We create tools to work for us: to dig foundations, to hoist steel girders for bridges, to record our words and thoughts for others or capture a likeness of another in a silver emulsion of an early photograph. Over the course of history, need drives those who make things to meet those needs by building tools to do the work. It is just who we are-–two-thumbed, bipedal, big-brained inventors who get things done.
And at every turning point when threats like the new horseless carriage or speaking telegraph or moving-picture tube is about to enter public life, we think the worst will happen. Even the advent of books was looked on with a jaundiced eye by the church and the politicos who feared that if everybody had the facts, the top cats would lose exclusive control of “the truth.”
And so I found myself wrapped in this historical skeptic’s discontent the first time I held my smartphone up to an unknown fern and it spat back an answer in seconds. I so wanted it to be wrong, but it nailed it.
Academics or enthusiastic amateur botanists before the late 20-teens would have spent countless hours to ID an unidentified plant, thumbing and stumbling through the thousand pages of a branched dichotomous key to the vascular plants of North America. They would have had to learn the ponderous dysphonic terminology of plant life. They probably all carried a hand lens with them in the field, because the keys often turned on the presence or absence of barely visible features not easily discerned by the unaided eye. It was slow and tedious work.
Those field botanists of yesteryear would hold the unnamed plant in their hand, perhaps for hours; or if dried and pressed, it might have been examined multiple times in the herbaria over the course of a semester, struggling to give said mystery plant its proper Latin name. Visiting multiple populations of the plant in the wild might have been required at different stages of growth to know for sure–to examine the entire plant through time– roots and stems; flowers and seeds.
► NEXT TIME: On Getting Where We Want To Go.