Primitive Technology and the evolution of information sharing
I’ve been spending a lot of time watching primitive technology videos. If you’re unfamiliar, these are videos of people using “primitive” techniques to build shelter, tools, and other items out of raw materials like rocks, sticks, water, and dirt. I find them both soothing and amazing: A man walks into the forest with nothing but their own hands, and in just a few minutes he has a working furnace, a well and water filter, or an underground house complete with swimming pool. That’s a few minutes video time, of course — the actual projects can take days, weeks, or even months to film.
There is something very soothing, on a primal level perhaps, about watching a human carve existence from the wilderness. Maybe it’s an escape from more modern stresses, a reminder of a time when human needs were basic: Fire, water, food, and shelter — and, I suppose, not becoming food yourself. More than once I’ve drifted off to sleep to the sound of forest birds singing as a shirtless man stacks firewood or digs in the dirt with a sharpened stick.
The creator of the genre, at least according to fans, is an Australian man named John Plant, who created his channel, Primitive Technology, in 2015. Watching Plant’s videos is like watching the evolution of human technology: He starts out making simple spears, axes, and bow-and-arrow sets from sticks, stones, and woven plant fibers, makes mud bricks, then fired clay bricks, then slaked lime concrete with quicklime from stones and snail shells. Eventually he builds forges and kilns, with which he smelts iron from river bacteria, and mills flour from wild arrowroot.
In four years making his videos, John Plant has never spoken a word. In fact, for the first two years no one even knew his name. His videos are free of music; the only sounds are those of the forest, like birds singing and water rushing, and the sounds of his work. Some of his videos include closed captions that explain each step in his process, and Plant has addressed his fans more frequently in text, to address issues like Facebook theft of his content, and the growing horde of imitators cutting into his revenue.
Because Primitive Technology is lucrative. With 9.5 million subscribers, SocialBlade estimates Plant is earning as much as $40 thousand a month from his channel. When he raised the problem of people uploading his content to Facebook, Plant himself said the practice was costing him thousands of dollars. So of course he’s spawned imitators, with names like “Primitive Life,” “Survival Skills Primitive,” and “Primitive Tool.” Many of these are just as good as the original, and all follow a strict format: One or more unspeaking men in a deep forest, building increasingly elaborate dwellings, tools, and weapons with only their hands, raw materials, and often ingredients they’ve previously demonstrated — and every video takes time to show the viewer every painstaking detail in the process of creation.
These videos got me thinking about the evolution of human communication. Many of these practices are nearly as old as civilization: Mud bricks were first used around 9,000 years ago, while fired bricks emerged three thousand years later. The earliest known use of quicklime, as cement in Turkish foundations, dates to 14,000 years ago. We are using our newest technology to share some of our oldest information, and based on subscription numbers people (like me) are fascinated.
Fourteen millennia ago, humans would have demonstrated these techniques to one another in person; much later they might have written them down, or passed them along in songs or stories; now, in the Internet age, one human can teach the entire world via YouTube — and two young men in Vietnam can, presumably, make a pretty decent living by digging with sticks in the dirt.
My love of primitive technology made me wonder what else I could learn on YouTube. I discovered Joe Robinet, who built a following of more than one million subscribers by teaching viewers “bushcraft” camping techniques in the Canadian wilderness. Joe’s videos trend long — regularly topping two hours — and for much of them, not much happens. You might spend ten minutes watching Joe struggle to fell a downed tree, or find the right approach to cook his steak. With his chipper optimism and occasionally strange sense of humor, though, his videos feel like you’ve joined a friend for a camping trip.
The Crazy Framer has put together a lengthy series of videos teaching viewers how to frame and build a house. How to Plumbing has uploaded more than 500 videos on home plumbing installation and repair. GrowOrganic Peaceful Valley focuses on gardening, including the planting and care of fruit trees and a series titled “beekeeping for beginners.” And another of my personal favorites, Townsends (a provider of period clothing and tools for historical reenactors) has produced a series of how-to videos around Colonial-Era life.
It all got me thinking about the Matrix, in which characters learn skills almost instantly by having them uploaded into their minds. While it isn’t quite that fast or easy, humans today essentially live in that reality. Internet use has reached nearly 100% of the populace in nations with advanced economies, and the majority of people in developing economies, and anyone with access to the Internet — outside of repressive regimes that limit access — has access to to the sum totality of human knowledge. More information than has ever existed in all the libraries across all of human history, easily indexed and searchable, and 81% of Americans carry it in their pocket.
Last year, an American tourist in Turkey gave birth alone in her hotel room, following instructions she found on YouTube and WikiHow. The biggest difficulty she encountered was leaving the country with an infant she hadn’t brought in. While I wouldn’t recommend this — a woman in India recently died, as did her baby, when she attempted to do the same — the information is better than nothing for a person who finds themselves in need of help. For less life-and-death skills, like speaking another language or learning to code, the resources are abundant and comprehensive. And if, like Neo, you’d like to learn kung-fu, there are literally dozens of channels ready to teach you.
Even in researching this brief article, I was excited to learn that classic instructional movies on “off-grid living” by Navy veteran Dick Proenneke, first made in the 1960s, have recently been added to YouTube. Those will be next on my viewing list. I continue to recommend — and contribute to — Crash Course, a thriving YouTube experiment founded by author/entrepreneurs John and Hank Green that offers classes on a myriad of topics like business skills, human sexuality, computer science, and European history.
We may not literally live in the Matrix, but in a lot of ways we’re pretty close to it — and you never know when those skills you learned from Primitive Technology might become significantly less entertaining, and significantly more vital.