Random Thoughts on
Tradition vs. Technology

by Norm Kidder



Objects, possessions (pride in having), materialism, Western Culture vs. process (pride in doing), relationships, results, Indigenous cultures. Primitive technology used whatever was available to get the result, but the result wasn't in making something to have and put on display, it was to provide food, water, shelter, family, fun and/or the future. Pride in workmanship often went beyond making things that were pleasing to look at, but also that would impress the spirits who controlled the world. Doing your best and following traditions were a way of showing respect both to your elders (teachers) and to the materials you depended on for the object.

Our Society has both kinds, those that collect artifacts and/or make them for show and sale; and those who learn to make things to use. Both have value and can help broaden the inquiry, but the pursuit of primitive technology implies also the pursuit of the values and purposes behind the technologies. Often this means doing the job at hand with the simplest tools, often unmodified objects, as most hunter-gatherers didn't have pickups to haul around all their stuff. An exhibit in the California Academy of Science in San Francisco explained the apparent lack of artifacts in an exhibit on the Australian Aborigines with the idea that the apparent simplicity of the tool kit belied the knowledge of materials that allowed the hunter to use what he found to accomplish the task. The tool kit is in the head, not the hand.

Maybe we need a labeling system which classifies "replicas" as High, Medium, or Low tech, with low tech reserved for objects made with all stone age materials and tools; medium would allow metal hand tools like adzes and knives, copper knappers, etc.; high tech would allow power tools, cut slabs, or anything else. Personally I'd like to know how to do things at all three levels. There is something almost mystical about making and using a tool completely with things you've made yourself from 'the wild'. It helps you put yourself in perspective, as part of the place you inhabit, and builds your relationship with the earth. It also gives you greater respect for our ancestors who functioned at this level normally. At the same time there is something strange about not using the best or easiest tool to do a job. A group of people, including local Indians while rebuilding a dance house, commented they were glad no archaeologists were involved or they couldn't have used chain saws to cut the timbers. To them traditional meant the task and the group effort and feelings, not the specific tools. Everything depends on the intent and feelings of the practitioner.

From my observations, we each go through our own evolution. We begin wherever we get inspired. Someone turns us on, and they may be functioning at any technological level. At first we are inspired to produce something, which then becomes an object of pride. Once the skill is mastered just doing it isn't enough, and the process must be shared in some way, by giving away the product or teaching the skill. Eventually we need to explore the edges of the envelope, in at least one direction (high or low tech), or maybe both. The need is to make the technology relevant to 21st century life. Some of us attempt to "go bush" and live the skills. This is personally gratifying but not a practical choice for large numbers of folk. Possibly we commercialize the pursuit and produce for sale, or teach for money, treating the skills as a commodity. A few of us even make our living this way. Most of us would probably consider our endeavors as a hobby, with no purpose but satisfying our curiosity. Many folk I've talked with have at least a mild fear that these skills may again be the dominant survival strategy in a few years.

The challenge I feel while sitting at my computer is to use what I learn from the 'old ways' and apply it to my 'now ways'. The most obvious for me is in being a maker of useful things. I get a deep sense of reality when I produce my own food, build my own structure, or make my own everyday tools. Recycling and composting contribute to a sense of being part of the cycle. This gets extended whenever I buy handmade things to use, when possible from the maker, to encourage this kind of direct involvement in the world. When shopping I may look to buy the least processed foods, so I have the maximum involvement with food I don't grow.

One of the most important aspects of old ways was the sense of community, and cooperation. Where I live these are hard to find. Sharing tools and time with a few neighbors is all that's left. The sharing that goes on in the Society of Primitive Technology takes on aspects of a community. Primitive technology by its nature tends to be communal. As population grows we spend less time dealing with people and more with stuff. The flickering light and story telling of the campfire has given way to the flickering light and storytelling of the television. No more gathering of women to wash their clothes at the well, now each sits alone with a work saving machine.



This article was first published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (Fall 1995, #10)
E-mail your comments to "Norm Kidder " at atlatl1@aol.com

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