Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Tooling about with a Polar Planimeter

Dr. Jakob Amsler-Laffon
Not uniquely among animals, humans are a tool using animal. We seem to be very efficient at tool use, and also very efficient at teaching/learning how to use tools. Tooling about is something that we do. At a fundamental level toolmaking precedes us as a species. Toolmaking is something that the species that preceded us used. We evolved from a species that used tools.

At the broadest level, tools are those things that can expand our potential options for interacting with our world. The most obvious set of tools are the physical ones which with the skill to apply them correctly can grant us abilities that are not available to us otherwise, or make us more efficient at those that we have evolved to be capable of.


We know, thanks to the archaeological record, that our tools have, over the last few tens of thousands of years, been experiencing their own equivalent to the Cambrian explosion. Except that in lieu of us having to evolve spiky claws and thick shells, we have developed tools that have allowed us to poke each other with ever spikier objects with ever greater force. On the flip side our tools have also afforded us with the capacity to avoid these spiky weapons, to see them coming earlier, to avoid being injured by them should they not be avoided, and so on…. Tools have allowed us to evolve culturally, complementing our biological evolution.

An important feature of this which is at the heart of our tooliness is the capacity to teach others how to make these tools, and also teach them how to use them. The biological analogue for this is Horizontal Gene Transfer.

In complex creatures like ourselves inter-individual transfer of genetic material is limited to parent-child relationships, and inter-species transfer of genetic material while obviously beneficial, seems to have only been successful at transferring genes that allowed Homo Sapiens immune system advantages as they migrated to new environments (exactly the kind of thing our antecedents’ tools could not have helped them with).

Tools are not merely physical tools can be intellectual or cultural systems: such as logic, arithmetic, metaphor, private property, writing, or religion. Just as our technological tools have literally expanded the range of our senses, then so too has science and reason, and logic, and intuition and expertise have afforded us new conceptual tools.

Even if our tools were random, spontaneous, accidental creations we would see them diffuse across populations more quickly than genes, assuming the tool has utility.

Tools are rarely random creations though, they are created with purpose, and with design: If you are naïve to hammering nails, you may not intuit the benefits of a well-balanced hammer. However, you will be far better at hammering nails with a well-balanced hammer than with badly balanced on. Even the naïve tool user benefits from the knowledge of the experts who designed the tools that they use.
Which leads me to the problems with the Runeson analogy of the polar planimeter. The polar planimeter is undoubtedly a brilliantly designed machine. Not least because it allows anyone to complete what amounts to a very complex task.

The User-Experience gurus of the 19th century must have been drooling about the simplicity and elegance of the creation. Sadly Runeson conflates this genius design with something else.
Runeson contests that there are smart instruments, and rote instruments. Rote instruments can be used in many different ways, though not well, smart instruments can be used in specialised ways, but brilliantly.

Runeson inverts Paley’s watchmaker argument; positing that we don’t know if the creator of the polar planimeter was a, therefore it is possible that we can spontaneously generate clever biological tools for perceiving complex things too, noting that given the deep time of history it is possible to evolve perceptual tools which are far more complex than a human mind can hold.

This is a very weak form of argument by analogy, not least because the “German mechanic Jacob Amsler” was actually Swiss physicist Jakob Amsler-Laffon who studied in Jena before getting his doctorate in mathematics from Konigsberg. It is a complicated tool, and it is not obvious that one could intuit its purpose, or how it might best be used. That training, though uncomplicated, is a necessary component in transferring Amsler-Laffon’s mathematical brilliance into the hands of the naïve user.

Runeson then moves on to beat a few strawmen about the head with the polar planimeter, but the difficulty is that he has fallen into his own conceptual fallacy, the belief that that which is simple to observe, when you know what is going on, is something which is not culturally complex.
Hutchins in “Cognition in the Wild” repeats the mistake, after having spent “a day on the navigation bridge of a U.S. Navy ship as it worked its way in from the open North Pacific, through the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and down Puget Sound to Seattle” where he “did make a detailed record of all engine and helm commands given in the 75 minutes from the time the engines were first slowed until they were secured - there were 61 in all. But what really captured [Hutchins] attention was the work of the navigation team”.

Hutchins observed something elegant, and thought he understood it, but simply because I can enjoy a nice cake does not imply that I am capable of creating one.
Hutchins observed the use of well-designed tools in a social environment that precluded the incorrect usage of this tool.

In seeking to seek out the un-brained mind, Hutchins found an artefact (the triangulation methodology which is a designed social tool in my language, or a smart instrument using Runeson’s terminology) which was the product of thousands of man years of activity and presumed that because he could see what was going on, and it was simple to use, that it was simple.

Perhaps it is unfair to critique Hutchins and Runeson for their bad analogising, there is more to their arguments than these metaphors for the ideas that they are trying to convey, but it is striking that in their striving to de-brainify cognition, they settled upon deliberate constructions of the mind; tools which physically embody the thoughts of their designers, and the thousands who improved upon them subsequently.

I posit that if we are to find evidence of distributed cognition it is likely to lie in the reciprocal relational connections that are the systems of cultural practice that give tools purpose, and not in the tools themselves. And that this holds as true for non-corporeal tools too, it is not what the religion says that’s important, it is what purpose the religion is put to.

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