Petroski's "The Evolution of Useful Things"

Reading about technical objects evolution for the game controller project led me to The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are by Henry Petroski. Focused on forks, paper clips or spoons, the book asks this basic-but-interesting question: "how did these convenient implements come to be, and why are they now so second-nature to us?". It basically try to seek answers to "provide insight in the nature of technological development", and by approaching it with an evolutionary lense:

"Putting implements such as the common knife and fork and chopsticks into an evolutionary perspective, tentative as it necessarily must be, gives a new slant to the concept of their design, for they do not spring fully-formed from the mind of some maker but, rather, become shaped and reshaped through the (principally negative) experiences of their users within the social, cultural, and technological contexts in which they are embedded. The formal evolution of artifacts in turn has profound influences on how we use them."

Based on a wide array of illustrative examples, he debunks the "Form Follows Function" myth:

"Imagining how the form of things as seemingly simple as eating utensils might have evolved demonstrates the inadequacy of a “form follows function” argument to serve as a guiding principle for understanding how artifacts have come to look the way they do. Reflecting on how the form of the knife and fork has developed, let alone how vastly divergent are the ways in which Eastern and Western cultures have solved the identical design problem of conveying food to mouth, really demolishes any overly deterministic argument, for clearly there is no unique solution to the elementary problem of eating.

What form does follow is the real and perceived failure of things as they are used to do what they are supposed to do. Clever people in the past, whom we today might call inventors, designers, or engineers, observed the failure of existing things to function as well as might be imagined. By focusing on the shortcomings of things, innovators altered those items to remove the imperfections, thus producing new, improved objects. Different innovators in different places, starting with rudimentary solutions to the same basic problem, focused on different faults at different times, and so we have inherited culture-specific artifacts that are daily reminders that implements used to effect it. (...) The form, nature, and use of all artifacts are influenced by politics, manners, and personal preferences as by that nebulous entity, technology, manners and social intercourse. (...) it is really want rather than need that drives the process of technological evolution"

Although I found the argument a bit too mono-causal, it's highly interesting to read this kind of assertion from an engineer. While I agree that form may follow failure (and my interest in design failure is certainly related to this opinion), it is as if Petroski was too quick to dismiss other kinds of influence. There are *other" divers of innovation.

It's also relevant to see him acknowledging, after G. Basalla, that the existence of continuity in technical objects "implies that novel artifacts can only arise from antecedent artifacts - that new kinds of made things are never pure creations of theory, ingenuity and fancy". This is a favorite topic of mine, that I already addressed here. Petroski illustrates it with the example of the paper clip:

"the invention of a new paper clip will not occur in some amorphous dream world devoid of all artifacts save imaginative shapes and styles of bent wire or formed plastic. Rather, any new clip will come out of the crowded past of reality."

Another aspect of the book I was interested in is the vocabulary employed to refer to evolution of technical objects. The evolutionary metaphor is exemplified using the following terms extracted from geography, genealogy or biology:

"a route, detours, layovers, wrong-turns, retracings and accidents, paths... antecedents, ancestors... variations, new models... a vestigial trait/feature, a survival form... precursor... the idea of XXX long survived in such diverse applications"

Why do I blog this? Some interesting insights here about the evolutionary metaphor in the design of technical objects. The book gives plenty of details about interesting examples and is a bit short on theories. That said, given its origin (Petroski is not an STS researcher), there are some good points and pertinent elements we can re-use in the game controller project.