Design, overdesign, and million-year-old tools

Posted by Rob Walker on January 24, 2010
Posted Under: Things/Thinking

While the use of tools by animals is unusual, Neil MacGregor points out in the second episode of A History of The World in 100 Objects, it’s not unique to humans: apes use objects, too, for example. The difference is that humans “make tools before we need them” and, more to the point, “we keep them,” for repeated use. The 1.8-million-year-old Olduvai chopping tool, then, suggests the dawning of a “relationship between humans and the things they create which is both a love affair, and a dependency. From this point on, we can’t survive without the things we make.”

In this instance, the chopping tool could be used to get at the meat and marrow of an animal that the actual predator who killed it (a lion, say) couldn’t. So here we have the birth of use-value — and, perhaps, the birth of design. This chopping tool shows humans becoming “distinctly smarter,” and considering “how to make things better,” MacGregor says. Interestingly, though, he also maintains that instead of the half-dozen or more chippings that sharpened this rock into a tool, the job could have been done in maybe two chippings: “Those chips tell us that right from the beginning, we, unlike other animals, have wanted to make things more complicated than they need to be.” Evidently, then, the dawn of design coincides with the dawn of … overdesign.

This notion comes up again in the series’ third episode, concerning another discovery from Tanzania’s Olduvai gorge: a handaxe. This is believed to be 1.2 million years old, and reflects a good deal more skill, forethought, and imagination on the part of its maker – the sort of “focused, planned creativity,” as MacGregor puts it, that marks modern humans.

James Dyson, however, is not impressed. The famous inventor/designer points out that Olduvai handaxe is rather big for a human hand, and sharp on all sides, which isn’t actually practical at all. In fact, it seems more like a“show-off object,” he argues. “I don’t believe it has any serious intent behind it.”

It sounds like he’s on the verge of presenting the new Dyson Handaxe … but he doesn’t. Instead, in one of the most amusing moments in the series so far, Dyson’s remarks are followed immediately by MacGregor’s neat dismissal of them: “Of course it is still a practical object,” he states matter-of-factly, even though it may have served some status function as well.

And after all, this basic axe design persisted for the next million years, and traveled with homo sapiens out of Africa and across Europe and Asia, which means it had a pretty impressive run for any design, let alone one that had no practical use, as Dyson suggested. But even the concession that there might have been a status element to the thing is pretty compelling, suggesting that use-value and identity-projection may have been intertwined from the start. “Objects carry very powerful messages about their makers, MacGregor observed in episode two. Yes, one might conclude, but not just their makers; their owners, too.

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