O'Really?

March 17, 2010

Hunkin’s Hypothesis: Technology Is What Makes Us Human

Tim Hunkin: Technology is What Makes Us HumanCartoonist and engineer Tim Hunkin is probably best known for his exhibits at the Science Museum in London and his Under The Pier Show “a mad arcade of home-made slot machines & simulator rides on Southwold Pier, Suffolk”.  His website is a treasure trove of weird and wonderful things.

Tim has an interesting proposition, let’s call it Hunkin’s Hypothesis [1], that technology is what makes us human:

“Technology isn’t just something outside ourselves, it’s an innate part of human nature, like sex, sleeping or eating, and that its been a major driving force in evolution. Tool using, along with language and bipedalism, is essentially what makes us human. The complicated theories used to explain why we first stood up are largely unnecessary. Our hands simply became too useful for holding tools to waste them on walking.”

He bases this idea, on a paper published by Frances Evans [2] about the creative engineering mind. This idea has at least two important implications:

  1. Engineering is a creative and intellectual process that humans do instinctively, not an obsolete and dying skill practiced by dinosaurs
  2. Engineering is an essential part of education, that needs to be taught more in schools and universities. Tim encourages his grand-children to use spot-welders, glue-guns and soldering irons at every opportunity! In UK schools health and safety regulations, plus the fear of being sued often make this tricky.

I’m not sure what to make of Hunkin’s Hypothesis yet, but it’s an intriguing idea that deserves investigation.

References

  1. Tim Hunkin (2006). Technology is what makes us human. timhunkin.com
  2. Frances Evans (1998). Two legs, thing using and talking: The origins of the creative engineering mind AI & Society, 12 (3), 185-213 DOI: 10.1007/BF01206195
  3. Tim Hunkin – The Seaside Inventor, Southwold Pier, Suffolk

[Picture of Tim Hunkin taken from his talk at Cambridge Science Festival, 2010.]

4 Comments »

  1. I have a lot of sympathy for the view that science and technology makes us more human; this was put forward back in the ’50s in “The Abacus and the Rose” by Jacob Bronowski. As a statement about human values, it is cool, and I agree.

    But Tim Hunkin goes too far when he tries to transplant this into the science of human evolution (which you’d hope is about evidence, not values). For instance, his statement about humans walking on two feet because they use their hands for tools harks back to an old Victorian idea, that human evolution was driven by human ingenuity. It has been known for a long time that this is false; bipedalism evolved long before tool use or brain size. It is always annoying to see someone dismiss an entire field, despite clearly knowing nothing about it.

    Comment by Luke — March 17, 2010 @ 12:37 pm | Reply

    • Hi Luke, thanks for the reference to Bronowski, this is all news to me. As for “bipedalism evolved long before tool use or brain size.” doesn’t it all depend on the defintion of “long” ?

      Comment by Duncan — March 18, 2010 @ 11:51 am | Reply

  2. I quite like the idea that ‘technology is what makes us human’ and I can seem some similarities between this work and the general ideas of cognitive science as discussed in Norman’s 1982 paper:

    the idea was that domains strongly shape cognition, and that studying and supporting cognition in real and complex domains is salutary, if not essential, for developing a science of cognition and, of course, for applying it to real problems.

    http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/800049.801815

    So in this case the technology domain strongly shape humanity because it shapes our cognitive process. However, Hunkin’s more detailed quote seems too strong:

    Technology isn’t just something outside ourselves, it’s an innate part of human nature, like sex, sleeping or eating, and that its been a major driving force in evolution. Tool using, along with language and bipedalism, is essentially what makes us human. The complicated theories used to explain why we first stood up are largely unnecessary. Our hands simply became too useful for holding tools to waste them on walking.

    I could see how, that if taken in an illustrative context, it could be quite insightful in that Humans are the only species which create more complex technologies (I’m not including chimps stone tooling as technology here) in this case I can see how we could be defined by the technology we produce, or that complex technology is a predictor of humanity.

    Comment by Simon Harper — March 19, 2010 @ 3:57 pm | Reply

  3. […] Comment on Hunkin’s Hypothesis: ‘Technology Is What Makes Us Human’: I quite like the idea that ‘technology is what makes us human’ and I can seem some similarities between this work and the general ideas of cognitive science as discussed in Norman’s 1982 paper: ‘the idea was that domains strongly shape cognition, and that studying and supporting cognition in real and complex domains is salutary, if not essential, for developing a science of cognition and, of course, for applying it to real problems.’However, Hunkin’s more detailed quote seems too strong: ‘Technology isn’t just something outside ourselves, it’s an innate part of human nature, like sex, sleeping or eating, and that its been a major driving force in evolution. Tool using, along with language and bipedalism, is essentially what makes us human. The complicated theories used to explain why we first stood up are largely unnecessary. Our hands simply became too useful for holding tools to waste them on walking.’I could see how that if taken in an illustrative context it could be quite insightful, in that Humans are the only species which create more complex technologies (I’m not including chimps stone tooling as technology here) and so I can see how we could be defined by the technology we produce, or that complex technology is a predictor of humanity. […]

    Pingback by March’10 Snippets (Google Funding, Web Accessibility: A Foundation for Research, Hunkin’s Hypothesis, Web Science Institute, 508 Draft, and Call for UAAG 2.0 Review) « Thinking Out Loud… — March 31, 2010 @ 5:43 pm | Reply


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