Avoiding the Engineering Out of Creativity
The importance of creativity is lauded as one of the hallmarks of the modern economy, since we have machines to do the ‘repetitive labor’ that our ancestors once did by hand. Whether this labor was truly repetitive is a topic for another day, but look around the economy today and ask yourself: do most jobs require or even allow creativity? Or, has the market for it concentrated in the positions of relatively few ‘creative elites’ such as designers, certain engineers (I consider myself one of them), high-power statesmen, writers, and artists? I remember when I was looking for jobs the biggest question I asked was: “will this job allow me creative freedom?” I am blessed that right now I can answer yes. Not even all engineers can.
Of course a good degree of this is economic in nature - large corporations systematize and lock down what their workers can do. One doesn’t go far flipping burgers at McDonalds by being a creative personality.
And of course, obedience in its right place is a virtue. But obedience is demarkated from servility in that man’s capacity for creativity is voluntarily veiled at the right time. A man whose creative spirit is broken is not obedient: he is a slave, an automaton, a robot.
Man is the most inventive of God’s creatures, and this is largely owed to his capacity to partake in the Divine; to be the representative of God’s creative spirit for the world. And while we see some creatures have novel solutions to their problems, such as the venus flytrap, or the spider-tailed horned viper, these adaptations take generations and evolutionary pressure to appear. It is only man, with his connection to the divine and his facilities of reason, who is able to adapt within the span of a lifetime. Gorillas might bash rocks together, but when we wanted to cross rivers, we didn’t adapt longer legs, we concieved of boats and bridges, and then built them.
Systems which do not leverage an individual’s capacity to make decisions in productive affairs are dehumanizing. These decisions need not be profound or large. We’ve probably all had the experience of some micromanaging taskmaster telling us that we’re holding a tool at the slightly wrong angle. While the apprentice should learn from the master when the master is right and indeed creates better works, experimenting is how we find even better solutions. When properly ordered, amateurism gives us a great deal of appreciation for God’s creation. The good mentor doesn’t micromanage - he shows, watches the newbie for a bit, then goes off somewhere else to allow him to practice further and develop his own individual technique.
I think this is along the lines of why God permits sin with us; we are amateurs practicing to partake in God’s craft. The alternative would be to crush our spirit.
Back to technology. Many modern luddites and those forming the ‘theology of technology’ as it were are keen to draw the distinction between ‘tools’ and ‘machines’; things one uses, and things one activatves. The tool is an extension of the self, the machine is a replacement of the self. But what is the thing that demarcates one from the other? Most are keen to offer the obvious: whether the operator no longer needs to exercise their mental faculties. However, this is a manifestation of a deeper underlying principle, one that when examined, will encourage us not only to make tools rather than machines, but excellent tools at that.
That principle is Extensibility.
Extensibile technology is readily modifiable: it works with future, unconceived technology, and can be repaired. It has extra towing hooks. More USB ports. It has flat surfaces so you can easily bolt on additional stuff. There’s more breaker panel slots. The CPU is socketed, not soldered in. It’s screwed together, not glued. It uses standard and simple components whenever possible.
LEGOs are Extensible technology. You can take them apart and put them together to make something completely different. The LEGOs that captivated the 5-year-old’s fancy for trucks still captivate him at 15 when he’s in love with Tolkein, or 25 going for his PhD in architecture. The Tonka truck the 5-year-old loved has to be sold or thrown out. It is stuck. It is drab. It is uncreative. LEGOs exemplify the human spirit. Why do you think we’re so enamored with them? Why do you think that savants hate newfangled large and single-use pieces? It’s not marketing hype; the LEGO set is the archetypal Extensible toolbox.
But we need not limit ourselves to play. Another Extensible technology is 80/20. They call themselves the ‘industrial erector set’. That’s not a joke - look in industry and you’ll find it everywhere, in R&D we keep so much of it around exactly because it’s extensible.
Or just consider regular tools. A punch is useful in itself - you can line up holes with it or poke things. A hammer is useful for driving nails, wedges or breaking up things. Put the two together and you have a completely new tool: a nail set. Or a way to drive a stubborn pin from a hole.
Now, you could make a special tool to do the same task better, faster, and with less mental effort: a nail gun. But they’re heavier than a hammer, require a power source, and don’t even do all the tasks we just mentioned. In order to do everything you’d need to do as a handyman, you’d still need a hammer, you’d still need a punch. There’s just more cruft to lug around now.
On the computing side, there was one such LEGO-like vision of the future. It was UNIX, the operating system developed by Bell Labs starting in 1969. Today you’ll have people saying that ‘oh, Android is built on Linux (similar to UNIX), and iOS is built on UNIX… so yeah, UNIX won!’ That’s a ridiculous argument. Is the kernel there? Yes. But is the philosophy? No. Android might as well be built on MS-DOS.
The UNIX philosophy is amazingly human. I have deep respect for the discipline of software engineers because some are actually surprisingly conscious of what they do and love to think about their thinking about computers ‘thinking’.
The Bell System Technical Journal from 1978 summarizes the philosophy:
Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new "features".
Expect the output of every program to become the input to another, as yet unknown, program. Don't clutter output with extraneous information. Avoid stringently columnar or binary input formats. Don't insist on interactive input.
Design and build software, even operating systems, to be tried early, ideally within weeks. Don't hesitate to throw away the clumsy parts and rebuild them.
Use tools in preference to unskilled help to lighten a programming task, even if you have to detour to build the tools and expect to throw some of them out after you've finished using them.
Or, more simply by by Peter H. Salus in A Quarter-Century of Unix (1994):
Write programs that do one thing and do it well.
Write programs to work together.
Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.
This screams Extensibility. UNIX was meant to be alive and in development; a continually evolving set of tools in a toolbox. These principles can be applied to any technology: instead of ‘program’ think ‘device’, instead of ‘format’ think ‘packaging’, etc.. If you want to build Extensible technology, if you’ve any understanding of computers, study the structure and ideas behind UNIX. We could do a whole deep dive on it. Maybe I will.
These principles sound obvious, but how much of the tech you use today adhere to them? We knew how to write good software back then, when our intention was to make tools that creative people could use - not machines that any idiot could push a button on and get results.
And that does make something very clear: good technology is absolutely not ‘user-friendly’ in the modern sense. Good technology is user-centric. Good technology shouldn’t be trivial to use, otherwise it risks being disenchanting. Boring. There needs to be initiation, mystery, intrigue. It’s just like liturgy. Well, we are talking about work. And in work, we want participants, not specators or slaves.
The opposite is alienation: instead of a gradation of outsiders to amateurs to apprentices to journeymen to masters, you get an automaton-like laity governed by a technocracy exercising all the creativity. That’s where we’re headed. That’s multinational corporations. That’s franchises. 'Gig economy’ apps like Uber, Lyft, Instacart are just a last-ditch effort to reenchant our alienated technological-economic system with some vestage that you can be creative with how you conduct your work.
To borrow from Wrath of Gnon, Extensible technology is Traditional.
Progressive mindset: The problems of today will be solved by future generations.
Traditional mindset: The solutions of today should not impinge or hobble future generations.
This difference is subtle. At first blush it seems like wordplay. But again, it’s Tonka trucks versus LEGOs. The progressive expects that the Tonka truck will go to the ashheap of history, and that it was a necessary step (or evil); the whole truck has to be thrown out in order to make room for a new one. The traditionalist expects that the LEGO set will be passed down between generations, gaining pieces to form a set to serve the particular needs of that generation. Tradition is the embrace of the same, but not identical. Progress is snobbish disdain of anything ‘old’.
Anti-Extensible, Progressive technology is elitist. It insists on a priestly class of technologists who will solve the problems if the general population will just shut up and listen to the science. Extensible technology is populist. Really, if you talk to normal people, it’s even popular. It puts agency back into the hands of the public. It lets people change their own oil, do their own brakes, install their own operating systems, replace their phone batteries, make their own tools.
This conflict between labor and intelligentsia isn’t anything new.
Someone said to Blessed Arsenius [the Great, (350-445)], “How is it that we, with our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while the Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?”
Abba Arsenius replied, “We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire their virtues from hard work.”
One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education ask this peasant about your thoughts?”
He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.”
(From Selections from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
Extensible technology is accessible to the amateur, so avoids this polarizing divide between technology-makers and laborers using it. The laborer can graft on an extra ramp, or funnel, or lever. The laborer and end-user will always be more intimately perceptive of the problems faced with production than the overseer; nurturing the laborer’s creativity is a profitable decision.
Actually, if you work around most workplaces where labor is involved and you’ll constantly find people being inventive in these small ways to fill the gaps that technocrats missed, to this day. We technologists shouldn’t be technocrats; we should welcome and anticipate these graftings and adaptations rather than trying to lock down phones and void warranties if people try to fix their own problems. The Extensible technologist not only allows aftermarket add-ons, he expects and welcomes them.
If your goal is material wellbeing, then the proof in the pudding for you is about how much product the tech can make. And on this front, I’m sorry, but I’m not sure Extensible tech will win. Specialized equipment, in a dead heat, beats Extensible tech. An F1 car will always beat an F-150 around a racetrack. But, this world isn’t a dead heat. This world is a dynamic environment where things change and disaster strikes. I’d like to see an F1 car try offroading. The F-150 stands a better chance. And that’s the bit of the human condition that Extensible technology appeals to: the edge cases. The exceptions. When things go wrong. Isn’t the robustness and frustration-reducing experience of Extensibility worth sacrificing a few extra hours of television, or spoonfuls of ice cream a week? Those comforts aren’t worth our souls.
Our goal is to help mankind advance in virtue and claim its birthright as children of God. He must take up his yoke as a creative to solve the problems of the day. We can’t reduce him to a slave, we have to raise him gradually from amateur to master. The technology arrayed around him should be Extensible tools that allow him to solve his unique problems; tools he can hand down to his kids, not single-purpose machines that limit his faculties and offer him no real communion with God’s creative spirit.