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.
The so-called ‘movement theory’ of life remained standard until the late 70s and early 80s. From then on, the focus moved away from physical and mechanical explanations and concentrated more on the psychological. The chief reason for this was the rise in popularity of the computer. Unlike a clockwork toy, which could be understood by being broken down into individual parts whose function could be determined by observing each one’s mechanical operation, the computer permitted no such understanding. You just cannot take the cover off and observe the actual functions of its circuitry. Furthermore, the home PC gradually transformed from kit-built devices that granted the user/builder an intimate theoretical knowledge of its principles of operation to the laptops of today, where you void your warrenty if you so much as remove the cover. Nowadays, it is quite possible to use a computer without having any knowledge of how it works on a fundamental l