Saturday, August 28, 2004


Homo faber requires not just material to produce artefacts. Tools are also required. Although we use tools every day articulating how they differ from artefacts or material is a bit tricky. The literature on tools spans a variety of fields including psychology, sociology, history, and primatology. Luckily someone has done some of the heavy lifting for us.

In technical report, the computer scientist Rob St. Amant (2002) describes a number of different features of tools based on his review of the literature. While the purpose of St. Amant’s foray was to gain insight for the creation of software applications, the features of tools he articulates are applicable to a variety of different fields.

St. Amant describes “procedural structure in tool use”:

· Tool use involves direct action: A striking action with a stone, with the goal of cracking open a nut, is an example of tool use…
· Tool use often amplifies existing behavior: Using a stick to extend one’s reach (e.g., through a narrow opening, or to touch a moderately distant object) is a common aspect of tool use in experimental settings and in the wild …
· Tool use is goal-directed activity: Sometimes desirable ends are achieved through the incidental or even accidental use of an object, which is not considered a tool in that case. Inferred intention is an important part of judging whether an activity constitutes tool use.
· Tool use involves effective behavior: One influential study involved monkeys given the task of pushing a reward out of a narrow, transparent tube; one monkey unwrapped a thick bundle of reeds held together with masking tape, but then tried to push with the tape instead of a reed...

St. Amant also describes a “taxonomy of tools”:

· Tools that produce a persistent effect on materials or the environment. We call these effective tools. Examples in the physical world include hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and so forth. Although effective tools are those that first come to mind when we think of tools, this category does not encompass all types. As a subset of effective tools we might consider two additional types. The first is an auxiliary tool, one that is used only for its effect on a primary effective tool. Examples of auxiliary tools would include the “chuck” that allows one to replace bits in an electric drill, single-purpose sharpening tools for saw blades, and so forth. The second additional type is a meta-tool, one that is used to construct other tools.
· Tools that provide information about materials or the environment. These have been called instruments in the tool use literature… Instrumentation may be built into an effective tool, as when a table saw indicates the angle at which it is cutting a board. Tools that act alone as instruments include measuring tapes, calipers, microscopes and magnifying glasses, and so forth.
· Tools that constrain or stabilize materials or the environment for the further application of effective tools. We call these constraining tools. Examples include clamps, rulers, and other devices that limit movement or flexibility. (Notice that screws and nails are not reusable and are commonly thought as materials rather than tools, in that they remain in the finished product.) We often find artifacts that are simultaneously constraining and effective tools. For example, a handsaw is effective, in that the blade makes a cut in a piece of wood, but it is also constraining, in that the breadth of the blade forces (or at least facilitates) a straight-line cut. That is, because the breadth of the blade must follow the toothed edge through the groove as the wood is cut, it is easier to cut in a straight line than not. We notice that jigsaws and keyhole saws have a very narrow blade just to relax this constraint.
· Tools that demarcate the environment or materials. The goal of demarcation is to distinguish similar areas or pieces of the environment so that they can be treated differently. Examples include the carpenter’s pencil, pushpins, and working surfaces inscribed with fixed markings. (2-3)

There are a number of “ecological issues” in tool use:

· Tool use can be opportunistic. Tools can be used for purposes not intended by their designers. For example, a car mechanic who lacks a hammer can use any sufficiently solid, heavy object that comes to hand.
· Tools provide rich cues about their appropriate use. The affordances of a tool become obvious in its use; the hammer is almost a canonical example. It has an affordance for being gripped in a specific fashion…. Once gripped, its potential uses are made clear in a sequential fashion… simply by moving one’s arm, even accidentally, one perceives the additional force necessary for movement and stopping movement.
· Tool use involves establishing and exploiting constraints between the user and the tool, the user and the environment, and the tool and the environment. The issue of interacting constraints becomes immediately obvious in the example of hammer use, if one is working in a tightly enclosed space, from an awkward position, with a sprained wrist, etc. From a more positive perspective, establishing appropriate constraints will enhance tool use, e.g., bracing oneself for a stronger hammer blow, or clamping materials for appropriate resistance. An important specialization of this property is that tool use is associated with effective use of space… Many experienced tool users lay out their tools before beginning a task, on the assumption that some common tools are almost always eventually needed and should be ready to hand. (3-4)

Using the various features of tools articulated by St. Amant, we can begin to assess whether or not knowledge artifacts should be considered tools. Starting with procedural structure, knowledge artifacts do not appear to be tools: they do not involve direction action, they don’t amplify existing behaviour (unless memory is a behaviour… perhaps a discussion for a later date), and their use is often not effective. Reading a document, for example, is rarely related to the accomplishment of a specific task. Knowledge artifacts are, however, utilized during goal directed behaviour. St. Amant points out that incidental and accidental use of objects does not necessarily make these objects tools. Given the research on “accidental information discovery” (e.g., Erdelez, 1999; Williamson, 1998), perhaps much of the behaviour we observe with knowledge artifacts isn’t as effective as we may imagine.

Classifying knowledge artifacts as tools within St. Amant’s taxonomy is similarly difficult. Documents, for example, don’t necessarily produce a persistent effect on materials or the environment. They may, however, have a significant effect on social structures (think The Bible, Communist Manifesto, Analects of Confucius, The Origin of the Species, etc.). Knowledge artifacts may be considered tools in that they provide information about materials or the environment but this concept has been effectively debunked by Latour (1979) who maintains that “inscriptions” are a product of social context and not just objective reality. More on this idea later. Knowledge artifacts also lack the ability to “constrain or stabilize” materials (unless we consider ideas to be materials!). St. Amant’s notion of demarcating tools, however, presents an interesting quandary to our discussion. Demarcating tools make the marks upon which knowledge artifacts depend. The documents themselves, however, aren’t actually the tools.

From the perspective presented by St. Amant, knowledge artifacts are not tools. They are, however, still material and artefact. The particular affordances of documents may be a result of the markings upon them. To explore these topics a bit further, it’s important to discuss notions such as “markings”, “enscriptions”, and “documents”.


Erdelez, S. (1999). Information encountering: It's more than just bumping into information. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 25(3), 25-29.
Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory Life : The Construction of Scientific Facts. Thousand Oaks: CA: SAGE.
St. Amant, R. (2002). A preliminary discussion of tools and tool use (No. TR-2002-06). Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University College of Engineering Department of Computer Science.
Williamson, K. (1998). Discovered by chance: The role of incidental information acquisition in an ecological model of information use. Library & Information Science Research, 20(1), 23-40.


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