Swans Commentary » swans.com March 26, 2007  



Devices And Things


by Martin Murie





(Swans - March 26, 2007)  Having endured about three weeks of on-off combat with a digital camera and my Apple computer, I was much intrigued by rediscovering a statement by Gordon Brittan, Jr., a Montana philosopher. He claims that there is a definite distinction between "a thing" and "a device." (cf. The Wind in One's Sails. A Philosophy in M. J. Pasqualettie, et al., Wind Power in View, New York, Academic Press, 2002.)

Electronically-sophisticated technologies common to our time are distant and disengaging in the sense that an ordinary person does not usually understand how they work or how they might be fixed if broken. In contrast, a "thing" is any object with which we can readily involve ourselves and feel a part of, thus we may hone our skills, fondness, and sense of responsibility for the thing -- for example, the woodworker's pride in his or her tools, a potters sensitivity to clay.

Skills, fondness, sense of responsibility. I'll get back to those, but first my tale of woe. I bought a highly miniaturized digital camera at Kmart because there was a human there who knew about Appleware and compatibility and so on. (At our local Radio Shack the general attitude was disdain for and ignorance of Macs.) I went home, installed software, and settled down to read the miniature manuals, "Basic" and "Advanced." I won't bore you and me by itemizing the glaring faults of these little booklets. I admire Boolean logic, the foundation of our electronic gadget world; it is so concise, so attentive, so satisfying, why can't "device" manuals live up to that standard? Okay, don't get me started.

Skills. Consider a hammer. Mine has a hefty wood handle. I've learned its balance; what its claw can do, both sidewise, at a slant, straight ahead. I've learned its weight, its leverage. That's the way with things, you can't avoid partnership, the sensual connections. Working a scythe, another grand connection, rhythm of body and mind and instrument. You strive for the right angle of swing, the length of swing, the ways to conserve muscle energy. Adjustments must be made for age and height of grass or grain or weed growth and its dryness or wetness.

Fondness. Often I have watched my daughter work on a potter's wheel, making slight adjustments, keeping the play going, her hands and the wet clay building something. That entails fondness, or something akin to that. How could it be otherwise? But I would amend this sentiment. As we deal with certain problems, such as a week of steady rain under a leaky roof that can't be fixed until the rain quits, or shoveling snow to connect the car to the road and a minute or two later a snowplow passes, throwing a mix of snow and sand into the driveway, hate and disgust and frustration enter, building an emotional complex of many colors. Just for fun, let's also add that while you are mired in that fix, others are enjoying powder snow in Aspen or Snow King or Vail, glorying in skill.

Sense of Responsibility. You have put a claim on the work, it's yours. Sometimes the work comes in phases, as after mowing you keep an eagle eye on the weather, hoping windrows of hay freshly cut will be ready to bale before the next rainfall, and after that phase you hope the weather will be kind enough to allow the bales to dry out a little more so you can gather them and stack them in the barn. I remember a bitter cold morning, a worker on a huge backhoe showing up across the highway to bury remains of a burned trailer. We had a short conversation, then he said, "Well, the job's got to be done," meaning, "It's waiting for me."

What happens when we expand the context to include many things, many devices? Lack of understanding creeps in. There's no way to stop it. I've hammered on this before, but repetition is part of the game we Swans play. On a street in New York City or in the depths of the wild Absarokas the intricacy is overwhelming. How does it all fit together?

In theory we ordinary folks can take lessons from a digital design engineer, learn what really goes on inside these black boxes. Even networks can be explained, if a good teacher can be found. But where is the expert who can explain an ecosystem for us? Sure, an anthill's workings might be explicated by one of the world's few ant specialists, but that anthill has its being and ultimate meaning in a vast network of other systems. Who knows how they all interact? Nobody.

The conclusion is inescapable: a single thing or a single device differ greatly if we concentrate entirely on their penetrability by an ordinary person's understanding, but if the scale is expanded, even ever so slightly, we run once more into another style of logic, Nature Logic that resists reduction to the Boolean paradigm. Lately the contrast between my own struggle with the digital camera and the struggle over wind towers looming over our neighborhood has given me a perfect model for our seeming mastery of single things and devices, and how we are babes in the wild when confronted with The Big Picture: the world. I have the satisfaction of understanding my hammer and my shovel and my scythe, the way they work when hooked to my system -- a system I don't thoroughly understand and neither does anybody else. But this struggle with corporations moving in on us ordinary folks, bribing us with offers to pay our land taxes if we permit them to build wind farms on town land, is a snarl of engineering expertise, government subsidy, insecure humans, lawyer dependence, corporate greed and on and on.

It's not that we opponents of wind farms in this low-wind part of the world don't have confidence in our stand. We do have a lot of sound information and we use that to build our point of view. We know, for instance, that these wind turbines will not help ameliorate global warming. We know that the drive for "alternative sources of energy," such as biomass, will not come anywhere near slowing climate change; it will simply raise the price of food. We know that buying "pollution credits" is a market driven scam, deliberately put forth by rulers to make us think they know what they're doing. And, based on our own observations of the habits and languages of rulers, we know that by and large they are captives, all four legs staked out, no wiggle room, victims of market ideology. To go beyond that narrow frame would be, for them, a scary venture into the wilderness of ecosystem workings, the world, the wide-wide world, animals and green stuff, actually existing authentic green, and us ordinary folks. Too bad it isn't as simple as the difference between things and devices, but it isn't.

Confession: When, after spending hours trying to make my computer behave, all the while resisting its arrogance, the damned device does deliver, I feel a tinge of gratitude. No, more than that, I begin to think that it might be the beginning of a real relationship.


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About the Author

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 26, 2007