safe?

At the heart of these anxieties is a view of human technology as some sort of ‘outside force’. Something which invades our pristine, self-contained humanity. An alien, corrupting power. A tool that must be carefully controlled, or else it will cut our fingers. But in my opinion this view misrepresents the true role of technology in human social and evolutionary history. It places a false boundary between human and tool that ignores the essential human-ness of technology and the technology-ness of people. What it misses is a simple and wonderful truth that the researchers at Kent have reaffirmed.

We are the tools we use. And the tools we use are a part of us.

Technology is just a projection of ourselves into our world. We use the tools in our environment to extend our senses and cognition beyond the barrier of our own skin. By manipulating the world around us, we write ourselves into the things we use. Yet we are not separate from our world. We are wholly located as a species in the environment which sustains us. So this is a two-way interaction. If we make a hammer, then the hammer augments the force we can apply to a nail. But using that hammer requires a specific motion that – after time –  subtly modifies our motor skills. We make it. It changes us. The fears that people have about technology are really more of a mirror – reflecting our own anxieties back to us through the things we make and use.

The Net is the most astonishing tool we’ve ever known. But that doesn’t mean that it’s separate from us. It is us. All of its miracles and flaws are ours. Every step in its development is a reflection of our own evolution. Will it change us? Of course! It already has. But is that change to be feared? Only insomuch as we fear ourselves.

The Internet is sharpest stone we’ve ever invented. We’ve only just begun to develop the hands to use it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 1, 2012 1:12 pm

    Its such as you learn my mind! You seem to know so much about this, such as you wrote the guide in it or something. I think that you could do with a few p.c. to pressure the message home a little bit, however other than that, that is fantastic blog. A great read. I will certainly be back.

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