My AirPods case fulfils an ancient stone knapping instinct

09.46, Wednesday 22 May 2024

It’s beautiful to walk in the rain plugged into good music with a hot coffee. The wash of sensations from outside and within brings such a sense of interiority, and I’m rarely so inside my own thoughts while being hyper-aware of the world around me.

(It wasn’t intentional. School drop-off followed by coffee, that’s the routine. The weather happened to be happening.)

So there I am, lost in my own thoughts, and one of the thoughts was, somewhat recursively,

this is probably afforded by the coffee,

in that, because my hands are full with the coffee, I can’t be doomscrolling on my phone, so instead I’m thinking,

because my hands always have to be holding or fiddling with something, be it a phone or a cup of coffee,

well not just my hands, everyone’s hands, everyone’s hands are always full,

huh (I thought) I wonder what Italians do, seeing as they don’t walk with their coffee but instead stand at a bar and have an espresso before moving on.

And then I thought, oh Italians are always gesturing as they speak, that’s part of the language, that’s why they need a quick coffee before moving on.

Look I didn’t say these thoughts were profound.

Or correct.

The particular track was a dnb remix of Roads by Portishead by HOSH. Go check it out.

Our hands are always full, right?

Smartphone, coffee. Cigarettes before phones. Newspapers before that, always being carried.

Dead time killers, is how I’ve always had these filed away. Something to do so (a) it doesn’t look like you’re loitering and (b) you don’t have to be alone with your thoughts.

But, in the rain holding my coffee, I wonder whether it’s even simpler than that?

We just like to have our hands full, perhaps. We just need to, rather.

Or rather, we need to have our hands full and also we like to fiddle – and ultimately knock things together.

Look, the Pliocene left its mark somehow.

A million years between the earliest stone tools and the beginning of language. Then the Pleistocene.

Over 3 million years of knapping stones, all in all.

Sparse tribes bottlenecking down to one or two individuals and growing again… you don’t want to lose gains every time; evolution bakes hints into the boot sequence.

I remember sitting and watching the baby pick up blocks and knock them together.

Now there’s an instinct. What’s going on? Training the cross-modal neurons for visual and auditory perceptions? Probably some of that, but you could get that benefit from clapping.

No, it’s stone knapping, I’m convinced.

Retriever dogs are happy when they’ve got something in their mouths. Why not humans with their hands?

I mean: fidget devices.

It’s a useful point to put into any industrial design brief. Make sure you can fiddle with it.

It’s one of the reasons I think that Apple AirPods are so popular: the case is like a smooth pebble in your hand, and opening and closing the lid has a satisfying snap and infinite play pushing back and balancing the tension against the magnets.

The fiddle urge is powerful! And always there.

We could probably quantify it, economically. If you add up the value of the app economy based on games that you play just to occupy idle hands, work emails that you wouldn’t reply to till you got to your desk except that you want to be doing something…

…if there was Ozempic-but-for-reducing-stone-knapping-instinct, I wonder how much of that would simply go away?

But there was something lovely this morning, in the rain and in my own thoughts, with a coffee and not my phone.

It’s not as easy, sometimes, to be alone with my thoughts as it is to fiddle with something. I don’t mean because I have difficult-to-tend thoughts – I do sometimes, like everyone I guess, but not typically. I mean there’s a mini boredom threshold to overcome before my own thoughts take flight.

We’re not accustomed in the modern era to being micro-bored, in the same way we’re not used to being micro-hungry. So it’s a gap that is disproportionately wide to step across.

Again, looking at my kid: she hasn’t yet learnt that boredom is intolerable. So she pushes through it, and to the other side, and she’ll quite happily spend a half hour thinking and figuring out new noises to make and practicing going cross-eyed.

If I were to try something revolutionary, I mean truly revolutionary on a generational scale, here’s what it would be:

I would sneak a new fiddle urge fulfiller into the national school curriculum.

I wouldn’t plan on teaching kids how to tolerate boredom as they get older, or how to be more comfortable than previous generations inside their own heads. Those are unstable solutions.

I mean instead I would work to come up with something in the family of pen flipping or polyrhythm finger tapping or rolling a coin over the knuckles. Or I’d invent secular rosary beads or make child-safe whittling knives.

Something like that. Self-contained, not networked. Automatic, with room for skill, dextrous.

And I’d make sure this new skill was taught and drilled before these kids even have much conscious awareness, like right when they start pre-school, so it’s there for them throughout their lives.

A learnt practice that placates idle hands and leaves our thoughts free.

And so the gravity of the instinct to grasp coffee, cigarettes, phones, whatever, would be lessened, maybe not by much, just 5%, 10% something like that, an evolutionary burden 3.4 million years old lifted just a fraction, relieved Atlas may stretch his tired arms, humans may fly further in the interiors of their own minds, and I wonder what new thoughts generation beta could find there.

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