ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Everything is Handmade

No, really.

Photo by Sherman Yang on Unsplash

How do you build a phone?

The smart cellular telephone that you find in your front pocket. An unexplainably complex device that almost everyone has glued to their thigh.

For some parts of the phone, the explanation might not be too hard to think of. Making the metal base seems simple enough. You extract the metal from the ground, warm it up, pour it into a mold, and let it harden. You’re not talking to some novice here — I’ve made Jell-O before.

But what about all the other complex, seemingly infinitesimal parts? The camera, the chipset, the speaker. These miracles of engineering have millions of tiny parts that you can’t even see without a microscope. How the hell do you make that?

If you’re like me and most other people, you have no idea. There must be some sort of machine that does it, right? And you might imagine that there are some highly intelligent people in highly unfashionable safety clothing sitting behind a tall desk, telling the machine what to do. Long assembly lines come to mind. But most of these machines rely on similarly miniature and complex microchips themselves, often accompanied by robotics of equally inhuman quality. Which came first, the microchip or the microchip?

This article is not, in fact, about how to build a phone, although that is a fascinating topic in itself. I’m here to tell you that everything accessible in the human world, ranging in complexity from spoons to smartphones, is handmade.

No, really. Everything is handmade.

Back to the phone. Assuming you and I both have no intimate knowledge of electronics manufacturing, let’s think about how these magnificent creations came to be.

How to make a phone with your hands

Imagine you were put in a remote village. The village has all the raw materials you need to make a phone — metal, silicon, oil, and more. You have the blueprints for a phone, consisting of where all the pieces go and what they’re made of. How would you make it?

Of course, you can’t just start smashing things together with your grubby hands. Microchips are far too small and delicate to be crafted with bare hands.

The first step would probably be to make some tools. Intelligent tool-making is one of the skills that helped humans diverge from the rest of the animal kingdom thousands of years ago. The cavepeople started out small. They had knives, spears, hammers, and the like. They also had fire, which allows for the heating of raw materials, like sand, to transform them into others, like glass.

The smallest thing you can make with your bare hands is probably around half the size of your fingernail. With a sharp tool and a magnifying glass, you can shrink that size down a bit more.

Soon, though, you’ll get to the point where your hands are too shaky and clumsy to handle the delicate items you have under your magnifying glass. Some level of physical abstraction is needed; the six simple machines can help. Each lever or gear controls a slightly smaller one, ad infinitum.

There are many more machines and tools that must be made to reach the point of microchip creation, and it would likely take years. You would need rulers, molds, and many more complex tools. But the idea remains that you can make all of these things with your bare hands, from scratch. Given time, knowledge, and resources, you can make anything in this world. It is from this that we divine that everything was once, at its beginning level, handmade.

This principle doesn’t just apply to small electronics. It applies to mankind's largest creations. The Pyramids were constructed in ancient Egypt using only handmade tools. Although it might be difficult to conceptualize at first, even spaceships are truly a culmination of handmade tools and effort.

The only two barriers that keep the world from achieving creations of even greater complexity are resources and knowledge. Knowledge comes slowly and takes time to curate. King Tutankhamun was perfectly capable of creating a smartphone with the resources he had available, he just had no idea how.

The infrastructure of our modern world is based on technologies that are very different from those used hundreds of years ago, but the items from both areas always begin in the same place: a pair of human hands.

Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

So what?

There are a number of ways we can interpret the handmade nature of the world. We can see it as beautiful, providing an elegant base to the marvels of the human era. We can see it as demoralizing and frightening, too. If everything is handmade, everything is hand-destructible. No earthly barrier is too high or too strong for humans to break, and our minute creations can be squashed underfoot.

Perhaps the best way to look at it is with a humanistic inspiration. Let the capability of your hands take your mind and world to new frontiers. We can make almost anything with our dextrous hands, all that is needed is to figure out how. When you next walk down the street, look around you and within yourself to internalize how everything is a handmade construct. Maybe even make it your next mission to craft something new with your very own pair of hands.

Don’t believe me? Please write a response or reach out to me at my website, rustom.dev, and tell me why I’m wrong. I’d love to hear something you think isn’t handmade.

Addendum: I received a response from one of my followers that I thought summarized the empowering nature of human-built reality aptly, so I thought I’d put it here! Thank you, Kris Hubbard.

I really loved this article!

When you consider that everything handmade is made by humans, it’s quite inspiring to think that everything is human-made.

Human-made is important because you’re a human.

It's easy to get lost in the day-to-day and forget that humans made that Tesla you want. Humans made the phone you’re using. Humans created the internet and wireless communication. These are human technologies and you’re part of the race that created them.

Your personal power is limitless, just like the human species. You have all the tools around you needed to create the “smartphone of your life” just like King Tut had everything he needed to create a smartphone.

What’s the difference between you and King Tut? Nothing.

Whatever you want to achieve in life, you have the tools around you to get it. If you don’t directly have the tools, you have the tools to make the tools.

Being a human is the first and only qualification for greatness. All the ingredients are right here. It’s up to you to put them together.

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Rustom Ichhaporia

Rustom Ichhaporia

I'm a CS + statistics student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign trying out thought pieces. Find more at https://rustom.dev.