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Freelance consultant, learning facilitator, and writer, founder of extreme-inventing.com, ooleee.net (with artist Gary King), knowledgecafe0151. Teach technology entrepreneurship at School of Engineering at University of Liverpool, UK. I have a longstanding and avid interest in Technology as a unique human phenomenon. I'm actively engaged in research on how enterprising individuals shape material culture through inventing and innovating, with palaeoanthropologists at the Dept. of Archaeology, Egyptology and Classics, also at University of Liverpool.

Distinctions of properties

perceppuzzleThe last two postings feature the same thing, the capture of an action I called pinching. In both these cases the properties captured in the new system are elasticity,  and, I suggest, shape and a small amount of friction. The close proximity of the elastic teeth of the comb and the two sides of the split in the tennis ball, the friction involved all contribute to the pinching action, or effect. This post is about how we distinguish properties of objects which we then capture and utilise in a new system. According to the biologists and systems theorists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela making distinctions is a fundamental act of cognition. Just by looking we can distinguish certain kinds of properties such as colour, shape like roundness, but some properties can only be distinguished through acting with something a property of which you later distinguish. For instance, you cannot tell by looking at something that it is heavy, or warm, or cold, or wet.

Distinguishing, and then naming it, is something only humans do and it is the very essence of inventing. For it to succeed we need language, or a lexicon of words we can drawn on. Going down this route is very theoretical and I’m not going to take it,  but here’s a more practical example of what I mean. Look at the pictures above and  below. What do you distinguish in each of them? IF

Do you distinguish something hidden in the portrait (do you even see a portrait?) or in the intricate pattern of the branches. Can you see horses where some see hair, or perhaps a face in the branches? If not these things, you might have distinguished something different. If you do find something ‘hidden in plain sight’, at the very same instant you will name it. You will most likely use a name you already know from previous experience. What you distinguish may not be exactly the same as anything you have distinguished before, but it will be like that something. This act of distinguishing is fundamental to inventing. We use all our senses to distinguish objects from their background. We use our senses to see, and smell and touch, and hear, and taste, just as bats use sound to distinguish each other from their prey, and lower animals sense changes in chemical concentration levels. But the difference between us and other primates, for example, is that we give a name the object we distinguish. Inventing, and everything else we humans do, begins with this seemingly unimportant acts of distinction making and naming.

For example, consider the invention of flint cutting tools in the stone-age. To invent a means of cutting, first a cut has to be distinguished. Next, the property of the particular piece of stone that makes it a cutter is distinguished, and this is sharpness. If the result of cutting is found to be socially useful, and others then desire the ‘tool’ then trading opportunity might be distinguished during a subsequent conversation. Both the cut and the sharpness become socially valuable. This might lead to a trade in sharp edged stones, which would create a web of relations supporting the creation and trading of ‘sharpness’ in whatever material it was embodied.

However, discovering that pieces of a shattered obsidian or flint rock are sharp, is not inventing. Neither is discovering that the sharp pieces can cut one’s hand.  What does constitute an invention is making use of ‘sharpness’ to cut another object which, as a consequence of its cutting, becomes socially useful and hence of economic value. In the act of using the ‘sharpness’ property, relations are established between the sharp object and its wielder, and the object on which the sharpness acts. These relationships constitute a rudimentary form of technical system. The raw conceptualisation of such a technical system, together with the presumption of a socially useful result of its operation, constitutes an invention. Alternatively, an invention might be described as the conceptualisation of a set of technical relations, a technical system, which when enacted will realise the social use-value of a natural property as envisaged by the inventor.



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