Artifactology is a massively-multi-disciplinary (MMD) study that examines the natural history of artifacts, their biographies, life-cycles, distribution, meaning, value and behavior (their relationships with each other and with the humans that create or use them).
There are many existing disciplines that study subsets of artifacts (e.g. Architecture, Product Design), but Artifactology endeavours to examine how all artifacts are created or foraged, consumed and digested, by the organism of humankind as a whole, a temporary infection on the planet Earth. As such it could be considered a sub-field of Anthropology and an extension of Material Culture Studies.
- 1 What is an artifact?
- 2 Artifact Origins
- 3 Property
- 4 Currency
- 5 Artifact Value
- 6 Product Runs
- 7 Modes of Exchange
- 8 Artifact Life-cycles
- 9 Longevity
- 10 Artifact Composition
- 11 Artifact Behavior
- 12 Artifact Biographies
- 13 Artifact Meanings
- 14 Existing Fields of Study relevant to Artifactology
- 15 Artifacts Timeline
- 16 Videos
What is an artifact?
A major challenge in the study of artifacts is the fact that most of the time we are not aware of their presence. Artifacts form the ambience of reality. We are in them (e.g. buildings), they are on us (e.g. clothing), they are in us (e.g. food) and in order to function, we as humans have to prioritise our attention and filter out the details of mundane normality. We take most artifacts for granted and only notice them in their absence.
There are many definitions of the word artifact in current usage, but for the purpose of this study:
An artifact is any object ("object" in the modern philosophical sense of a thing, being or concept) that is invented (i.e. technology/products) or discovered (i.e. foraged from natural resources) by humans (i.e. mankind).
Humans themselves can be considered artifacts, if they are used as a product or traded as a commodity by other humans (e.g. in the form of labour).
Artifacts can be material (i.e. existing in physical form) or non-material (i.e. existing in virtual form).
Artifacts can be living (i.e. living organisms) or non-living (i.e. objects that are dead or were never alive).
All artifacts have value, their use value or non-use value, that fluctuates throughout their lifecycles. Made artifacts also have labour-value that is factored into the calculation of their market price.
N.B. Although there are other species that devise and use technology (e.g. primates, dolphins, birds), this study excludes artifacts made or foraged by organisms other than humans (e.g. hives, nests, tools) since otherwise everything in the food chain would have to be considered an artifact.
All artifacts are either made or foraged.
Foraged artifacts are naturally occurring and self-generating so do not involve any conscious human design process (although their generation may be affected by interaction with by-products of human-made artifacts e.g. pollution).
The primary types of foraged artifacts are:
Naturally occurring shelter (rock overhangs, trees and caves),
N.B. many forms of energy are natural resources, but typically they are not considered artifacts because they cannot be harnessed without the use of some other type of made artifact. An exception to this is human or non-human animal labour.
Foraged artifacts become the property of the individual or group that participates in the process of gathering through the process of claim. They may be consumed or kept by this individual/group or ownership may be transferred by one of the standard modes of exchange (barter, market, gift, award, theft)
While foraged artifacts were of greatest relevance to early societies (e.g. cave dwellers), all groups are still in use today.
There are three main categories of production.
1/. Domestic production: all things home made, including things made from found artifacts (e.g. huts). Domestically produced artifacts may be consumed directly by the producer (e.g. home made clothes), or enter the market system (e.g. from sole artisan cottage industries).
2/. Market production: all commercial artifacts produced from a location other than the home, ranging from one person workshops to mega consumer goods conglomerates.
3/. Public production: artifacts produced by public bodies such as governments, kingdoms etc. where consumers pay for products indirectly (e.g. through taxes).
The boundaries between these categories are permeable since both Market and Public producers may purchase artifacts, or components of artifacts, they use from domestic producers, or from each other.
The primary organizing factor in the lives of artifacts is the concept of “ownership”. Artifacts may be owned by individuals, groupings of individuals (couples, cooperatives etc.) or larger bodies such as states, countries and continents.
In the course of our lives we accrete complex and ever changing configurations of artifacts around ourselves through a process of choice mediated by circumstance or necessity. This collection of possessions, or "inventory", is a physical manifestation of our psychological makeup that reflects our life experiences and the history of our various interpersonal relationships.
Generally non-nomadic humans establish a home base within permanent, immoveable structures in which are stored possessions that can’t be carried at all times. Whenever the human leaves home they have to decide which items of their inventory to take with them. This sub-inventory is a complex system of signifiers used to project information about ourselves and our position within society as we venture away from the home into the outside world.
Most humans spend a great deal of effort crafting their home, inventory and sub-inventories because our physical makeup is not arrived at by choice and can only be modified to a certain extent whereas we have a far greater degree of control in shaping our collection of possessions.
One of the primary factors in the composition of the inventory is cathectation. People use their inventories as plumage to attract new romantic/sexual partners, or cement bonds with existing partners. Resulting human bonding processes result in a complex merging of inventories by which a couple (or group) generate a new, collective inventory. The shared use of the collective inventory is one of the mechanisms by which emotional bonds are cemented. Marriage has been in the past (an in some places still is) a mechanism based on strategic combination of assets rather than any modern notion of romantic "love".
In addition to serving as an aid to the human cathecting process, artifacts can also be the subject of cathectation themselves. Commerce is a process of marketplace survival and most commercially produced artifacts rely on “attractiveness” in order to compete in a harsh environment.
There is also a very real sense in which humans form bonds of love with the non-sentient objects within their inventory. The strength of this bond obviously varies from object to object and the length of any artifact’s residence within the inventory. Children frequently form strong emotional bonds with artifacts such as comfort blankets or cuddly toys. Adults may form strong emotional bonds with artifacts of sentimental or ceremonial value, such as wedding rings or medals.
In the complex and unstable environment of human relationships in the 21st century many humans find refuge and comfort in the company of artifacts (particularly pet, consumable, entertainment or hobby artifacts) and, while controversial, there is a school of thought arguing that some artifacts may reciprocate the bond their owners feel towards them. Anecdotally many people feel that their cars, computers or phones behave differently in the hands of other users.
Engineered bonds between artifacts and their owners might also be strengthened by anti-theft mechanisms that allow artifacts to recognize their home and “parent”. Unregulated removal from the inventory will result in the activation of alarm mechanisms.
[N.B. for the purposes of this study, corporate property is considered private property]
The 100 Things Challenge
Modes of Exchange
Modes of exchange describes the routes by which artifacts transfer ownership.
The primary modes of exchange are:
1/. found (having been lost or abandoned by another owner, a reclaimed artifact)
Artifacts may become temporarily ownerless if they are lost or abandoned and thereafter neither taken into the possession of another owner, nor put into the disposal system. The commodity pathway diversion theory suggests that no artifact is ever truly ownerless, but may just be going through a period of ownerlessness during its life-cycle, but there are a few exceptions, for example, domesticated animals may turn feral and return to the wild.
The vast majority of artifacts follow the same route through humankind's collective digestive system. Typically artifacts that are made will go through the phases of Invention, Development, Production, Distribution, Consumption, Destruction/Reconstruction and Disposal. Sometimes these seven phases will involve only a single person (e.g. someone who makes their own clothes) but in modern society it is more typical to have millions of people involved in the life-cycles of even quite mundane objects. Artifacts that are foraged, being self generating, only join this route at the Distribution stage.
Idea or concept. At this point the artifact exists only in the mind of the creator and that of anyone who has been told about it. Non-material artifacts may be traded, but from a legal point of view have only potential, rather than actual, value. Thus it is not possible to copyright an idea, only an instantiation of an idea.
Plan (typically in written or drawn form, although if this is digital it may not take a corporeal form until printed out). At this stage, legal ownership of the artifact rests with the commissioner of the plan (who may not be the originator of the idea).
Since many artifacts are expensive to create in material form, artifact ownership frequently changes during the transition from idea to actuality. The concept originator may sell the idea, in whole or part, to a producer with the financial wherewithal to create the physical product.
With personal artifacts (i.e. items created without the intention of sale), the prototype and the finished product are usually one and the same. But commercially produced artifacts will typically go through several iterations of prototypes before a product is ready for sale or distribution.
Artifacts vary in production runs from single objects (e.g. artworks) to mass produced consumer goods and the size of the run affects each artifact's route to market. Small run artifacts will typically be handled by speciality dealers, or sold at auction. Mass produced artifacts will follow a route from factory to wholesaler to retailer.
Artifact Distribution studies the process by which artifacts travel from their place of origin to their primary residence.
Artifacts become property when they enter the possession of an individual or group. Artifacts may become possessions through the standard modes of exchange.
Destruction and (optional) Reconstruction
While the life-cycles of many artifacts conclude with a "natural" death, others are deliberately destroyed, for a wide variety of reasons. While most destroyed or damaged artifacts transition to the Disposal stage of their life-cycles, some, considered to be of significant value, may be reconstructed, or simply kept in their damaged state.
Artifacts are disposed of when they are no longer needed or wanted by an owner. In the case of living artifacts this may be when they die or rot (although some are purposefully preserved for posterity thereby changing their artifact form, e.g. when animals are stuffed and mounted). Unwanted artifacts may become derelict (e.g. abandoned buildings), be recycled, or enter a waste disposal system.
It is difficult to predict the exact time or circumstances of an artifact's death. Living artifacts may be deliberately or accidentally preserved (e.g. in peat or amber) and later found. Discarded non-living artifacts (even those with significant damage and loss of utility) may be repurposed (e.g. in art works). Even total deliberate destruction does not necessarily signify the death of an artifact, for example, many people keep the cremated remains of family members or pets as souvenirs. Nevertheless, eventually every artifact will be recycled, destroyed or meet their demise by the process of decay.
Many artifacts are purposefully designed with an intended life-span or number of uses, although there is no way to predict how any artifact will be used in actuality. Major longevity classes are:
Some (usually non-material) artifacts are contrived to last indefinitely (e.g. religions), although whether they do is another matter.
Artifact Behaviour includes many of the issues examined in Arjun Appadurai's The Social Life of Things, but also considers the emerging socialisation of objects through The Internet of Things and the coming literal socialisation of artificially intelligent sentient beings. It might also be considered an extension of Synecology to include abiological entities.
The life stories of artifacts are less predictable than those of humans or other organisms because of the difference between their intended and actual uses. Most artifacts are designed with a specific use in mind and an estimated longevity, but those expectations may be disrupted by whimsical human usage. Furthermore, most artifacts do not (yet) have free will. Nevertheless certain patterns of artifact behaviour can be predicted based on parameters such as their size, durability and weight. Wearables such as wedding rings may travel far and wide with their owners, but the lives of Sessiles such as temples may be less eventful in terms of geographic relocation, but more eventful in terms of what happens within them or to them.
Existing Fields of Study relevant to Artifactology
Artifactology is a subject that touches upon components of almost every field of study yet imagined, so there is little point in itemising them or noting its relationship to such open ended discourses as Anthropology, Archaeology, Technology or Economics. Nevertheless, there are a number of more contained academic disciplines that are of particular relevance to Artifactology, some ancient, some quite new and some not yet thoroughly explored.