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.


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”.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Knowledge Artifacts... what is material?

After having spent a lot of time thinking and reading about the topic of materiality, my passion for recording my thoughts is quickly ebbing. Perhaps if I write quickly I can maintain a tidbit of my initial enthusiasm!

As this paper has progressed, it has begun to come apart in a number of layers. As soon as I felt that I had an understanding of particular issues, a larger issue made itself apparent. I’m reminded of the insights of Witold Rybczynski (1986) in his attempt to describe comfort:

“It is like trying to describe an onion. It appears simple on the outside, just a spheroidal shape. But this is deceptive, for an onion also has many layers. If we cut it apart, we are left with a pile of onion skins, but the original form has disappeared; if we describe each layer separately, we lose sight of the whole. To complicate matter further, the layers are transparent, so that when we look at the whole onion we see not just the surface but also something of the interior. Similarly, comfort is both something simple and complicated. It incorporates many layers of meaning--privacy, ease, convenience--some of which are buried deeper than others.” (230)

In order to fully explore the ideas of “following the document”, we need to come up with some operating definitions to various terms: material, tool, artifact, marking, inscription, document, boundary object, genre, and—obviously—paper.


It’s difficult to tease apart the notion of material from conceptualizations of what humans are. While homo sapien requires only the tools of logic and thought, homo faber requires the material we find all around us. Dobres (2000):

"In past and present alike, humans are defined, and define themselves, in similarly rational and objectified ways: by virtue of what they make, how they make, how they use, and the degree to which they control the natural world through material means." (33)

As humans we have an intimate relationship with matter. At what point, however, does simple matter become transmogrified into something more important? When does simple matter become technology? This question is tougher to answer.

One possible approach relies on the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger. I have to admit that I have never read Heidegger’s own work but the secondary literature proves to be quite informative. For Heidegger, the material world is not simply something out there that humans interact with but is a crucial element of what makes us human. This interaction is crucial for the human process of “being”. According to Dobres (2000):

"[Heidegger] also emphasizes being-in-the-world as an unfolding (temporal) coming into existence of the agent through their particular material experiences (with technology, for example). Because awareness is continually engendered through these corporeal and unfolding experiences, they further augment, build on, and challenge preexisting sensibilities." (81-82)

While Heidegger’s notions of being are interesting and serve to underscore the importance of materials for human experience, they are a bit esoteric. He does, however, provide some more useful concepts for us to explore. According to Heidegger, the ontological structure of the world is dependent on our interaction with objects. In our interaction, these objects are of two types: ready-to-hand, and present-to-hand. Certain objects are natural extensions of our daily activities. Dourish (1999), for example, describes the computer mouse as a quintessential ready-to-hand object; it’s an extension of our hands that we depend on but we are rarely mindful of its status as an object. When a computer mouse begins to malfunction, however, we become acutely aware of the mouse. It becomes present-to-hand. Dourish explains the importance of the distinction between these two types of objects:

"The origin of ontology, and the existence of entities, lies precisely in the way those moments make objects apparent. When an entity becomes present at hand, it is not simply that it is revealing itself, or as if it was waiting all along to be discovered. Rather, it is through this moment of becoming present at hand that the object takes on an existence as an entity. The critical thing to observe here is that this can happen only through an involved, embodied action." (10)

Material, then, is not merely the raw clay of production. It is something we interact with in a process of creating our reality. There are, of course, other taxonomies of matter. The comedian George Carlin, for example, famously stated that there are two types of matter: “stuff” and “shit”. My “stuff” would quite likely be interpreted by someone else as “shit” if it were to accumulate in that person’s basement. Carlin’s taxonomy demonstrates a value judgement. And this value judgement is necessarily socially situated.

In a slightly different interpretation of material, Rom Harré supports Carlin’s views. In particular, Harré (2002) focuses on the way that mere “material” becomes all-important “things” through a process of narrative:

"If material things become social objects in so far as they are embedded in narratives then the question of whether this [is] the same or a different social object depends on how this is the same or a different story." (30)

Our interaction with matter not only reinforces our social perceptions but our interpretation of matter is necessarily a product of our own narratives or social context.

This philosophical foray is starting to remind me of a Monty Python tiger-hunt. After setting of on a journey with a rather dubious reason, I seem to have found an explanation that doesn’t really seem to be an explanation at all. These notions of narrative, being, and at-handedness don’t seem to answer my questions. For example, I could ask the question: “is the document—or knowledge artifact—before me rooted in my social context and personal narratives?” Yes. “Is this Harré document ready-at-hand or present-to-hand?” Uhhh… it’s something that I had to look for and didn’t take for granted so I guess it’s present-to-hand. Applying Carlin’s logic, however, we could ask whether the same document is stuff or shit. Well, I suppose to me in my present context it’s definitely stuff but it will quickly be ironized to shit should it fall to the floor and get in the way of the vacuum.

So could a document ever be ready-at-hand? It may depend on the type of the document. A journal article, or a book that must be sought must always be present-to-hand. There are other types of documents, however, that LIS is less keen to study. Objects that actively support work such as doctor’s charts or flight logs could certainly be ready-to-hand. Certain books—I’m thinking of the DSM for psychologists—might be so essential to the diagnosis and validation structures of certain professions (Abbott, 1988) that they too may ascend to the status of ready-at-hand. As such, they may be considered “tools”. Perhaps the reified ontological status of “documents” depends on them being ready-at-hand?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My exploration of tools and documents is yet to come.

There is one area left to explore in this discussion of material. If ontological status depends on value judgments, we must have some way of separating stuff from shit. There must be something inherent in different types of material to distinguish value. I can imagine that some will argue that value judgments are completely socially constructed and that the underlying nature of the material is redundant (remember the Saturday Night Live parody about three-legged jeans? The tagline was “no dumber than acid-washed”). From an evolutionary perspective, however, certain objects must have that special something that led to their adoption. Certain materials, for example, may have had value (or “utility”) as clothing or for construction. This utility—socially constructed or otherwise—may distinguish stuff from shit, tool from material.

One valuable framework for exploring the utility of material is the concept of “affordance”. While J.J. Gibson initially coined this term in a widely cited (but unread by me) book, it was popularized by Donald Norman (1990):

“There already exists the start of a psychology of materials and of things, the study of affordances of objects. When used in this sense the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used… A chair affords (‘is for’) support and, therefore, affords sitting. A chair can also be carried. Glass is for seeing through, and for breaking. Wood is normally used for solidity, opacity, support, or carving. Flat, porous, smooth surfaces are for writing on. So wood is also for writing on.” (9)

In his description, Norman conflates material (e.g., wood) with objects that are quite clearly man-made and have particular value (e.g., chair). This concept of “affordance”, however, will be quite helpful as we begin to explore other concepts such as “artifact” and “tool”.


Abbott, A. D. (1988). The system of professions : an essay on the division of expert labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dobres, M.-A. (2000). Technology and social agency : outlining a practice framework for archaeology. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.
Dourish, P. (1999). Embodied interaction: Exploring the foundations of a new approach to HCI. Retrieved August 25, 2004, from
Harré, R. (2002). Material objects in social worlds. Theory Culture & Society, 19(5-6), 23-33.
Norman, D. A. (1990). The design of everyday things (1st Doubleday/Currency ed.). New York: Doubleday.
Rybczynski, W. (1986). Home : a short history of an idea. Toronto: Penguin.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Information Bias

I've had a few thoughts on the notion of technology and documents. The social informatics and CSCW work seems to clearly position technology as a factor in modern practice. Technology is not a static thing but the process of designing and implementing technology also has a sort of performative effect that does far beyond the intended or designed effect.

In some studies of technology there is a pretty clear bias of technological determinism i.e., the technology appears in the system and has a specific effect. We may see this bias in studies with titles such as the "the impact of the Internet". This example repeats the "thing" bias so rigorously attacked in LIS discourse. Just as Dervin attacked the hypodermic needle model of media and our conceptualizations of information as brick, we should rebel against technological determinism.

Perhaps one reason for our blindness to technological determinism comes from the technololgy we are most familiar with: books in a library setting. The library setting is a key part of this argument. We recognize the complicated relationships individuals have with books as they negotiate identity and meaning, but much of this discussion becomes obfuscated when books get reduced to elements of a collections ruled by the tyranny of classification systems, and when individuals are homogenized into "patrons".

To fully mutilate Dervin's metapore, I will invoke the image of dropping bricks into a pond. When those bricks are "information" and the pond is "society" we fully recognize the import of the resulting ripples and waves. When the bricks are "books" and the pond is a "library", the bricks enter the water without a splash or ripple and gracefully descend to their predistined spot indifferent to the swirling torrents of the pond.
String Bags

Dobres recounts a series of studies conducted by M.A. MacKenzie that constitute a biography of string bags in central New Guinea. MacKenzie studies both the production and use of these bags and explores their social significance.

It's tough to do a similar sort of study in the modern context because we aren't producers. We may produce the meaning of artifacts but we aren't generally responsible for their design or manufacture. Most of our artifacts come shrink-rapped and ready to use.

There is one exception to this store bought materiality: documents. In documents we still see a place where we must learn the technologies of production and the methods of interpretation. Similar to MacKenzie's string bags, documents are truly democratic as they are produced by all.

There are any number of directions for this argument. I suppose I could look at democratic technologies, or reading response, or the book industry, or even notions of genre. At least I've found an intellectual bridge to all of the book/reading material I need to know for my comp!
Some thoughts on information and artifacts

Our discipline has focused on "information". The definition of this term, however, is a bit fuzzy. Some authors (Frohmann for example) claim that we should shift our focus to the study of documents as "information" is a bankrupt concept. A document-centric notion of information, however, fails to account for some of those other valuable information-related concepts we have developed that demonstrate that infomrmation is a social thing (e.g., Fisher's--nee Pettigrew's--concept of "information grounds"). Others (Talja, etc.) claim that we should focus on a more constructivist conception of information.

The tension between information as document and information as ephemeral/social thing is tantamount and has to be bridged.

One possible approach is to recognize that explicit information is a type of technology and that technology is inherently bound up in social practices. A number of authors have posited that we need to explore the relationship between humans, technology, and social systems as an integrated system. Dobres, for example, warns that breaking our object of study into a diagram of entities linked by fine lines leads to a study of the arbitrarily drawn lines rather than of the inidividual entities or of the diagram as a whole.

Dobres explains: "If one accepts this position, that technologies are meaningful acts of social engagement with the material world, then it is both artificial and inappropriate to tease apart 'the social' from 'the symbolic' from 'the material' in an effort to identify the separate contribution each makes to that whole. If the 'whole' of technology rests with the simultaneously symbolic, social, and material experience of being-in-the-world, then disengaging these dynamics from each other, even for heuristic convenience, does that whole a terrible disservice." (98)

So I now have to ask myself how our most popular research methodologies fit into all of this. Dervin's sense-making approach ("methodology"? capitalize?), for example, expressly ignores the document; the material is removed completely. Instead, we introduce a new type of materiality in the form of "gaps", "needs", and "uses". Do these sorts of imposed materialities form a similar kind of "terrible disserice"?