Senet Strategy Game (Senet is an ancient Egyptian wood game)
We know full well that Homo sapiens is also faber: he who knows is also he who does. Temples and altars, tools, houses, objects, artifacts, gadgets, architecture. A whole universe of material culture to refer to whenever (since the dawn of times) we want to speak about human beings.
Since we are not only faber but designers, a good idea could be to reflect on what we design and “how” we design.
It is not our intention (and we wouldn’t be able to) to do a history of objects (1). Others have focused on the physical “thing” and produced wonderful stories of architecture and crafts by listing, classifying and organizing objects and artifacts.
In our case, our effort is not to invent new classifications related to “what”, but rather to focus on “how” and on “who”.
Vitruvius’ De Architectura, Book X. Medieval Copy Carolingian Anonymous (750-987)
To think about “how” things are done is an important step in transmitting knowledge within humand kind. Generally it is based on manuals (starting from Vitruvius‘ “De Architectura”, through the Encyclopedie of Diderot and d’Alembert, all the way to the broad category of “how-to” and “dummies” book, nowaday very popular in the contemporary Anglo-Saxon world.
Epinglier (pin making) Diderot, D’Alambert, “Encyclopedie” (1762)
While there is a vast amount of instruction manuals to enable us to make all kind of things, there aren’t many classifications on “how” things are done in social terms. We think that the operation of the classification has a value; to define and organize a series of terms and relations could help us in refining our thinking.
We would love to be pupils of John Wilkins (and his work on analytic language): a language where every noun carries its own classification. The speaker makes always explicit how specific he wants to be. As we like to imagine ourselves as inhabitants of the worlds of Jorge Luis Borges, the reference where to start could be:
“These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies” (2).
Erik Desmazieres’ illustration of Borges’ Library of Babel
Our proposition is simple: as of now, it is much more interesting and meaningful to classify the “how” rather than the “what” and, as a side activity, to explain the reasons and the latent meanings behind our choices.
From the point of view of “what”, a software system such as Linux or Emacs is incredibly remote from a bazaar or a cathedral. But if we focus as Eric Raymond did, on “how” things are made, we are astonished by the similarities. In both cases we have a community of people, organized in various ways in order to delivered and achieve a final result where the complexity and beauty is much higher than its single parts.
Should have this course had a subtitle, this could have been: “How (and why) people are organized to work together in the second decade of the second millennium.” Now it is time to enter “en ese laberinto delicado” (in this delicate labyrinth, Borges again) in the best possible way.
1. The history of objects is scattered across numerous disciplines, from art history to the economy through historiography.
A possible exercise to be done is to take any object, the first we find: the keys in our pockets, for example, and to develop its story. How come those keys are in that specific pocket today? Where do those keys come from? Once we are done with the specific object (if such a task could be accomplished), you move to the family of objects. And it turns out to be that every item is a node from which you can reach any other node: the discovery itself is not too interesting, but the search path from the set of keys to the pyramid of Teotihuacan definitely reserves some general discoveries and some reflection of personal nature.
The more traditional student can instead focus on: Steven Lubar, W. David Kingery, “History from Things: Essays on Material Culture,” Smithsonian, 2007. Another recommended reading is: Bethann Patrick, John Thompson, “An Uncommon History of Commong Things,” National Geographic, 2009. From the latter we recommended in particular the introduction by Henry Petroski.
2. Jorge Luis Borges: “John Wilkins’ Analytical Language”, included in: “Selected nonfictions: Jorge Luis Borges”, Penguin Books, 1999.
If you are a fan of classification systems, the other great reference of Western culture is surely the Marquee Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade and his “The 120 Days of Sodom“.
Donatien De Sade: original manuscript (found in Bastille) of “The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism” (alternatively The School of Licentiousness).