Saturday, August 28, 2004


When discussing the types of material that humans actually use we often fall back on the word “artifact” (or “artefact’). But what, exactly, does this word mean and how do we distinguish it from other concepts such as tool or material. Is a document, for example, an artifact?

According to the OED, “artifact” entered the English language in the mid 1800s. The word is combination of two Latin roots: ars (arts) and facere (to make). Artifacts then, represent material that has been shaped using human hands through some kind of practical skill or art. The OED also provides some good working definitions:

n. Anything made by human art and workmanship; an artificial product. In Archæol. applied to the rude products of aboriginal workmanship as distinguished from natural remains.


In technical and medical use, a product or effect that is not present in the natural state (of an organism, etc.) but occurs during or as a result of investigation or is brought about by some extraneous agency.

From these definitions it’s apparent that artifacts can be either present-at-hand or ready-at-hand, they can be either stuff or shit, and are situated within a social context. As Dobres (2000) notes, however, the concept of artifact privileges the processes of object creation by humans over their actual use by humans. The workmanship demonstrated in an artifact is obviously the product of the social context of the creator but for an object to be “at-hand” we must also explore how the objects actually get used.

Some additional distinctions about artefacts come from the field of archaeology. In a gloss on artefacts, for example, wikipedia provides an operational description of how various terms are used by academics:

“Artifacts are distinguished from features, which are nonportable remains of human activity, such as hearths, roads, or house remains, and from biofacts (also called ecofacts), which are objects of archaeological interest made by other organisms, such as seeds or animal bone.

Natural objects which have been moved but not changed by humans are called manuports. Examples would include seashells moved inland or rounded pebbles placed away from the water action that would have fashioned them.

These distinctions are often blurred; for instance, a bone removed from an animal carcass is a biofact, but a bone carved into a useful implement is an artifact. Similarly there can be debate over early stone objects which may be crude artefacts or which may be naturally occurring phenomena that only appear to have been used by humans.”

Is these definitions we see a blurring between natural objects used by humans and shaped objects. Wikipedia’s “bone removed from an animal carcass”, for example, is not an artefact but it affords a variety of valuable uses such as bashing things over the head. Not until it becomes shaped through the process of bashing, however, does the bone become an artefact rather than a biofact. Similarly, a bone that is carried on someone’s belt has a different ontological status than a similar bone in the waste heap; it is stuff rather than the shit (literally) of the midden. While both bones have the same affordances, they exist in very different contexts and assume different narratives.

So what separates the unshaped biofact from the unshaped artefact? Perhaps in becoming “stuff” the bone-basher has ascended to the status of “technology”—yet another loaded term. The OED, for example, gives some pretty vague definitions for our modern understanding of “technology”:

A particular practical or industrial art.


Practical arts collectively.

In these definitions we still see the ars and facere of artefacts; like artefacts, technology combines practical skills with fabrication. Dobres (2000) breaks down the concepts of technology to its roots and provides some description that’s useful for distinguishing material from artefacts.

To Dobres, technology is a combination of tekhn? and logos. Tekhn? is "instantiation through practice and application of an inseparable combination of art, skill and craft, principles and knowledge, methods, understanding and awareness." (50) Tekhn? quite clearly resonates with the notion of ars. Logos, however, is a different animal completely from facere:

“The original meaning of logos (also logike) was not only reason but also the ontological structure of reality, as well as speech, and 'giving an account.' In its modern usage, however, logos (or more recognizably, logic) has come to mean a very specific kind of reason that produces theory: the dispassionate, the objective, the computational.” (53)

A technology, then, incorporates some of our modern notions of empirical reality. Technology helps people live in the tangible world and addresses the concerns of physical presence. While technologies are artifacts, all artifacts are not technology. A religious idol, for example, is quite clearly an artifact. From Dobres’s definition, however, it’s not a technology since the spiritual health of individuals or groups is not a “dispassionate” or “objective” entity.

Documents and knowledge artifacts are man made entities. Therefore, they are both material objects and genuine artifacts. It’s unclear, however, whether or not these artifacts are technologies. Are novels for young girls—I’m thinking of serial fiction like Nancy Drew—technologies? While they are material and exist in the real world, are they used to attain objective goals or shape real objects? Is an office memo (ready-to-hand as it is) a technology since it pertains to shaping of a real object: the corporation? I’m not sure. A further consideration is the nature of documents. Is the memo’s ability to act as a technology (if it is, indeed, a technology) a function of the affordances of the material and form of the memo or is it a function of what is encoded within the memo? Perhaps this discussion should be taken up with some finer grained discussion on “tools” and “markings”.


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