Ode to Chopsticks as TUI

Activity theory seeks to understand the unity of consciousness and activity. It is a social theory of human consciousness, construing conscious as the product of an individual’s interactions with people and artifacts in the context of everyday practical activity. (pg 8)

As one of the simplest forms of existing tools (straight lines in the form of sticks) chopsticks stand proof of the imagination of the user to make use of “technology,” whose linguistic origin stems from Greek “techne” – meaning “art, skill, cunning of hand.” They have a physicality to them that extends the most basic existing tool of us — our hands.

Admittedly, chopsticks are not the most intuitive interface to learn. I have been using them for as far back as I can retain memories — but I have watched those for whom chopsticks are not an integral fabric of their culture struggle with them initially. However, once integrated to the contours of the hand, they become a seamless extension, empowering me, stretching the limits of what I would have been able to accomplish on my own. They can be incredibly precise (picking fishbones from my rice); reach further than the tips of my fingers (spearing the last bun on the other side of the table before it gets snatched up in the time it takes for the rotating tray to get to me); pick up things that are otherwise too hot or too cold for my skin to handle (liberating carbonized sugar clumps from the toaster). Not to be left behind in the picking-up department, they can also be used for severing, i.e. noodles (although that’s kind of an advanced user technique).

I use them so habitually that I use them without thinking. I find myself sometimes picking up things that are not food with my chopsticks just because it is more convenient to do so. Rather than having to put the chopsticks down, use my hands to pick them up, move it to wherever I needed it, and then picking up my chopsticks again for my food it was just so much more efficient to simply use them. (Of course, I get yelled at by my mother, but that’s a whole another ballpark having to do with social etiquette and conditioning.) However, the interesting thing about this familiarity with the usage of chopsticks is that the knowledge of this interface becomes a system that can be applied to solving situations beyond food picking. I have found myself at parks where I had accidentally tossed an important receipt in the public trash basket too deep for my hands to reach. Also needing to be taken into account are sanitation precautions (you never know what else is discarded in a park) and a certain degree of pungent aroma. I found two broken tree branches of needed length, applied the chopsticks interface to them and managed to neatly retrieve said receipt. 

Beyond their usefulness as purely utilitarian objects, they also serve a certain social function. For Chinese eating functions, it’s a mark of politeness to place portions in other people’s plate from the communal dish. (This being a custom that could potentially ruffle some cross-cultural feathers, proceed with caution.) In any case, when done properly and everyone understands the custom, the chopsticks take on the role as vessel of social interaction showing that you are aware of and care for the well-being of your guests and fellow diners. In some Chinese regions, chopsticks carry a funereal purpose in the transport of cremated remains of an individual to final resting vessel by relatives.

Despite its humble appearance and form, the chopsticks are truly an example of a tool and interface that is integrated into a user’s daily life, as well as serving functions of social and spiritual nature.

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