The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Jennifer § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 15:53:34
A few notes on daily blogging § Stock and flow / 2017-11-20 19:52:47
El Stock y Flujo de nuestro negocio. – redmasiva § Stock and flow / 2017-03-27 17:35:13
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17
Does Your Digital Business Support a Lifestyle You Love? § Stock and flow / 2017-02-09 18:15:22
Daniel § Stock and flow / 2017-02-06 23:47:51
Kanye West, media cyborg – MacDara Conroy § Kanye West, media cyborg / 2017-01-18 10:53:08
Inventing a game – MacDara Conroy § Inventing a game / 2017-01-18 10:52:33
Losing my religion | Mathew Lowry § Stock and flow / 2016-07-11 08:26:59
Facebook is wrong, text is deathless – Sitegreek !nfotech § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2016-06-20 16:42:52

Bless the toolmakers

CC-licensed photo from bre pettis.

Bless the toolmakers… but I’m worried that everybody wants to be one.

You look at the celebration of Steve Jobs and his Apple Inc., and you see a celebration of tools. “One of the things that separates us from high primates,” Jobs said long ago, “is that we’re tool builders.” In the next breath he made his great analogy: a computer is “a bicycle for our minds.” Classic, and true.

Today, you look at a sampling of startups and you see two things:

  1. A whole lot of incredibly smart young men who want to be the next Steve Jobs, and
  2. a whole lot of tools.

This is the reigning model for startups: make a tool and scale it up. The tool’s potential users can be rich (e.g. Salesforce) or they can be numerous (e.g. YouTube) or they can be rich and numerous (e.g. the iPhone) but any way you go, you are always a step removed from the object of attention. You are not the deal, you are not the Lil’ Wayne video, you are not the flirty text message. You are the facilitator, you are the mediator, you are the vessel.

CC-licensed photo from whiteforge.

What’s the relationship between a toolmaker and a tool user? I wonder about this a lot. I mean, when I read about Steve Jobs’ illness, I think of him with care and gratitude, and I echo Dan Sinker:

Steve Jobs had a hand in every tool that made me who I am. Forever indebted and in awe.

But… I don’t think about Steve Jobs when I’m using my MacBook. I don’t think about Thomas Knoll when I’m using Photoshop. I don’t think about the sublime inventor of the kitchen table (her name lost to history) when I sit here at mine. (I don’t think about the Ikea designer who made this particular model, either.)

Now switch from tools to media.

When I read The Anthologist, I am not really thinking about Nicholson Baker, either. Sure, I think about him when I read the book review and when I flip to the title page, but after that, I’m in the story. But!—I’m going to argue that Nicholson Baker is there with me, in my head, in a much fuller and more direct way than Thomas Knoll is with me when I’m using Photoshop.

Certainly with music, the case is even clearer: the artist’s presence (often literally her voice) is fully and directly felt. Music, especially pop music, imposes itself. It says: I am here with you now!

Now, personally, that relationship is what I’m after. I imagine two scenarios—one where I write a story that 10,000 people read and another where I build a tool that 100,000 people use—and the first is infinitely more appealing.

I want, frankly, to impose myself.

So when it comes to toolmaking… I just don’t understand it. Of course, I understand that these markets exist—markets for sales CRM, markets for video-viewing, markets for personal communication and status-signaling gadgetry. I just can’t understand wanting to be the person who serves them.

“There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use,” Freeman Dyson said. I’m supremely glad he feels that satisfaction, and I’m glad so many other toolmakers do, too.

But, is there a chance… just a small one… that today, in the world of startups and internet technology, too many people are making too many tools?

Even as I type it, my fingers recoil, because it sounds like such heresy. The internet is nothing but tools, built and shared. Glory to Github! We need more of this stuff, not less! … Right?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by… toolmaking?

CC-licensed photo from Meanest Indian.

It actually makes me think of the way that consulting used to be such a scourge on the undergraduate landscape, sucking up all of the ambitious, flexible minds because it was prestigious and remunerative and in a way easy. Maybe it’s absurd to think we lost novelists and musicians to McKinsey… but I think we did.

Today, if you’re a person with the toolmaking talent, you actually have a lot of options, of which making a web platform or a framework are just a couple. If you possess the skills to make powerful tools, you’ve got one up on Archimedes. “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth,” he said. You, the toolmaker, can make your own place.

What do I mean?

Think of the electronic musician BT, who for years has enjoyed the advantage of a signature stuttering sound effect that he coded himself. This year, he finally decided to share his software, to put it up for sale—but you can bet he’s already working on the next great effect for his own music. It’s a competitive artistic advantage. (I mean, the dude knows Csound. Nobody knows Csound!)

Or think of Pixar, the Great Toolmaker’s side project. They sell movies, not tools, but the movies wouldn’t be possible without the tools that Pixar and Pixar alone possesses. Pixar is a place where brilliant toolmakers work for a tiny user-base: the artists across the hall. That partnership, and the feedback loop between tool and user that it permits, produces jaw-dropping results.

I mean, here’s what I think: the true intersection of technology and the liberal arts

…isn’t actually Apple. It’s Pixar.

So I wish more people were making tools for a specific creative purpose rather than for general consumer adoption. I wish more people were making tools that very intentionally do not scale—tools with users by the dozen. Tools you experience not through a web signup form, but through pathbreaking creative work.

I guess I want fewer aspirational Apples and more Pixar wannabes.

Bless the toolmakers. I’m definitely not complaining here, just thinking out loud, and wondering about this kind of person, the way you might wonder about a world-class tennis player or a wandering ascetic: How can you do that? What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? It is honestly inscrutable to me.

But I also wonder if there are some toolmakers out there right now who feel some of the same doubt. Carried along by the current of conventional (startup) wisdom and, of course, the promise of a great scalable payout, they are busy making a web-based tool for collaborative something-or-other. But in the back of their brains, something feels wrong. Some ambition is left unfulfilled.

Here’s what I say: Come on over. Come join the side that makes books and music and movies. There are great rewards here, too, but not enough toolmakers. We need you.


Tim Carmody says…

So I wrote this story for Wired this week: “Without Jobs as CEO, Who Speaks for the Arts at Apple?” And it sort of does two things.

First, it looks at Jobs and how his background and experience with arts really saved and remade Apple, and asks how Tim Cook, who doesn’t have that background, will try to address that. (And a couple of days ago, they ended up promoting Eddie Cue, the company’s top media deal/e-commerce guy, up the chain to Senior VP.)

The second thing it does, kind of the razor hidden in the bubblegum, is trace an arc of both Apple and Jobs that isn’t entirely flattering to either. And it runs through Pixar.

Jobs goes to Pixar and builds it into this marvelous successful company that really does fuse technology with art, and knows how to do it in a way that’s hugely popular but doesn’t feel compromising. And what Jobs comes back with, when he returns to Apple and looks around at the technology and media landscape, is that most media and technology companies don’t know how to talk to each other. And what’s more, the people at the top of media companies don’t actually know very much about how to sell their products.

And that’s kind of how the iTunes store was born, and how Jobs was able to bring the content and technology industries together through an innovative commerce platform.

So Apple becomes increasingly less about building tools that artists use and more about being their primary retail partner. And this moves through to movies and TV and software — all of the things Apple provides both the store and the object for, and finally fuses the two.

But then Jobs’s media knowledge kind of breaks down. He loves music, and he’s run a movie studio. But he doesn’t watch television. He doesn’t totally understand the publishing industry, whether in books or periodicals — even if he loves what they do, he can’t really figure out how to create an experience for it or sell it as it is. He doesn’t completely understand and he’s a little bit cynical towards social media & web-native publishing.

Everything that most of us kind of feel is next, all the big new digital media industries, Steve Jobs doesn’t have a vision for. (Isn’t that just so odd?)

He’s still got plenty of ideas about software and design. Apple TV is a little fiddly, so I’m sure he would have liked to have brought a better solution for video. But otherwise, he’s actually exhausted the skills he can personally bring to media and technology.

I think there’s a weird lesson in that.

I don’t think the problem is that there are a lack of toolmakers who become artists; I think that we need more artists who need to learn how to use tools that fall outside of their craft. I recently watched this documentary about the Austin live music, and one theme that kept on coming up is that musicians were really bad business people.

We have an abundance of artists who toil away for little compensation. Artists are good at crafting art, but most of the time, they are bad at promoting, distributing, and monetizing it on their own. So, instead, they rely on middlemen who know how to manipulate the tools to achieve these effects, and these middlemen end up taking a hefty cut for themselves. The artists who know how to use the tools have the greatest advantage because they can go directly to their audience. This is why the artist who wears a businessman hat often comes out ahead, at least on the monetary and fabulous life front (i.e. the Damien Hirsts and James Freys of the world).

As for the toolmakers, I say “Invent Away!” Most of time, we hear about the crisis of innovation and engineering in the U.S., as our education system falls further and further behind the rest of the world. If the math geeks are tapping into their inner Edisons, instead of working as Quants in hedge funds, then we are all better off.

Funny: I actually had a graf in this post (that I cut) about people approaching art and toolmaking as a serious business, too. Totally agree w/ all of this, EC.

As it happens quants in the finance industry work in a similar environment to that described at pixar: with small groups of smart people in a related domain requiring a different perspective, whose outputs have impacts on everyone.

For good or ill.

Agreed. Agreed. Agreed. Wonderful post.

My big question is: How does this work economically?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the new middle class – the 21st century individual who parlays a Kickstarter project into a successful Etsy business by engaging their audience on Twitter, or something like that. Of course, this is idea has been touched on, and made famous, by Kevin Kelly in his 1,000 True Fans post, but where are those people?

Let’s take you for an example, Robin. You have a successful Kickstarter project under your belt, a ton of followers on Twitter, a creative outlet on Snarkmarket – you’re an exceptional tool user. However, your primary means of economic support (and this is all speculation) is a paycheck from Twitter, a tool maker.

I think we’re approaching the golden age of tool users. The infrastructure is there, but the economics haven’t quite caught up.

I think you just said what Jaron Lanier was maybe trying to say (or should have said, anyway).

A couple of passing thoughts:

• Toolmaking is a way of turning an information economy into a service economy, since tools serve the purposes of others.

• I’m still not entirely clear on why enabling others is a bad thing. Is this a techie version of “Those who can’t do, teach”?

Hey Meg: I don’t think enabling others is a bad thing at all—it’s just that toolmaking seems to be the default approach for technologists (especially here in the Bay Area) and I think it might be crowding out other ways of working. Totally a half-baked hypothesis, though.

See also @louije‘s post, Bless the toolreaders. I love his conclusion, and I love the part where he compares me to Darth Vader ;-D

Funny, I have a long-unwritten blog about my theory that *too many* of America’s youth have pursued creative fields over practical ones like engineering. It’s a pessimistic view I have that great gobs of our talented young people who in the past would have *made* useful things were encouraged by their parents toward one of two absolute ideals: 1) make a shitton of money or 2) do whatever it is that makes you happy. And is this, I wonder, not good for the future of the American economy? (I hold myself in the latter camp, BTW. I would have been at the very least a decent engineer.)

We are both armed only with anecdotal evidence – but I suspect that far more young, talented people have placed themselves behind a video camera or in front of a copy of Final Draft (or Scrivener!) than are hunched over their computers making tools.

That said, heed the call of Sloan, tool-makers! Abandon your online coupon start-ups and location-based dealie thingies and come create!

I can’t help but think of Emerson’s lament over Thoreau’s unused talents:
“Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!”

To take a slightly direction w/ this: I would be curious to hear about people’s relationships to the makers of their tools. Does the part in my post where I compare Thomas Knoll to Nicholson Baker resonate? Or do you feel something very different?

Great post, Robin.

I think my first reaction is a historical (if perhaps too obvious) one. I’ve often thought about the analogous relationship between technological platforms/interfaces and artistic forms. So I wonder if part of the emphasis on tools is similar to an emphasis on literary form, Like, say, the emphasis upon the personal lyric in the 17th century or experimentation with narrative voice in the modernist novel, at a moment in history that form, technology and content all intertwine in reaction to the contemporary moment, there is heightened focus on the formal or toolian (copyright me, 2011) aspect of things, because the mechanisms by and through which things are made (i.e. art) are so new, that novel forms for new types of art are still being invented. It’s like at a certain point in the expansion of a country, more emphasis will be paid to travel infrastructure than cities.

That said, I’m totally with you on the sense that too many people focus on the platforms through which things are made rather than the things themselves. And maybe that in and of itself is a kind of turn away from the object – that things have, if perhaps temporarily, become less important the processes or structures connected to them.

I’m always a sucker for a historical analogy!

And of course, one of the reasons this is on my mind is that I grapple with the toolian™ myself: just like any nerd circa 2011, I spend too much time thinking about all these cool new containers.

As a software developer, this rings true- in fact, things are skewed away from the creative applications of technology even further than is apparent from the outside. Sure, plenty of smart folks are working on teams to build the next big cloud storage or group messaging platform- as in the consulting example, there’s money to be made there for folks with the right training.

That’s not the whole story, though- engineers generally have a good deal of control over their working hours and are given a fair bit of leeway to work on side projects (be it late-night hacking or 20% time). What’s interesting to me is that, often as not, you’ll find these brilliant minds are developing a “framework” on the side- Rails for Java, or a relational database for JavaScript. So it’s another medium removed- they are building tools to assist in the building of tools.

It might be a “scratch your own itch” sort of thing- you know that if it works for you, it will likely help somebody else. The sheer glut of frameworks that I see churned out on github makes me a little depressed, though. It’s like people are so eager to reinvent the wheel that they’ve forgotten they have a perfectly suitable rocket sled at their disposal, if they’d only pick a direction and go.

“[T]hey’ve forgotten they have a perfectly suitable rocket sled at their disposal, if they’d only pick a direction and go.” Wow!—well-put, Patrick.

At first my instinct was to disagree: to think, Pixar’s all very well, but how many people’s lives have been changed, and how deeply, by Apple compared to Pixar?

Perhaps (I thought) we are less likely ever to know the name of the person who led development of the iPhone’s camera app than to know the name of the person who voiced Mr Potato Head in Toy Story. And yet we interact with the Camera app far more often than we listen to, or think of, that Mr Potato Head character. That developer had more impact on the world than that actor, and surely that’s more important than fame?

Then I realised that this isn’t quite the point. You aren’t suggesting a bunch of developers give up their jobs to become content creators. In fact I realised that, in different words, I have myself been making a similar argument:

My version is not that people currently making tools should, or will, become artists. It’s that the millions of jobs that will be created in the digital sector in the next decade will be far more likely to come in content creation, customisation, and remixing than in creating basic tools and digital infrastructure.

Network effects mean that there can only be so many roles available in creating the basic infrastructure – Google, Facebook, iOs or Audacity. But there will never be a shortage of potential roles in creating content; content can always become narrower, either in size of audience or in length of attention, and this is how the supply of potential content creators will create its own demand.

This, I think, will be the solution to an economic dilemma that has several different names: Tyler Cowen’s Great Stagnation, the hollowing-out of the Western economies, or Umair Haque’s crisis of meaning.

Tim says…

Re: the iPhone Camera app and Mr Potato Head in Toy Story — see, I was thinking almost exactly the opposite! Well, if not exactly, then close enough.

Think about those two examples: one is an application that people have been using for about four years, and has been rewritten at least that many times, with each new iPhone model and operating system. The other is from a cartoon that’s fifteen years old, a character who’s reappeared twice, and based in turn on an even older toy that kids still play with.

This is actually a good thing. Technology is more or less progressive; at the very least, one thing replaces another. Technologies, as Steve Jobs says, have their springs and summers and autumns, and eventually they go away and are replaced by something new as somebody builds a better widget or the problems and resources that drove its adoption change. With luck, the creators helped move the needle on technology in general, but the particular tools don’t last.

And here I mean the kind of newly created tech like a smartphone app, not some big idea like the shovel. Even though shovels, too, are getting better all the time.

Art, on the other hand, doesn’t go away. Well, actually, the vast majority of it goes away almost immediately. But great, memorable art almost never goes away, even as technology and history and society move on, while great, memorable technology almost always does.

Unless it’s transformed from a useful object into an historical object — or an artistic one.

“Art, on the other hand, doesn’t go away. Well, actually, the vast majority of it goes away almost immediately. But great, memorable art almost never goes away, even as technology and history and society move on, while great, memorable technology almost always does. “

That’s perhaps the perfect precis right there. It’s also the gamble I’ve very consciously taken w/ my work. It’s the reason—the only reason, honestly—for a person to toil away at books; they’re a lottery ticket. The odds aren’t great, but if you win… wow. You really win. You stick around.

Toolbuilding for me has in the past been a way to dodge the heat and fire of the creative act. I used to compose and perform projected, mixed, live visuals at raves (late 1990’s) and at some point I moved from VHS tapes and a mixer to Max/MSP, Nato.0+55 and Jitter, which was in retrospect a creative disaster. It was so seductive to imagine that I could design the environment of my dreams that I never got around to populating that environment with anything worth looking at.

Also: the toolbuilders (and more specifically, the frameworkers) are the celebrated nerds of today. People desperately want to be a John Resig or a DHH without really considering what it is that those folks bring to the table. At least we’re not seeing many folks building ORMs anymore.

Yes! You know Mike, on some level I think I was reacting to precisely this: the hero-status of DHH, Resig, etc. in the nerd-world.

Now clearly those guys are incredibly smart, and per Archimides, they’ve made tools that have given a whole lot of people a place to stand. It’s absolutely incredible if you think about the number of sites and apps powered by jQuery today.

But, that doesn’t mean everybody (or even most people) ought to aspire to do that. I mean… how many frameworks do we need?! (Patrick was getting at this above, as well.)

In terms of different media types like photos, music (audio), film (video) and stories (text)—they are have the ability to move people. The raw reaction from the audience going through the experience is what should be celebrated, not the “vessel” that pushed it to the person. But I also think we’re in a different time where people creating those media types also have the ability to design the actual vessel. Why should people be holding back trying to explore? We’re starting to see people take control of their media which I think is a good thing. Here’s a simple experiment. Take a photo with an iPhone or other smart phone. Share it on Flickr, Instagram, G+ and Facebook at the same time. They all lend themselves to different experiences. On top of that Flickr and Instagram offer api’s to create other experiences. I don’t see how more options is a negative. I would rather have the ability to create on top of those layers than to be given a set of rules of how I can share and create media. We’re pretty much at the point that anything that is digital can be replicated by an unauthorized 3rd party. The only way to protect the creator’s rights is to let them create the vessel that allows for the best experience. Chances are, if that vessel works for that one creator, it’s probably going to work for someone else with slight modifications. Again, I don’t see how this is something people should be concerned about.

DEB says…

Good conversation. However, I think it’s a slight on Knoll to compare him to Baker. Knoll’s creations will endure. Baker’s not likely. And, it’s disappointing to read that the toolmakers are guys while your first table designer was a woman in the kitchen. I didn’t do heavy research, but I’m pretty certain the person to design a kitchen table was a man. Sorry to see women relegated—still—to the kitchen.

You might better answer the questions you raise by checking out some great art. For at the heart of every great and lasting artistic endeavor is craft – the artist’s genius in discovering new tools and elevating existing tools to applications never before imagined.

Hey Deb—I’m curious about your certainty that Photoshop will stick around. Software (so far) has a strong tendency not to. Think of great, world-changing tools from 20 years ago: Visicalc, etc. Nobody uses those anymore; in fact, we can’t even run them.

Re: gender, sheathe thy snark: you’ll note I used a default female pronoun for every unidentified creator, including the musician. 😀

As someone who uses Photoshop a lot, I already see powerful alternatives that are apps, selling for $1 or free. They are inexpensive and can be manipulated so that even when offered a standard photo alteration, reusing the saved image can alter it in interesting ways. I still use Photoshop and Lightroom to process work, but I also find myself using apps more than I ever thought I would.

When I started having similar thoughts I was thinking about this through the lens of the reactive nature of culture, particularly on the macro-level that takes shape over decades and centuries. I think there’s something to thinking about what economies need (as Andrew noted) but also about what societies celebrate and reward.

The half-baked hypothesis is something about how cultures have rewarded/praised different types of makers, thinkers, doers, and artists over eras of history, in a cyclical and reactive fashion. Much in the way that each era of art history is in many ways a reaction to the last, it seems one could make the case that at different points in history the dominant modern culture has rewarded everything from the philosopher of Greek tradition, to the artist of the Renaissance, to the scientist of the post-enlightenment, to the “entrepreneur/toolmaker” of today.

I put together a quick diagram here (, also a bit of a reaction to the “I make, therefore I am” notion. Thanks for the refined thoughts here, they certainly help me develop my own as well.

Kyle: yep, I think this is exactly right! And it connects to some comments about “frameworkers” above. There’s a certain kind of work we (for certain values of “we”) reward today, for better or for worse. It’s changing, though; it always is.

K, to play devil’s advocate a bit – or perhaps to think about this ever-so-slightly askew…

We say that great art sticks around because it continues to speak to us years, decades and centuries after it was created. One way to look at this has been that there is something ‘in’ the art that borders on the universal – some kernel of truth that is as relevant then as it as now.

But I’ve always tended to think about art as scaffolding or structure. The really great stuff – the stuff that sticks around – is not the thing that provides inherent, specific truth, but instead, gives a space or openness for its relevance or truth to morph over time. You set up the right kind of scaffolding, and different eras and even cultures can hang different things upon it as the angle of their entry is changed by history.

Put another way, its art-iness comes from its, uh, toolian nature.

In one way, that’s one of those overly trite, academic approaches: form is content and content is, like, form. Woah dude. But in another sense, it might provide another lens through which to look at the interrelationship between art and virtual tools.

Art has always been a proto-virtual space into which we project various subjective and social ideas in order to explore them, better ourselves, entertain ourselves etc. It’s been the virtual space in relation to which we’ve oriented ourselves in this ongoing dialectic between life and its representation.

But in some small way, the web – and social/blogging platforms especially – also perform a similar or at least analogous function: they are this space on and in which various subjective and social phenomena occur and are explored and experimented upon. And if fiction very generally does two things – shows us how to be and shows us how to not be – then the web as the virtuo-social does something vaguely similar. It provides the scaffolding onto which we hang our various interests, and sometimes those things are art – or at least art-like.

So if I might very loosely say both art and tools are about creating spaces or structures (it’s a stretch, I know) – then I wonder if the thing we’re talking about isn’t a slightly modified version of Foucault’s author function: that, in the face of this flood of art-like tools, what we want is to communication with another single person. If we are to move into a space to engage with life – we want to do so guided by another’s voice, mind, ideas etc., not solely because, as Foucault argues, that the author is a way of organizing disparate, ‘author-less’ texts into groupings and discourses – but because the world, now expanded, is too anonymous and overwhelming as it is. Walking into life’s virtual representation (and here, do I mean art or do I mean the web?) what we want actually want is company – a like-minded companion for the journey.

One of the most intelligently constructed things I’ve ever read. Bravo.

Great post, Robin! I join your call to see more attention brought to what our platforms hold up than simply how they do the holding. In my own work (trying to build an artistic vocabulary out of contemporary special effects technology) I very much aspire to something resembling your account of BT’s approach: building tools for myself to increase my understanding of my material and give myself new capabilities, sharing them when relevant.

However, I’d also like to posit a slightly more positive reason for the focus on tools. Right now we build our tools in a much more collaborative and interactive environment than we consume our media — at least when it comes to open source software. Resig and DHH become our aspirational models rather than David Foster Wallace and Peter Jackson because they do their work in public: we can watch and even participate. I have a tiny patch in Rails core that was approved by DHH. I’ve participated in email threads about Processing.js in which Resig took an active role. I’ve read their commits and watched them lead a technical discussion towards consensus. That is a more intimate relationship than I’ve ever had with any novelist no matter how funny they might be on twitter.

A big part of why people aspire to be platform builders is for the social interaction that comes with it. Not just the anonymous adoration that generally accompanies artistic success, but the possibility of being at the heart of a vibrant sustained conversation of import.

This is why writers like Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, Warren Ellis, Bruce Sterling, and their ilk seem in some way the most relevant working today. Not because of their actual literary output but because in their blogging and tweeting and public speaking they seem to be leading their readers in some kind of collective creative operation. When you follow their work you feel invited to build something with them whether that be an imaginative world, a political movement, or a design philosophy. Bruce Sterling has talked about this very directly, referring to blogs as “platforms for development” rather than literary outlets. In some ways these writers actual literary output is very much besides the point in terms of their success, which really comes from their ability as platform builders.

I think this platform-building role can be creatively productive and, anyways, is becoming increasingly mandatory for contemporary artists. Lamenting it would be like lamenting Oscar Wilde’s unfortunate need to say clever things in newspapers and at cocktail parties between writing novels. How many people have read his novels while his quips define a key modern mode of being in the world?

Just like abandoning creative output for tool-building is a mistake, as you so rightly point out, so as well would be recoiling from the infinite possibilities offered by digital technology for participating in the creation of our own creative palettes only to hide in the comfortable and well-defined old media of the previous century.

I am liking more and more the description of software as a medium. It is a medium in which you can create art and a medium in which you can engineer.

Software will perfectly hold whatever structure it is given, with a fidelity and fluidity that is unmatched. It is a more ideal medium of imagination than any other available. riffing off a great Dijkstra essay

To me though the tool buildout is right – because we want everyone we can to find ways to work with this new medium. Not just engineers. We are still finding ways to make the 2B pencil of software (or the ink brush and inkstone if you want an older analogy). (Whoops, Dijkstra whales on analogies big time in that essay.)

Following an earlier thought on banks, I also wonder how much dedicated toolmaking is going on in a way which is invisible because proprietary. And not every art company employing boutique toolmakers is as famous and clearly tool reliant as Pixar.

Great post, great discussion.

Seems to me that the excitement over uptooling – the toolterms are getting worse and worse now – is all about the democratisation of creativity. Brilliant designers put more and more virtual microphones in front of all of us, so that digitally we resemble the spokesperson at the news conference: our every utterance is ready to transmit. And in the main I think this is a wonderful thing: as the barriers to the dissemination of work fall, so out pours a tide of the quirky and marvellous in which the market never quite had enough faith.

My only concern as the tools open up channel after channel is that the flow will become faster and faster. Writers will be seduced by the speed at which they can communicate and shovel work into the tools’ gaping maws, work which contains a lot of lovely things, but work that hasn’t had time to mellow, mature, and yes, shrink, until it is reduced to a lovely shiny kernel.

The toolmakers understand that process: they polish and refine, it’s what they do. So let’s hope makers continue to do the same. The old days, in which the artistic media were so narrow that entry took a lot of effort and a lot of luck, had plenty of flaws. Bring on the new. But I hope that bobbing on the surface of the tool-unleashed-torrent are lots of little Austen-esque squares of polished ivory, unscaled, unscalable, quietly immortal.

Robin: I couldn’t help but think of Steven Wolfram as I read your post. Here’s a guy who, if he tells his story truthfully, built Mathematica(!) so that he could do his obscure cellular automata studies more effectively. For a long time, he was (and may still be) best known for his software—a tool that others rely on. But Wolfram’s tool was always targeted to help a very small audience—him—to create his own crazy scientific art/knowledge.

Even though I own _A New Kind of Science_ and even tried to read some of it once, I don’t think Wolfram’s gambit paid off. He wanted to be known forever as the next Galileo, but it seems he’s more likely to be forgotten as just another toolmaker. (Galileo, I will note, managed to leverage his lens-grinding chops into some serious scientific cred.)

Ha! Dan, your last line, in addition to being true, is just a plain ol’ great sentence.

Galileo, he leveraged a lot of things.

Here I am late to the party again…

I think perfectionism is more acceptable in toolmaking. When you generate science or art or media, of course you can be pretty perfectionist, but it is an outward perfectionism. You might want everything the public interacts with to be perfect, but at the same time you have to school yourself not to be a perfectionist for things under the covers that no one else cares about. This is a struggle for a perfectionist personality.

When you make a tool, you can self-justify a much more thoroughgoing perfectionism. In a sense, the more people you envision using your tool, the more onanistically perfectionist you can justify being. In the case of Apple/Jobs, this reaches the highest expression, where you have justified such a high level of perfectionism in your toolmaking that you even have the balls to tell people they’re not allowed to use your tools if they’re going to do it wrong.

Which brings me full circle: to me, Apple too often goes too far down this road and ends up with something less functional and too perfect. So I have to snarkily question the assumed premise that Apple is a model toolmaker in the first place.

Amazingly, I may be the first boo-Apple troll to have commented on your post. But the point I’m trying to make is general: perfectionism has its place, but fighting against perfectionism is also important. Toolmaking seems like a shelter for the perfectionist personality, but it seems even this can be taken too far.

Matt says…

You make excellent points about the potential of bespoke tools (tools with users by the dozen), and the cultural importance of art. And you ask what motivates the tool makers to get up in the morning.

As a tool maker, I have an answer: art, with an audience of dozens. We make tools because tools are beautiful. And it’s not just the functional beauty of a thing adapted to its purpose. It’s a real beauty of form, though only a few will ever see it. Instead, thousands will use the tool, though they are not its audience. They are its applause.

Pixar shares some of their tools:

This combination of tool-making and art creation happens all the time in the high-tech entertainment industry. A few examples:

Thomas and John Knoll created Photoshop. Thomas went on to perfect the tool, while John became visual effects supervisor at ILM.

John Carmack creates each new iteration of the Id engine technology. His colleagues use this technology to create ground-breaking games.

The Wachowski brothers wanted to impart artificiality on live-action sequences so they asked John Gaeta to create something which was to become Bullet Time.

Peter Jackson needed huge crowds for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, so he enlisted Stephen Regelous to create the Massive crowd generation tool.

James Cameron wanted photorealistic stereoscopic images for his Avatar film, so he brought together a group of people who could make this work.

The list goes on and on. The basic idea is, that you can only create the perfect tool if you want to use it daily. Jobs loved listening to music, so he created a great environment for it. He didn’t enjoy television as much, so he never really cracked it.

Great article. I tend to agree. Here’s my response:

Jim says…

I’m a woodworker turned toolmaker. Artist turned tool junky. In that small world it felt like wood and all it’s possibilities were well represented. But along the path of that quest, from the beginning of woodworking to now, there were tools that hadn’t changed. Hadn’t improved, but had in fact declined. Almost to prove that classic tools could be improved upon, people began to make their own. James Krenov is readily acknowledged as the pied piper of hand made woodworker’s planes. He was instrumental in inspiring a generation of woodworkers to make their own planes. But now there are many who have all but left woodworking to be full time tools makers. And many more who split their time between making tools and working wood. I realize that you aren’t talking about my world of wood and tools. But I think my world illustrates your point. Tools always tend to tie together the past and present generations. You really can’t fully appreciate a band saw if you’ve never used a coping saw. And you wonder, just what his life was like when you feel the pain in your shoulders after just an hour or two of sawing. But that empathy binds and inspires you to create. So that even tools are art.

Ok, I know this is waaay late. But I was scrolling through the snarkives and wanted to add a data point. I wanted to bring up another example – someone I’ve been thinking about a lot – that doesn’t fit on the Apple-Pixar spectrum: Jacques Cousteau.

The guy basically invented scuba diving (co-developed the Aqua Lung), but almost no one knows that. Not because it wasn’t an amazing tool, but because Cousteau did so much more: he opened up a whole new world. He imposed himself in your mind, certainly.

Throughout his life, he never stopped building tools (like, the coolest tools) and never stopped using them to explore the depths. He created some of the most mind-expanding media of his time. And, most importantly, he inspired people to think about their world differently. He built the tools AND showed people how to become the artists who use them.

Is that more Pixar or more Apple? Or something different all together?

From my perspective, this is the highest aspiration: blending the tool making and tool using to such a degree that you actually invite people into a whole new world of possibility. True cultural entrepreneurship.

Max says…

Nicole gave me Cousteau’s “The Silent World” last year, and I was surprised at how much invention there was in it. Before that, I knew nothing about the work of making the images he’s known for, only (some of) the images. The images seem inevitable because of the technology, but it’s easy to forget they co-evolved.

That he invented (and co-invented) so much of underwater diving, lighting, and photography allowed him to make the pictures, while the pictures allowed him to get the funding to invent the technology. Both arms swimming forward together.

Similarly, that Pixar has invented so much of animation, teams, render farms, makes the films they produce almost inevitable; or rather, they’re always 100% of what the time/place/tech/scope/budget/story could bring to them. (Dreamworks, on the other hand always seems to be running at 85% and filling in the rest with fart jokes.)

Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” dissected this problem, the separation of the tool and the user, more than any philosopher I’ve ever known. He reflects on the roots of our separation of Art and Science, and effects of our hyper-rationalized Western society that perpetuates it.

“We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge, and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it’s ghastly. The time for real unification of art and technology is really long overdue.”

Perhaps platforms, done right, are the space for that unification.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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