Usage Drift

The development of the humble toothpick and the development of the dog share an amazing amount of symmetry. You might find the prototype of the cocktail stick in the reeds chimps use to pull grubs out of logs, or in the first twig our caveman ancestors used to cook a scrap of meat in the fire.

We know that ancient man was picking his teeth with small sticks at the exact same time he began to domesticate the wolf.

The modern toothpick began as a utilitarian tool used by the native Brazilians to clean their teeth. The idea to mass produce these twigs–which had theretofore been whittled by hand–came to a marketing genius named Charles Foster who witnessed their utility and decided he could “sell ice to the Eskimos” by bringing machined and standardized toothpicks to the Brazilians and the world. Today, Brazil exports more toothpicks than any other nation.

While there’s no evidence that chimps cultivated wolves as animal companions, the bond between humans and canids does extend back to our very origins. It is likely that after proto-man held that scrap of meat in the fire with a proto-toothpick, he threw the scraps to his proto-dog. And like the toothpick, dogs were crudely hewn objects of utility before they were standardized by the whims of fashion.

Though readily promoted by manufacturers, usage drift is more often created by consumers of a product. People are natural inventors, and they are constantly finding new uses for common objects of all kinds. The best ideas propagate quickly through the culture and then become embraced by manufacturers as their own. Before there were Q-tips, young mothers wrapped a bit of cotton around the point of a toothpick and used it to clean out baby’s ears and nose. This practice came to be recommended by ladies’ magazines and advice columnists, and led to the invention of the Q-tip itself.

At first, the hard wooden stick terminating in soft cotton swabs suggested the toothpick connection, but today’s Q-tip disguises its origins with a white paper body that blends almost seamlessly into the swab ends. The latest supply of Q-tips bought for our bathroom goes even further in removing the product from its ancestry and infancy. Except perhaps for the ironic admonition to “Keep out of reach of children,” there is no hint on the package that these were once made exclusively for babies. On this “vanity pack,” Q-tips are described as “the ultimate beauty tool.”

Thus, products that result from usage drift over time can ultimately assume an identity that gives little hint of their true origins and once-primary use. The mass-produced wooden toothpick that Charles Forster introduced to Boston in the 1860s has given rise to countless fads, uses, and spinoff products, all of which ultimately owe their existence to his marketing genius, whether we realize it or not.

The process where a technology evolves from the early adopters into the majority often involves friction between the elite early adopters who covet their history with the technology and the exclusivity they have enjoyed. This is evident in the Border Collie world where those who use the dogs strictly for “work” claim to be the inheritors of the storied old ways and the comparatively new adopters who don’t herd or who see herding as a sport rather than a religion are blasphemous corrupters.

I see the broadening appeal of the Border Collie as another example of usage drift. Just like the toothpick, the Border Collie is a technology that has been shaped by growing popularity and changes in fashion. And just like the Border Collie, there is no “ideal” toothpick, despite the brand name that suggests otherwise.

Despite being a rather simple piece of technology, the toothpick comes in many forms and serves several uses. The tapered tooth pick, single pointed or double, barrel shaped for easy dispensing, or the broad flat Jordan for easy manipulation. Smooth, rough, or wax coated; dyed, painted or lacquered; mint flavored. Wooden, bone, plastic, metal, or bamboo; wrapped in paper, cellophane, or naked. Adorned with dental floss or even frilly plastic pompoms.

We use them to clean our teeth, to sample hors d’oeuvres politely, to adorn our drinks with olives or umbrellas, to test the moisture in the middle of cooking cakes, and to construct bridges for science experiements.

Just as there is no singular, ideal use for a toothpick, I don’t believe there is a singular perfect use for the Border Collie. Not even herding and especially not sheep trials. If society has progressed just fine calling the many varieties of small sticks, singularly and collectively the same name, I don’t see any reason to rename the Border Collie. Nor do I see a compelling reason to limit the diversity of the breed by forcing a genetic split by closing the registries or limiting participation to a select group based upon politics.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.