Making things shifts how you see the world

TL:DR: knowing how things are made, decomposes them into elements that can be questioned. Even if these things are not physical goods, the benefit applies.

I’m a designer, it’s my job to create new things, to give shape to products.

I started thinking I’d like to be a graphic designer and ended up shifting to product design engineering, which was good because it taught me how to look at the world of manufactured goods and know how it works. This became a shifting point in my thinking, as I become more interested in the processes that lead to new products than necessarily the products themselves.

This is a mindset that i find useful to look at the world with. The world stops being “as-is” and becomes a playground for questioning.

Also, it helps with some empathic speculation. When you have an ideia of the process that creates a particular object, you can somehow visualize its maker in the process of creating it. Everybody knows how painting works, but a trained painter can look at a single stroke and imagine the wrist movement that the artist had to make.

Perhaps this is way we are fascinated by craftsmen that dominate their craft. In a limited but profound way, they are able to manipulate the variables that define their work.

Most things carry hidden complexity

Milt0n Friedman can be a source of controversy, but lets just consider how much complexity lies behind every pencil.

The reality of manufacture has nothing to do with our own domestic reality and this means that things we’d group together (like plates and forks) are the result of wildly different processes.

The moment I realised this, I became interested in knowing how most things are made *. This is why I love to watch videos of craftsmen and read sites like Instructables or HackADay. I know of many people that extract similar pleasure from learning how objects come to be.

The more techniques and processes you know, the more products you can inquire. If you know carpentry you pay attention to the grain of wood, the beautiful sanded corners of a table or the interlocking marvels of wood joinery without glue or nails. If you know electronics you notice the intricate patterns of bespoke circuit boards, the precision of surface mounted components or the opportunities for hacking and modifying.

Knowing the language of production also tends to unlock the language of questioning. These are close but perhaps not the same thing. Perhaps they are different points on a single spectrum of comprehension. I don’t know.

We create more than physical things, and even ideas or theories have processes to create and refine them. So it makes sense that knowing these generative processes illuminates the generated concepts.

Everytime we learn something through mechanisms (devices or thought processes) that are more and more distant from our own biological standard, our knowledge pulls us outward. Is not as much as we grow and our knowledge grows with us, but the opposite. By learning what no single human could learn, the collective species evolves towards something different, perhaps less ‘human’, but definitely more of something.

the infinite(?) toolbox

The the range of granularity with which you can observe reality defines the complexity you are sensible to. Social phenonomenae tend to be complex, but more so if you have no conceptual basis for your thought.

(in the “natural world” understanding particle physics would perhaps be the more fundamental boundary and observing that the sky is blue being towards a more general, empirical direction)

The human scale plays a part here: being human prepares us to be more sensitive to some things and not to others (we think in days, weeks, months, years, but not in centuries, for instance).

In the same way eyes are sensors of radiation of a certain type (the visible spectrum of light), our brain can be a sensor for ideas (I’m having a hard time coming up with a better word, but what I mean is not “ideas” in the creative sense. Perhaps “thoughts” is a better term). Unlike the eye, the mental processes that take place in our brain can be upgraded or at least critically evaluated.

Every time we come in contact with a novel (for us, individually) area of knowledge and its symbols and processes, we can use it to increase our mental toolbox. In an abstract sense there would be no reason not to do just this: expand our experience (either bybroadening or focusing it).

Of course, in practical terms, there is some limit to how many tools we can articulate before they cloud the very perception we strive to reflect upon.

The issue then would be what tools, what sciences, one should pick to better question the world and everything in it? Which fields that have always been useful (say, Philosophy) should stay in one’s toolbox and which have seen their time go by (say, Astrology). Which should make their way into our minds?

I don’t have children, but when I do, I hope my kids see the world as a set of things to wonder about and not one thing to be accepted.


*Some people actually know the nitty gritty details of sourcing, mold making, shipping containers from and to China. These people have an even deeper understanding of what it takes to make things in the modern world. It’s fascinating to hear some of their stories.