It’s the end of reading as we know it (and Kevin Ashton feels fine). The author and coiner of the term “the internet of things” will be coming to Tech Forum on March 12 to tell us how we can all survive the Ebookalypse. (Registration closes Feb. 25!) In the meantime, you can read about the very ordinary, human act of creation in this excerpt from his new book, How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery.
Creating is Ordinary
Creation is so around and inside us that we cannot look without seeing it or listen without hearing it. As a result, we do not notice it at all. We live in symbiosis with new. It is not something we do; it is something we are. It affects our life expectancy, our height and weight and gait, our way of life, where we live, and the things we think and do. We change our technology, and our technology changes us. This is true for every human being on the planet. It has been true for two thousand generations; ever since the moment our species started thinking about improving its tools.
Anything we create is a tool–a fabrication with purpose. There is nothing special about species with tools. Beavers make dams. Birds build nests. Dolphins use sponges to hunt for fish. Chimpanzees use sticks to dig for roots and stone hammers to open hard-shelled food. Otters use rocks to break open crabs. Elephants repel flies by making branches into switches they wave with their trunks. Clearly our tools are better. The Hoover Dam beats the beaver dam. But why?
Our tools have not been better for long. Six million years ago, evolution forked. One path led to chimpanzees–distant relatives, but the closest living ones we have. The other path led to us. Unknown numbers of human species emerged. There was Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo ergaster, Homo rudolfensis, and many others, some whose status is still controversial, some still to be discovered. All human. None us.
Like other species, these humans used tools. The earliest were pointed stones used to cut nuts, fruit, and maybe meat. Later, some human species made two-sided hand axes requiring careful masonry and nearly perfect symmetry. But apart from minor adjustments, human tools were monotonous for a million years, unchanged no matter when or where they were used, passed through twenty-five thousand generations without modification. Despite the mental focus needed to make it, the design of that early human hand ax, like the design of a beaver dam or bird’s nest, came from instinct, not thought.
Humans that looked like us first appeared 200,000 years ago. This was the species called Homo sapiens. Members of Homo sapiens did not act like us in one important way: their tools were simple and did not change. We do not know why. Their brains were the same size as ours. They had our opposable thumbs, our senses, and our strength. Yet for 150,000 years, like the other human species of their time, they made nothing new.
Then 50,000 years ago, something happened. The crude, barely recognizable stone tools Homo sapiens had been using began to change–and change quickly. Until this moment, this species, like all other animals, did not innovate. Their tools were the same as their parents’ tools and their grandparents’ tools and their great-grandparents’ tools. They made them, but they didn’t make them better. The tools were inherited, instinctive, and immutable–products of evolution, not conscious creation.
Then came by far the most important moment in human history–the day one member of the species looked at a tool and thought, “I can make this better.” The descendants of this individual are called Homo sapiens sapiens. They are our ancestors. They are us. What the human race created was creation itself.
The ability to change anything was the change that changed everything. The urge to make better tools gave us a massive advantage over all other species, including rival species of humans. Within a few tens of thousands of years, all other humans were extinct, displaced by an anatomically similar species with only one important difference: ever-improving technology.
What makes our species different and dominant is innovation. What is special about us is not the size of our brains, speech, or the mere fact that we use tools. It is that each of us is in our own way driven to make things better. We occupy the evolutionary niche of new. The niche of new is not the property of a privileged few. It is what makes humans human.
From the book: HOW TO FLY A HORSE
Copyright © 2015 by Kevin Ashton
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
You can hear more from Kevin at Tech Forum this March 12 in Toronto. Find the full list of speakers and schedule here. Registration closes Feb. 25.