Humans are toolsmiths; that's our specialty. But making tools is far from enough. First-generation tools are pitifully inefficient, both to fabricate and to use. Sharpened sticks aren't much good against a charging rhino; scraped shaggy hides aren't cozy warm during a snowy night; smashed seeds simmered on a hot stone aren't a convenient way to fix a family dinner.

Mere tools don't hack it. The breakthrough is the discovery of meta-tools: tools to make tools. Not obvious! Meta-tools aren't of direct utility themselves; they only have value indirectly, via the products of their products. But once the concept of higher-level tools is grasped, there's no limit --- and so today we make tools to make tools to make tools ....

The same holds for the abstract human tools par excellence: ideas. Having thoughts isn't special; lots of animals do. But being able to think about thinking, and to think about thinking about thinking, etc. --- that's radical. We know that we know that we know....

Monday, February 07, 2000 at 05:50:48 (EST) = 2000-02-07


(correlates: CatchingOn, CultureMemoryProgress, Unknown Knowns, ...)