[This is the first in a series of articles intended to identify key watershed moments in the history of content and container. Our intent is to frame the current moment in this story so that we may better understand the unique and not-so-unique promise of the binary revolution.]
Books, roasting pans, websites, bottle caps: all these are artifacts. They are devised and built by humans; they are physical manifestations of our thoughts, our ‘things’. Our civilization’s vast index of things did not appear sui generi. Rather, our present artifact collection is part of a much larger, older cloud of artifacts – a mist of achievement that has been seeping from our kind and surrounding us all since before humans were human.
We have always been cyborgs. This has all happened before: our organism and our technology have been inextricably woven for millions of years. This arrangement is so old that the ‘we’ in question is not even simply our sapien species. Complete reliance on technology is not even original to our genus Homo. Non-human members of our taxonomic family hominidae – bipedal apes in the genus Australopithecus whole lived 2.6 million years ago – relied daily on a tool tradition all their own.
These early artifacts, called Oldowan tools, mark a watershed moment in the history of life on Earth. Until then, the Gods on Olympus were likely unimpressed with primate evolution. That is until the slapstick bipedal primates in the African savannah fashioned tools from stone, taught this craft to their kids, and carried these tools with them everywhere. Without pockets, even.
Wherever you find these fossilized ancient hominids, you’re likely to find an Oldowan tool nearby. The cybernetic unit of hominid-Oldowan represents a much different creature. The mobile technology represented by these all-natural, artisanal sharpened stones greatly expanded the ecological niche that these creatures could inhabit. New foods could be processed, predators turned away.
Due to their abundant and ubiquitous mobile technology, these upright apes with ~1/3 of our brains were suddenly living less directly in nature. Instead, they lived in a small technological Oldowan bubble. Insulated thusly, they expanded their numbers, their territory, and tool types. You could say that their relationship with technology created a pre-human baby-boom – a hominid abundance loop. And it is this type of abundance loop that we’ve inherited and are perfecting.
Jump ahead a few million years. It’s easy. 30,000 BC: anatomically modern Homo sapiens, folks like you and me, inhabit much of the ice-age world. The descendants of Oldowan-yielding Australopithecines are using a variety of tools, living in a variety of regions, environments, and cultures. Caves. Bears. And art. The Gods on Olympus undoubtedly stood for an ovation as these early sapiens found an entirely new way of manifesting their thoughts in the world – painting, carving, and sculpting. And so begins our current ‘Expression Era’ and the long history of content, container, and context.
Whether these paintings, carvings, or sculptures were meant as art, communication, or medicine, it is clear that these are a new order of technology. Stone tools, spears, structures – these artifacts emulate and extend our physiology. Hammers strengthen hands, spears lengthen arms. But what of so-called Venus figurines and cave paintings? These extend the mind into technological sphere.
Our next jump will be to the time and place where these sorts of artifacts achieve an astonishing abundance all their own.