“What’s UP, YouTube!” the man barks jovially into the camera, in a voice that somehow sounds too loud no matter where you set your computer’s volume level. “John PLANT here! And today I’m gonna show you how to make FIRE with nothing more than A STICK and A STRING!”
John’s ebullient and shareably-handsome face is lit by the even flattering glow of a ring light. “This is a GREAT technique to have in your toolkit if you’re LOST in the WOODS, or in any kind of Shit Hits The Fan survival situation!” A quick camera cut punctuates each spoken sentence; the video clips along at a pace fast enough to keep a viewer from getting bored and clicking to another tab. The man is drawing us in, encouraging us to think of him as our guide as we learn how to be just a bit more clever than our peers.
This version of John Plant doesn’t actually exist in our universe.
Instead, we have his incredibly chill doppelganger: an unnamed fella who squats in some dirt, brow furrowed, squinting at a hunk of rock he methodically chips away at until it’s been whittled down to an Olduvai-looking handaxe. He says nothing out loud, but is happy to provide captions that explain what he’s doing in each of his videos, with longer descriptions on his blog; the overarching vibe of his project seems to be not to cause too much of a fuss.
Primitive Technology is a YouTube channel that began in May of 2015 with an eleven-minute-long video in which its creator builds a small hut somewhere in an Australian forest. All the tools he uses are found or built on the premises: first a stone axe, then chopped wood for the hut frame. A friction-started fire leads to a clay pot, which leads to the ability to carry water, which enables the mixing of mud, which becomes the daub between the hut’s wattles. It’s a bit like a version of the Hole In The Bucket song, if everything went just peachy instead of driving Dear Liza up a wall. His only acquiescence to 21st-century technology is the pair of purely-functional-looking shorts he wears to keep us from seeing his genitals.
The soundscape of the videos is the little whacks and cracks of his wood-and-stone labor, the chirping of cicadas and birds, and the trickle of creeks. The lighting is the sun filtered through forest canopy, though we are also occasionally treated to the red glow of a fire. After two years of posting videos from the woods, the creator revealed his legal name to be the almost-too-perfect “John Plant,” but by that point, most of the internet had already settled on the sobriquet of Primitive Technology Guy. The name’s become so universally-agreed-upon that when another YouTuber posted a video called “Behind The Scenes… Primitive Technology Guy” about his off-grid barn, fans of The One True PTG filled the imposter’s comments section with anger and disgust for the titular impersonation of their sweet silent forest lad.
PTG has had surprising success for a channel about a dude quietly dicking around in a forest, amassing 8.6 million subscribers as of September 2018. PTG’s videos, which generally fall between 5 and 10 minutes in length, regularly get viewings in the tens of millions; his most popular, a fourteen-minute-long video about building a tiled roof for his hut, has over 54 million views.
To put this 54-million-human-views into perspective, consider that the earliest known example of a structure with kiln-fired clay roof tiles was built in Lerna, Greece, somewhere around 2400 BCE. By some counts, 54 million was roughly the entire human population of planet earth at the time of the Lerna building’s construction. PTG not only replicated a technology that’s over four millennia old, he’s exceeded Lerna’s fame in its own time.
Financially, PTG’s channel seems to be a success as well; in addition to whatever money he’s getting from YouTube, he has a Patreon that brings in $6400 a month, averaging about $2 per pledger. The money allowed him to buy his own piece of property in North Queensland with a small creek on it—perfect for shooting subsequent videos, although a number of his fans were dismayed that he would have to start all over from scratch.
The Rise of the Forest Lad
To anyone who isn’t immediately captivated by the soothing sounds of snapped twigs and packed mud, Primitive Technology’s success is puzzling: that’s it? Just some dingus making mats out of woven bark? What exactly is the draw here?
For some viewers the point is undoubtedly accrual. PTG begins with nothing, then makes something small and simple. The simple thing allows him to make a more advanced thing, which in turn allows for something even more impressive. In online discussions of PTG, common points of comparison are Minecraft and Civilization-style tech-trees. For these fans, there is the satisfaction of seeing a human doing in a matter of hours what it took our genus a few million years to piece together. The methodical step-by-step acquisition of new technology lights up the same area of the viewer’s brain as a game of Cookie Clicker: Get more, build new Thing, get more, build new Thing, etc, until one has an array of Things one Got that one can stand back and beam about.
For other viewers, the appeal of the videos must be educational: here’s how early humans might have built these foundational technologies. PTG becomes the independent-adult version of the local museum archaeologist who demonstrates to your field trip how to knap a stone arrowhead, and the viewer is the wee sweaty nerd who stands in the front row, desperately hoping he’ll ask for volunteers to give it a try.
PTG does resist this a bit, though, in that he focuses on the work in front of him, rather than surveying other cultures’ histories. He follows a patchwork of inspirations: Papuan adzes, Roman roof tiles, Australian preparation of Moreton Bay Chestnuts as a food-source. No particular stone-age culture is privileged, so that although his channel might feel like a half-remembered dream of pan-human history, it’s its own little thing. He’s not doing Jōmon Culture or Mousterian Culture or Acheulian Culture; he’s doing Primitive Technology Guy Culture.
The other major blow to the idea of the channel as purely educational, of course, is that he’s all by himself. One of humanity’s greatest skills has always been our ability to work together peacefully, creating more in concert with other laborers than we could have individually, and—at humanity’s best—sharing the wealth that results. The solo nature of the videos is quite possibly Primitive Technology’s appeal for another set of viewers: survivalists, excited by the prospect of SHTF scenarios—Shit Hits The Fan, in survivalist parlance—the moment when society collapses so spectacularly that one is finally able to shrug off the basics of civilizational cooperation, like unbuckling one’s belt on the couch after a huge holiday dinner.
Countless YouTube channels specifically serve the lunatic survivalist fanbase, some instructing their watchers in survival through premodern ingenuity, some instructing the viewer on which remnants to glean from whatever apocalypse just happened (Liberal Government, plague, reverse-vampires, etc). But Primitive Technology resists this interpretation also; in any post-apocalyptic scenario, it’s hard to foresee a situation where it would be easier to weave a bark mat than to find some cast-off cloth from the Pre-Eschaton Times, back before the moment that I, the Last Survivor, ruggedly clenched my stubbly jaw and made my way bravely and heroically through the wastes.
So the acquisitional, the educational, and the survivalist lenses all feel not-quite-right for getting at what Primitive Technology does best. Perhaps the most accurate way to talk about its appeal is to approach the channel as religion.
Work as Prayer
We’ve created a number of frightening new deities in the 21st Century, but the YouTube Algorithm is by far one of the most horrifying in its effects on its followers. The Algorithm sends YouTubers chasing views with only a few guidelines discernible through its frequently-opaque user interface. They trade esoteric knowledge among themselves, they look at what’s worked to please the Algorithm before, they try to please it again and gather its boons. A creature like that can easily drive its devotees to madness, twisting their bodies and warping their souls, as it demands its punishingly-constant sacrifices of new content.
Primitive Technology’s pace represents another way for creators to live. PTG takes his time. He crafts the videos with the same careful attention to each piece that he uses when creating his artifacts. Every video is beautifully edited, leaving just enough footage of each action for the viewer to understand what’s PTG is doing at each moment. The video releases are parceled out slowly, coming out roughly once a month but without any strictly-adhered-to schedule. Such a pace is suboptimal for the Algorithm, and a number of lookalike channels have stepped in to fill the niche: Primitive Technology Idea, Primitive Skills, Primitive Survival Tool, and so on. Most mimic PTG’s predilection for shirtless silence, few are quite as enjoyable to watch, but nearly all of them have a more frequent release schedule.
PTG steps back from the YouTube star system as well, offering no endearing welcomes, no shouts to like and subscribe, no “while you’re here, check out my SoundCloud”s. He keeps his body in each shot to the degree that it helps us understand what he’s doing, but is more than happy to focus only on his hands as they flake stone or tie vines into knots. The twin gods of Fame and Algorithm seem to have little purchase here.
In the Shaker approach to the divine, work itself was understood as an act of prayer. Their handcrafted objects were created to be as simple and functionally perfect as possible, and so the process of creating an object is a holy one, requiring single-minded attention on the task at hand. The creator themself disappears in communion with the process. Personal glory is tossed aside as gently as a shirt in the Australian forest.
This is the religious impulse one can see in Primitive Technology: a steady, silent, humble, monastic concentration. There is no endpoint to the work, and if—as was the case when PTG bought his new land to build on—the old works are abandoned to begin all over again, there’s nothing to mourn when they disappear. The mandala washes away, and the labor itself—the mindful thinking, the repeated attempts at improvement, the idea becoming a small carefully-built solid—is the focus.
In our universe, we don’t have a John Plant who wants us to know who John Plant is. In ours, we’re lucky enough to instead have Primitive Technology Guy: an odd and quiet little fellow; a shirtless backwoods weirdo who demonstrates the sacred space of creation itself.