“Play is an occasion of pure waste… As for the professionals…it is clear that they are not players but workers. When they play, it is at some other game”
—Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (1961)
We open in a rainforest, shortly after sunrise or a little before dusk. Birds and bugs and breeze hum a chorus. A man wearing cargo shorts is driving a stone hatchet from an earlier video into a thin tree trunk. He is shirtless and barefoot. He is a YouTube star.
This man’s channel, Primitive Technology, has over three million subscribers and two hundred million-plus page views. His 28 videos show him using only natural, found materials and his body to create extremely intricate and functional shelter, weaponry, machines and tools from scratch. He never speaks, and he is always busy: in the first 15 seconds of ‘Bow and Arrow’, he goes at the tree with the handmade axe from several angles, then works the branch back and forth like a lever until it is loosed.
Jump cuts happen every few seconds in Primitive Technology because each video compresses dozens, sometimes hundreds of hours of work. The most popular and widely appropriated post, ‘Tiled Roof Hut’, shows the build of a clayed mud structure complete with a clay-tiled roof and from-scratch resin lamp. The video, which has over 31 million views, abridges 102 days of arduous labor undoubtedly containing countless stops, starts, attempts, re-tries and Google searches, into just 14 minutes and eight seconds of pure productivity.
PT has sort of a doleful look. We see it in ‘Bow and Arrow’ when he angles the branch toward the camera to show that after who knows how long stripping it with a sharp implement, the wood is now straight. His weathered face stays in focus as the end of the bough blurs; he seems serious and distant. You could take him for sad, or at least dispassionate. But besides a few scattered details—the camera he uses (Nikon D3200), the area of Australia where he lives and the fact that he used to mow lawns “freelance”—PT keeps his off-screen life private. We are left only with the sense that here, in the Far North Queensland of our minds, a remote, tropical tip of the internet where just one pair of cargo shorts survives, we may have arrived at the end of the world.
Q. What stops the rain from washing the mud off the hut wallsA. The roof.
Q. What dangerous animals are there?A. Only venomous snakes and I need to watch where I step.
—FAQ, Primitive Technology blog
About a year and a half ago, PT joined Patreon, an online funding platform that describes its mission as: “Oh, nothing short of helping every creator in the world achieve sustainable income.” To date, PT has amassed over $5000 in donations from 2,693 users for each new video he creates. “I still do one mowing job because my last customer can’t find a new mowing contractor so I’m waiting for him to get a new one,” he wrote on his blog in 2016. “But apart from that I quit mowing lawns and this hobby is my job now.”
The underlying principle of Patreon is that donors invest in something—and someone—they believe in. Use value seems to factor only marginally. In PT’s case, his physical creations are as innately redundant as they are innately useful and, although he gives detailed descriptions of his process for each project on his blog, the level of knowledge and skill required to complete every step make it effectively impossible for viewers to treat the videos as instructional.
PT’s patrons often leave comments. Unlike the mixed bag on YouTube, they tend to take on the benevolent, gently exhortative tone of parents who have just lent float money for a lemonade stand. “Really look forward to relaxing with just nature sounds and those great demonstrations”, one user writes. And: “Would love to see you make a clay flute or whistle”; “Our human ancestors would be proud!”
The assumption is that we will all be ancestors. The hope is that we would all be proud. Having split and peeled the wood, our protagonist runs a sharpened stone along the tip of the bow to form a taper. His body curves neatly around action like spacetime warped by mass: one hand grips, one hand works the tool, two feet steady the branch. The birds are still singing. The camera jumps and— if a camera could seem pleased—we see “finished stave” whittled to its pale inner, hovering on the ground like a poised snake.
Gazing at a canopy, the camera pans the length of “unknown tree with fibrous bark.” PT appears at the base to chop and peel the tree in fitfully edited fragments; he spools the bark around his hand and carries it, bundled, to somewhere off-screen. Later, he will weave the coarse fibers to make surprisingly durable twine for the string of the bow. We hit close up on a delicate green sprout at the base of the hacked-off trunk. “This type of tree is resilient,” the closed captions tell us, “and grows back quickly.”
In ‘On Being Subject to Objects’, an unpublished essay meant for Artforum and likely written in the late 1980s, Vilém Flusser speculated that the continued advancement of automation would be accompanied by the abandonment of the values that led to its development. Just as the onset of technology in prehistory delivered us from what Flusser calls “the abyss”, he warned that the coming arrival of “everything we’ve ever wanted” without “some as yet unthinkable method to [choose] values” will return us once again to the edge.
Which is not the same as the quixotic idea favored by Hollywood directors and Silicon Valley preppers that the end will look a lot like the beginning—but perhaps that’s old news. The drama of survival is very complex and very simple. Put another way, PT’s superior ability with what he calls “primitive” strategies has become indivisible from his other, hyper-contemporary success. This is one of many contradictions posed by Primitive Technology that both nags—why is he doing this? why are we watching?—and soothes—he is doing this. We are watching. As it turns out, the contradiction of anxiety inlayed with its own abatement turns our viewing forensic: process starts to read as proof.
“An infinite expanse of isolated individuals unaware of each other’s presence, and an infinite number of white golf balls.”
—Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work (2009)
We want to know that we will survive. But more than that—perhaps because it is easier to imagine a “primitive” future than one with a meaningfully evolved economic system—we want to know where value will come from. Already, we understand that life is labor for some and lifestyle a living for others. But in attempting to imagine a time and place beyond what we can imagine, we are compelled, even convinced, by the promise that the exhaustive labor of living can become a product, too.
Live from this so-dreamt moment, PT lightly grazes the edge of a feather with a hot coal. The feather has been firmly stuck to the stick with resin and reinforced with bark fiber—a technique that closed captions assure us will make the arrow fly straight. After assembling an elegant quiver from bark in less than ten seconds, PT draws his loaded bow. He aims, shoots and strikes. Again he draws; again he shoots and strikes. This continues until all six arrows have been fired. To date, over 22 million people have seen him hit his target: a small tree stump, distant yet evidently reachable.