I wasn’t sure how to begin this reflection. That fact is, augmentation, the use of tools to extend human capability, is what is often cited as a reason that humans aren’t mere animals. No other creature consistently recognizes that a deficiency exists in their own ability and then, often automatically, begins searching for something that will remove that deficiency. Once a person has found that “tool,” it will continue to extend (augment) the person’s ability until it breaks, is deemed inappropriate, or a more suitable replacement is found. As a relatively short person, this reminds me of working in my kitchen. I can easily reach the first shelf of the upper cabinets and can, somewhat less easily reach the second shelf. On my own, I have no chance of ever reaching the top shelf. When we first moved into our house, I immediately recognized the limits of my ability. On the first day, I found a sturdy box to extend my reach. Of course, no box is sturdy enough to consistently support 100+ pounds of shifting weight. That tool was deemed inappropriate (thankfully it didn’t break). On the second day, after more of our things were moved in, a dining room chair became the new thing that allowed me to reach heights that were not within my natural range. The chair worked well, for the most part, but was bulky to transport from dining room to kitchen, had somewhat slippery feet, and I was unenthusiastic about leaving footprints on its seat. Finally, my husband and I went to Lowe’s and purchased a folding step stool that could be housed in the kitchen. Now I have a tool that extends my reach even as it stays out of the way when not in use and does not compromise my safety. It also is dedicated fully to serving one purpose and so there are not scheduling conflicts (such as needing to access top shelves during dinner time).
During class, we talked about different types of relationships: synergistic (the sum is greater than the whole); symbiotic (each individual benefits); and, parasitic (one benefits to the other’s detriment). In my example, it’s pretty easy to recognize the synergistic relationship between myself and the stool. Without me, the stool is steel, rubber, and plastic leaning against a wall. With the stool, I am a girl only able to access the first two shelves. Together, we become a system that can do more than we can do separately. Our relationship is not symbiotic. Although I benefit, it would be silly to say that the stool benefits because that implies that it has needs. In the same way, the relationship between the stool and I cannot be parasitic because it or I would have to sacrifice something to the other. Both symbiotic and parasitic relationships tend to exist between beings; not between beings and objects or tools. Of course, humans have been known to treat other beings as tools. That, however, is another conversation altogether.
With traditional tools whose purpose is derived from their physical nature, it’s much easier to recognize how they can be used to augment human ability. With relatively new technologies, however, it can be a lot more ambiguous. In “Fitting the Artifact to the Person” by Donald Norman, the author talks about surface and internal representation and surface and internal artifacts. When I look at a ruler, I see that it is marked incrementally on its surface. I know that I can lay it next to two items and make assertions about their size relative to one another, to the ruler, and to a whole world of things that have been measured by the ruler. Without the ruler, I can only lay the two objects next to one another and say “bigger” or “smaller” (or “same”). Because the purpose of the ruler can be derived from its surface representation, the ruler is a surface artifact. Humans are very good at finding or developing these types of artifacts. I wonder if our excellence in this area has led to the seemingly pervasive that surface artifacts are rudimentary and, therefore, even juvenile.
It seems to be the trend to develop tools that have more internal than surface representation. Rather than a thermostat with a mercury vial to determine temperature and a dial to adjust the furnace up or down, we now have little plastic boxes with digital displays (I’m not sure if there’s a mercury vial in there, but I suspect not) that can be programmed to automatically adjust furnace and air conditional output. When I open an old thermostat, I see a vial and springs and understand the mechanism. I see temperature marks on the casing and a red arrow. When I open the new thermostat, I see wires and a circuit board. On the outside, I see a white casing, a small screen, and two buttons. Without the electricity to power the interface and deliver command prompts, it is useless to me. This internal representation seems to be a huge source of frustration to people.
Our culture is ruled by internal artifacts that rely on intuitive interfaces to be useful. We have computers, cell phones, televisions, and, yes, thermostats, that have the potential to augment our abilities. The key to these being successful tools, however, is, in my opinion, trust. With a surface artifact, we get it. We know its purpose and we can figure out how it works (although I’ve never figured out a slide rule….maybe someday). With an internal artifact, we only know what it says it can do. We have no idea what is causing it to do what it’s doing. In fact, what it’s doing is actually not at all what we’re looking for. We rely on engineers and scientists to translate for us. They make all those electric pulses into something, we hope, is what we’re looking for. And there it is…the issue of trust. With that ruler, I know that there is that piece of string and me. If I measure with that piece of string, only one thing can go wrong. I can misuse the string. With that electronic laser level/measurer, however, I have to figure out how to turn it on, make sure it has power, understand how to get a measurement, and trust that everyone who has worked on it to that point did their tasks correctly. If I trust that electronic tool, I can do a heck of a lot more than I could ever dream with a piece of string. At the same time, I am putting a lot more stock in other individuals than I would have to if I just carried a ball of twine in my pocket.
So, how does this relate to the field of librarianship? In an era of OPACs, integrated library systems, MARC records, not to mention public computers, scanners, copiers, flash drives, digital cameras, MP3 players, etc., we are the ones that have to make up for the deficiencies in those interfaces for a large number of internal artifacts. Although initial searches in OPACs often are pretty intuitive for patrons, the results are not. We have to teach and help navigate through the gobbledy gook that appears on the screen. Rather than just loaning an album out on vinyl, we now have to get those digital files through our firewalls using proprietary software onto whatever device a patron owns. If we are truly serious about providing equal access to information, we have to be experts in technology and people along with experts in information.