According to Peter Hancock, we are our tools. His 2010 presidential address “Mind, Machine, and Morality,” was as entertaining and wide-ranging as is typical of a Dr. Hancock talk. Two of his philosophical takes on our field are well suited to discussion, and I present them to invite comment.
Part I: Self-symbiosis – Uniquely human?
Self-symbiosis refers to our propensity to create artifacts that change (create) our future selves. Hancock’s diagram was similar to the one below, with the addition of the passage of time.
In self-symbiosis, we create tools that change our behavior, our options, and the course of evolution is affected. I found this idea interesting because I could see how it might generalize from long-term evolutionary change to individual change within a lifetime.
In the macro, the tools and opportunities of one generation slowly change the upbrining, opportunities for new tools, and even the brains of generations far, far, far in the future.
In the micro, we create tools that directly affect our own lives. We create sports and physical play, weight machines, and other physical activities that change our bodies, the length of our lives, and even our ability to think and reason (linked to blood flow in the brain.) My own interests are in studying (and eventually creating) artifacts that act similarly through “mental exercise,” specifically games. So, in the micro view we are still creating things that change us, allowing us to develop new things. Then these new things can also change us within our lifetimes.
Hancock referred to this control over our selves as a compromise between the chance changes that result in evolution and the idea that we were “designed.” In some small way we might design ourselves through our tools and artifacts.
Part II: Morality in Human Factors Work
Hancock gave a call to action for our profession to work on the problems and discoveries that matter most to the human race. He gave as an example a well-designed ergonomic nose hair trimmer, followed by a noodle-cooler chopstick appendix. ‘Are we an ‘appliance science?’ he asked. “Do we want to give device advice?” Granted, these two examples are inarguably unnecessary to our ultimate survival and success as a species, but what about more ambiguous work such as well designed retail websites?*
Hancock concluded with a challenge to those in the human factors field: “We need a philosophy, not a profession. We need a moral compass,” for where to go in the future. What do you think?
William Blake photo credit reproduced Naccarato under a Creative Commons license.
“Noodle cooler” photo credit bhikku under a Creative Commons license.
*Personally, bad websites might be taking years off my life, due to blood pressure, so their design is very important to me. 🙂