ALT! Who Goes There? – Part 4 – by Extropia DaSilva


Try this exercise. Stop reading for a minute and take a look at the objects around you. Think about how they influence your life and your thinking. In the previous essay, we concentrated mostly on how other people play a part in shaping one’s developing personality. But humans are not just social animals, they are also prolific toolmakers. The cultural artefacts we have created enter into our thoughts, providing ways of approaching certain questions. As the psychologist Sherry Turkle put it, “we think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with”.

Think of the influence one object had on my opening paragraph: The clock. A historian of technology called Lewis Manford wrote about how the notion of time as divided into hours, minutes and seconds did not exist prior to the invention of accurate timepieces. Instead, people marked the passage of time by the cycles of dawn, morning, day, afternoon, evening and night. Once clocks became readily available, actions could be more precisely measured, and different activities could be coordinated more effectively to achieve a future goal. We learned to divide our time into precise units, thereby becoming the sort of regimented subjects industrial nations require. The image of the clock extends out all the way to the Newtonian universe, an image of celestial mechanics that is still used today to determine the time and place for solar eclipses, and to park robotic explorers on or around alien worlds.

The psychologist Jean Piaget studied the way we use everyday objects in order to think about abstract concepts like time, number, and life. When it comes to determining what is (and what is not) alive, Piaget’s studies during the 1920s showed that children use increasingly fine distinctions of movement. For infants, anything that moves is seen as ‘alive’. As they grow older, small children learn not to attribute aliveness to things which move only because an external force pushes or pulls them. Only that which moves of its own accord is alive. Later still, children acquire a sense of inner movement characterized by growth, breathing and metabolism, and these became the criteria for distinguishing life from mere matter.

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