During college, I used to occupy a corner room in our house which was ostensibly my workshop & lab. I used to build things there, mostly electronics, sometimes run experiments etc. I liked this place much more than the workshops in our college. It was my fun little corner where I spent a considerable amount of time in four years – my college years. It was a place where I could spend countless hours without worrying about the janitor poking me to get out of campus; But more importantly, I knew where & what everything was. I knew my tools inside out. It was full of broken salvage, spare parts and boxes of stuff that I don't have any words for.
Few years after I moved out of our house, I visited my parents. When I went into the room, I realised the stuff that I don't have any words were just very non-standard makeshift tools that I created for myself throughout my tinkering years. Drilling a sub-millimetre hole in a metal plate by hand is hard, so I had a plastic drill guide, that I had crafted for myself. It was a simple plexiglass piece with holes of various diameters in it. I had a few splayed open computer components to serve as my bench power needs; computers on the inside (and outside) are fairly stable and predictable. I had little sawed of clothes pegs to be my third and fourth hands when I needed to hold doodahs together. There were little wedges of metal plates, just to be used as something to pry open hard plastic cases with. These trinkets, was borderline alien, even for the not-so-future me. But by this time I already had the resources to gather right tool for the job; What hadn't occurred to me was that there's seldom a right tool for the job. Or rather, if there is a right tool for the job, the job is too simple.
This is by no means a jab at craftspeople for swearing by their tools. But I keep seeing a trend in a variety of disciplines where people skew the reality their tools experience, to performs things the objects were never designed for. Adventure photographers are notorious for breaking their equipment, and why wouldn't they if they have to trudge hundreds of kilometres through a humid rainforest. Mountaineers and polar explorers routinely push the limits of their gear. Most human-made trinkets, from watches to stoves just aren't designed to work in those extremes; Even on early 20th century polar expeditions, most mission-critical equipment had to be custom made. The friction between reality and our tools becomes too apparent every time we want to do anything off the trodden paths.
In 2018, two mountaineers, the Bargiel brothers played a key part in rescuing a legendary alpinist from Broad Peak in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan. Rick Allen, who was in distress, hanging from a side of the mountain by his ice axe, was located accurately by mountaineer Bartek Bargiel with a consumer-grade drone. The drone was never meant to fly that high, neither was it designed to fly so far from its operator. But adept in technology, Bartek hacked the flight control software of the drone and made it fly further and higher, during the rescue operation. At that moment, Bartek's drone transcended its original purpose.
And it's not only physical objects, sometimes even our intellectual tools wrestles at their limits. Software developers are infamous for being on a constant lookout for the next best thing; They need to humanely deal with the constant influx of complexity in their world. Mathematicians spend years racking their brains to develop ways to deal with mathematical constructs and anomalies. Productivity gurus try to find their unique flavours of getting things one. Steve Jobs once quipped about human ingenuity — tool building. And I wholeheartedly stand by his statement. Building, or modifying tools for our purposes is one of the prime phenomenons of the human condition.
I find this a very useful metric; When anything I use or do transcends its original intention, I know I am doing something right. We all accumulate tools, intellectual or otherwise throughout our lives to deal with the world around us. But I think the best of these are not the ones that just work, but the ones that breach the boundaries of their purpose.
Steve Jobs Bicycle Analogy (1980)
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