Through history and pre-history, scientists have learned to understand groups of people by the tools they left behind. Whether small family units or large masses of humanity, society has best expressed itself in the ways they devised to get their jobs done.
Whole eras, sometimes spanning thousands of years, have been categorized by the broadest extensions of their simple implements. The stone age, broken down into the various ways that stones were transformed into useful devices, like the polished stone era, the small chip era where knapping was done in a way to maximize the aesthetics and enhancing functionality. The Bronze Age with its brilliant Greek weapons of war and even more beautiful pottery and jewelry are prime example of the tool being an extension of the tribal ethic.
There are even occasions where the absence of tools has left us wondering about the level of civilization achieved by a society; the pyramids of Egypt were built with tools that have since disappeared. Stonehenge, in the Anglian Plains, is another example where the use of advanced tools for the time and place have all but disappeared and left only the monument to their usage. In the jungles of Central America, numerous Mayan and Aztec structures seem to have sprung full grown from the ground, without even the trace of a building tool. Even on lonely Easter Island, the top knotted heads of long gone gods, or heroes, express a level of toolsmanship that has since gone into extinction or traveled to other continents.
Through the industrial age, with its large banks of chuffing steam engines and into our own era, where the tools of the trade are increasingly intangible, the progress of man is stalked by an equally striking progress in the development of his tools. In some cases, the tool itself is too far advanced for the age and has lead to disasters of increasing magnitude. Think of Chernobyl, but more importantly ponder the wisdom of Hiroshima and the nuclear bomb as a tool of diplomacy.
But always the trend has been the creation of a utilitarian solution to a perceived need, followed by an increasingly complex refinement process that includes improving the tool’s utility and functionality with an equally clear attention to the inherent beauty of the device.
Tool design and designer tools have always been the technology two-step of product improvement. The first transistor from TI was an ugly glob of molten plastic, a far cry from today’s sleek and slender IC packages. The first mouse was a block of wood with small wheels.
A mature industry seeks to increase the appeal of its products. When customers are no longer satisfied with the basic device, design steps in from the technological and the esthetic side to recreate demand. Keyboards have undergone some amazing transformations spurred on by medical (Carpal Tunnel), utility and ease of use reasons. Now we have wireless, sleek devices that add not one iota to the functional basic utility of the board, but improve productivity through comfort, speed and relaxed esthetic considerations. If so the keyboard, so also the mouse with a truly stunning array of options made available to an increasingly demanding buying public.
Our tools need to express our conquest over the basic computing needs. First we unloaded from the IBM mainframe option, and then we created smaller desktops, now we are all in charge of our own computing device. Imagine, there is more power in an advanced cell phone than in the Apollo 13 moon Lander. The moon Lander was appropriate technology and will remain a cultural and scientific icon of an era. The cell phone will be replaced during this transition stage by something even more complex, a 21st. century stone tool that remains a transition product for an era in transition.