“I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker—yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action.” -Jane Goodall
“Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.” -Louis Leakey
It’s been more than a year since my first shelter-in-place, and sometimes I wonder what doing okay means. Does it mean I got through the readings and assignments for my graduate classes, or that I was prepared for the classes I’m teaching? Does it mean I was kind in interacting with my housemate, or that I was “productive,” or that I remembered to water the basil? Does it mean I stayed in to make sure I don’t help the pandemic spread? Yes, I suppose. And that makes me think: a definition does two things. It offers me a way to understand the world, and it privileges some things over others.
Take “technology.” What counts? A few weeks ago I had some fun conversations as I asked people that. If I hit you with a rock, knowing that’ll do more than hitting you with my hand, am I using technology? What if I use the same rock as a weight while I dive for abalone? If I think of technology as a modified object, maybe it’s not technology until I figure out how to tie the rock to me, leaving my hands free. If I think of technology as a way of doing something, the object doesn’t seem central—singing a sea shanty to synchronize our heave ho starts to look like technology. Once we talk about “technological advancements,” I get even more confused. Does using less fossil fuels count as a technological advancement?
And there’s Jane Goodall, reminding me that all my examples so far are human. I think there’s a reason for that: a habit of thought, of what’s important and what’s not, that I’ve picked up from my culture. At first I wasn’t tempted to include beavers’ dams, even though they could keep water on the landscape, recharge aquifers, and prevent forest fires. I didn’t include trees, processing carbon and sharing oxygen. I might have included plastic-eating bacteria, but that’s probably because I read about a “tech company” that’s working with them. So now I’m asking: what’s technology? What’s doing okay?And inside that question I’m wondering, what are my definitions set up to ignore?