Is a gun a gun when no one pulls its trigger? Reflections on the Endnote from Orlikowski 2000, Org Science.
This is the paper to which I am referring in this post.
In the endnote of this paper, Orlikowski recounts an interaction with one of the anonymous referees for the paper where the question from the title of this post is posed. Orlikowski asserts that recognition of an object as a gun is culturally specific, members of a society in which nobody has ever used a gun would have no basis for recognizing an object as a gun. She poses a remote tribe in the Kalahari as an example. Knowledge of an object, she contends, comes primarily from its use.
This got me thinking about objects about which society primarily possesses knowledge derived not from use, rather from designs, specifications, manuals, and other texts.
Orlikowski refers to technological artifacts, and I'll take that as a cue to focus on such technological artifacts, to avoid venturing into the esoteric realms of religion and myth, I'm not talking about the ark of the covenant.
1. Advanced consumer technological artifacts are the first of such things that come to mind. A Tesla Model S, for instance. I have never possessed a Tesla Model S. I've never driven or been inside a Tesla Model S. There are no "rent-a-Teslas" that I know of. I have never used a Tesla Model S as it was intended to be used, to get myself from point A to point B, maybe to bring some stuff along too. So my knowledge of this particular car comes from texts. That is how I know that it has a 2.3 second 0 to 60mph. But I dont know what it feels like to be in something with that kind of acceleration. A carnival ride, perhaps. I suspect this is the case for many of us.
When it comes to texts, for analytical purposes I'm going to include photographs, video recordings and interactive simulations. I justify this grouping because of how we receive most of this type of information, from a screen or a page, and there's often numbers and measurements involved.
When it comes to these advanced consumer technological objects, the nature of their fame or notoriety may contribute to the amount of texts produced about them. So while I think a Louis Moinet timepiece is as much of an amazing technological marvel as a Model S, there are probably far fewer magazine articles and blog posts that feature Moinets as vividly as the Model S.
2. Technological artifacts of disruptive effect, like weapons, are often known of through texts rather than use, because of said disruptive effects. I'd posit this to be true for most weapons. More people know of flint-knapped arrowheads than have actually used them. Same goes for handguns and rifles. Especially so of advanced military weapons systems which will hopefully never be used against living targets.
3. Unique technological artifacts like the the international space station, are another class of artifacts that people largely know from texts rather than any personal use or organizational involvement. The Large Hadron Collider, which also happens to be the largest machine in the world, is another example.
4. Obsolete technological artifacts like the oil lamp or the stagecoach are also primarily known through texts, rather than through use. There are exceptions, like artisanal or culturally specific communities that continue the use of these obsolete objects.
Can you think of any more?
Specialized technological objects like tools of scientific inquiry (the microscope, the test tube, the photosensor, etc) are probably not really known outside of specialized epistemic communities of experts, and within those communities are known primarily through use. Who here has ever heard of a thermal cycler? Same applies for specialized production tools like CNC lathes or hydraulic presses.