This is not an age of craftsmanship. It’s an age of tools: building, coveting, using. I don’t know why we value tools over technique these days, but we do.
The tools we use leave traces in the things we build. Simple tools produce something primitive and rough-hewn, which is beautiful and revealing if that is your artistic intent but distracting otherwise. No lasers here, but it’s okay:
When we leave the aesthetic realm we enter the land of productivity. (Population: 6 billion.) Both worlds are human and meaningful but a native who wanders over the border is quickly lost. Best to know who you are and where you are.
What is a good tool? Is it anything other than one that allows the craftsman to achieve his purpose? The newest tools are not necessarily the best ones.
Simple tools produce a different kind of beauty. It’s hard to build something ornate using simple tools, so we are challenged to attempt the intricate and complex like the carving above. With the aid of computers, patterns and repetition are nothing special. A twelve year-old can do this:
Modern tools can paradoxically result in unadorned, seemingly pure forms. Other times, fancy tools in thoughtless hands yield an unbalanced mess.
How is it that we can find both the simple and the complex so beautiful? It’s a gift that we are able to appreciate both. Table 5 in a research paper can be beautiful. A chair can be beautiful.
New tools engender new technique and ultimately new forms of expression. A friend’s prized possession is a Tenori-on – a Japanese device for making music.
I am told the experience of holding a Tenori-on is fantastical, whether you’re a kid or a grandparent. You hold in your hands a thousand journeys. Finding these new forms of expression take time. Sometimes the process does not resolve itself until years or decades after the introduction of the tool itself, so sometimes judgment is premature. This was the case for the camera obscura and the piano:
John McEnroe was a genius with a wooden racket. That’s impossible now. If he were 18 again he’d still be a genius but a different kind of genius. Tools can change or even define their owners.
There comes a time when we must leave our old tools behind. This time is when those with less developed technique can outperform those with more developed technique simply by virtue of their tools. This criteria can actually be quite difficult to meet, which explains why Don DeLillo continues to use a typewriter, and others still write in longhand. In many arenas good tools eventually win over traditionalists. Pen and paper gives way to Writely, and more controversially bayonets to battleships to drones. Sometimes it never happens at all. Though the single wing gave way to the shotgun and now to the pistol, there is still room in the world for both harpsichords and Tenori-on.