Research - 'Strange Tools' - Chapter 3 / by Ally McGinn

Note from chapter 3 - Designers by nature

  • The arts are a process of manufacture. ‘Tied to the manual.’

  • There is an intrinsic link between technology and the authors previously defined ‘organised activities’. The activities involve the tool, although it's worth noting here that this presupposes an open view of what a tool might be. Tools are the way we achieve organised activities.

  • The author suggests that ‘technologies are patterns of organisation’.

  • ‘Art presupposes technology and can only be understood with that background’ the author relates this to the idea of the exterior of a work. That we understand things by understanding the context in which they sit, which is another way of summarising Derridas theory of the ‘parergon’.

  • ‘Painting responds to the fact that we are organised by pictures’. The exterior of art, or the ‘Artworld’ and the world around and inside of us are the source material artists work with. Our visual history, as well as visual associations, are used by artists to communicate with their audience. So this quote could also read - painting processes the fact that we are organised by pictures.

  • ‘Failure is one of arts most important channels of investigation.’ This distinguishes art from simply an act of creation. The process, including it's failures, are equally important. Which is a very important note for my work, and one of the questions I'm looking to explore.

  • We are technologists. As the author stated in earlier chapters we are naturally artists and dancers, but we are also natural technologists, we make and use tools, we even judge the intelligence of other creatures based on their use of tools.

  • Modern humans emerged 50,000 years ago, when use of tools began to increase. One explanation is that we got smarter, that our brains evolved to be more intelligence. An alternative explanation offers the idea of collaboration, community and an increasingly less nomadic lifestyle led to a collective development. These paragraphs are incredibly interesting, and the I'd recommend anyone with an interest to have a listen/read. The implications of this logical, and substantiated theory lean towards an understanding in the importance of collaboration - as a race but also much more locally.

    • If this theory is taken as true, then it is also true that technology isn't what enabled us to develop, at least not at first, it was the collective use of technology that began a continued development.

  • ‘It isn't only that we use tools, we think with them’ this is an important thought, we are able to bring those tools into our purposes, beginning theoretically. We have a wide range of tools at our disposal, and learning about them can expand our thinking. The way we use tools can teach us to think about things differently, similarly we can use art to teach us to see things differently.

  • Tools, and in this analogy this can be extended to almost any ‘thing’, are only useful to those who have the contextual knowledge to need them. The author uses the example of a door handle, which is only useful to those who have a need for a door, whatever their reason. They also presuppose our size, dexterity and strength. We have to be able to use the tools, and know about them.

    • I'm not entirely sure this is relevant, but I found it interesting nonetheless and may come back to it one day.

    • For the door handle to exist it requires a foundational development in a variety of fields. The existence of the doorhandle (or any other object) depends on it's history.

  • Without tools we are not much more than our bodies contain. Most of the things we define ourselves through are founded in technologies. This also applies to knowledge. We have little knowledge within ourselves about the universe and human history. If we imagine we are plucked out of our universe and placed in another with no knowledge of our own, very few of us would be able to accurately describe much about our universe or it's history/technology/knowledge.

  • Technology evolves alongside us. It is ‘skilful activities’.

    • This is both at a societal level and individually.

  • The author defines organised activities as ‘technological practices’. In this way technology is rooted into the activity itself. They are equally rooted in who we are and what we do. ‘Technology doesn't only extend what we can do also what we are.’

  • Technologies are often traditionally thought of as things (screwdrivers, computers, paintbrushes) but this chapter restates their definition as processes.

    • Technologies provide solutions to problems - but also provide more questions/problems. They ‘invite and incite’ movement. Which can also be said of art. These two words together are a brilliant description.

  • The author discusses engineers but this can be replaced by artists. “To be an engineer today is to jump right into the middle of an evolutionary process. Taking up where others have left off…..[they] don't have to think about the evolutionary history of their practices but everything they do think about, the problems they are interested in and are important, is determined by this history.”

  • Writing, or mark making, is a tool used to explore, understand, record, and process information around us. Maths is a basic, and extremely complicated, example of this. We can do extremely complex things because we can write them down.

    • We are not all studying the characters we note or the items we are using in our mark making. Those characters and items are largely arbitrary, when considered next to the true object of study - our subject. The marks we make are ways of studying.

    • We use mark making to reach things we cannot reach by thought or action alone. ‘External symbols’.

  • Andy Clark and David Chalmers, put it this way - “where do you stop, and where does the rest of the world begin?”

  • Paraphrased slightly - ‘Art takes its impetus from the fact that we are organised but lost in that organisation.’ In this view art (as an overall subject) is a way of understanding the universe (or some small subsection of it) and our place in it, or in relation to it.


Noe, A (2016) ‘Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.’ Narrated by Tom Perkins. Avaliable at: (Downloaded: 24/10/17).