Toolmakers and Tool Users

Today I wanted to talk about the superpower of building your own tools. Animals who have been using tools since way when of course have always had this power. A chimpanzee doesn’t pop into the local Dick’s Sporting Goods to get a nice stick to spear some bushbabies, they rip a branch off a tree and use their own teeth for sharpening.

Chimpanzee using a tool to get to tasty ants

Being able to build your own tools is a super power not because it makes you independent, it is a super power because you are the person that best knows what you need in a tool. Probably not all that important for a chimpanzee, but if you are a hunter making your arrows, you’ll have exactly the arrows you want.

Before the industrial revolution this super power was a large element of what set somebody who was great at what they did apart from somebody who was just doing their job. When you joined a guild they taught you the thing to do, but maybe more importantly, how to create the tools you needed to do the thing. And this especially was kept a secret.

This is maybe more clear in the arts than elsewhere — simply because we study the techniques of artists from the 1600s more than those of woodworkers. The Dutch masters figured out how to capture light as no one before by technique, but also by creating better paints that made it possible to have whiter whites by way of lead paint.

Leonardo da Vinci liked to experiment with everything. He disliked fresco painting as it forced him to finish painting too quickly; he liked to apply layer after almost transparent layer slowly building up to where he thought the painting should go (Leonardo kept fiddling with the Mona Lisa for 15 years). So when tasked to paint the last supper he came up with a new way of doing frescos that didn’t have this limitation and that allowed him to keep the top layer wet in oil. The result was of course great. Unfortunately this particular example of tool making didn’t pan out and the Last Supper started to peel within 20 years of completion.

The same went on outside of the arts. A master carpenter wasn’t just good at carpenting, but also excelled at building carpentry tools. The same for the black smith and the shoemaker. Being good at your craft is not just being able to do the job. It is also thinking about how the job is done and what you can create to do the job even better.

The industrial revolution changed all this. If you are a laborer in a factory you use the tools provided to you. You can be faster than the person next to you, but not better. You have a task to do and that’s what you do. You can screw up but not exceed. The best you could hope for is to become the foreman one day. The foreman wasn’t better at the job — the job is the same for all — the foreman is just in charge.

The service industry largely kept with this pattern. The new “factories” that produce services rather than products were closely modeled on the old ones. Your job is no longer to put a screw into a widget, but to read the insurance claim and follow established rules when deciding when to accept the claim or not. You can do it faster than the next person, but not better. All you can do is not screw up.

I believe that the next phase in our economy, the data economy, will be different. The computer is the first meta-tool; a tool that requires you to write tools to make it useful. Less so these days since apps (tools) are widely available, but in the olden days when you turned on a home computer, it did this:

That’s what a computer used to look like

That “ready” meant, the computer is ready for you to program. For you to create a tool for this meta-tool. You could load one using a tape recorder (if you were lucky a disc drive), but the default was that you created your own tools.

With the computer industry professionalizing the default became of course to use other people’s tools, but there was always this option to create your own. And the people in the business of building tools for others, software engineers, are certainly spending a lot of time building tools for themselves.

Then the Web came along and it was as if the home computer had relaunched but better. Anybody who could write a text file could write a website. Even better — if you saw a website you liked, you could click “view source” and see how they had done it. Javascript was the new Basic. A thousand flowers bloomed again.

Sites like MySpace (everybody’s favorite social network before Mark built his empire) and GeoCities allowed users to run JavaScript directly in their pages and Flash allowed anybody to create anything from simple animations to games and random creative tools. Many programmers with a less traditional background trace back their origins to this wild world of creativity where you start by changing some pixels and end up writing actual code.

It looked like we were ready for the data economy and that the data economy would have people building their own tools again. It makes sense — data might be the new oil, but unlike the old oil there are no standard industrial ways to refine data. To make the most of data, you need to be able to build the tools that fit that data. Spreadsheets, the original reason for businesses to buy PCs, were an excellent early example of this.

One computer pioneer didn’t agree: Steve Jobs. From the beginning Steve picked Apple control over user freedom and the messiness that comes with that. The graphical interface that the Mac booted with was revolutionary and much admired but also represented a dramatic change in what a computer was for. No more BASIC prompt eagerly awaiting our command, but an interface based on an office desk filled with pre-programmed tools. The message here was clear. A computer is not something you should extend, it is good as is. Use the calculator we provided, use the word processor we provided.

The destroyer of tool making

The iPhone went even further — it was the first popular computer that didn’t even allow its users to write programs for it. You needed a Mac for that. Steve famously refused to make Flash work on the iPhone and it soon died after. Hypercard, an intriguing tool that allowed Mac users to build their own data tools, did of course not survive Steve’s second coming.

But even Jobs’ reality distortion field can only hold out for so long. The rudimentary programming that Minecraft allowed begot ​​Roblox with full coding and a market for the games created; Spreadsheets are going stronger than ever and it is not just Excel anymore. Jupyter Notebooks make coding the browser fun and are part of many university curricula — not just Computer Science. The iPhone might have been a setback, but the future of the data economy belongs to the people that build their own tools.

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Douwe Osinga

Entrepreneur, Coding enthusiast and co-founder of Neptyne, the programmable spreadsheet