Once again we have been slandered because of our enthusiasm for the Macintosh. This time I ain't gonna take it...it's hammer time!


Tool Using Mammals

7 April 2002

by Del Miller

Yes indeed, the six of us built a lot of houses. We were carpenters for a small time, custom builder and we built those houses from footing to ventcap and from plumbing to paint. We built so may houses that it became more habit than craft - I don't recall even looking at a set of blueprints. The boss would simply show up at groundbreaking and wave his arms for half an hour in a semi-descriptive flurry of architectural extemporation and off we'd go to assemble concrete and lumber into yet another variation of the middle-American, single-family dwelling.

One of us was the foreman, but it was never terribly clear which one. Tasks were distributed over coffee breaks through some sort of wordless consent, and we worked through the day without a recognizable chain of command. We seemed to know where we were needed and when, coordinating our work through the medium of sheer familiarity. We didn't really construct our houses, they just evolved from nails and timber and sweat.

Emmett was a quiet, skinny little man well into his sixties - about the same age, except for me, as the rest of the crew. He pursued his craft with a quiet precision that was almost dainty. There he would be, balancing upon the three and a half inch wide top plate, two stories above the ground, as if he were strolling without a care down the boulevard. Every sixteen inches he would bend at the waist, straight kneed, to tap in a nail with three - always three - taps of his hammer. Occasionally he would stop in the middle of his tightrope walk and clean the sweat from his spectacles while casually taking in the view. Emmett was part cat.

Emmett used a fine grained, ash-handled clawhammer, that he said, "just felt right." He maintained that there was something about a wooden handle against the palm that lent a feel to the hammer, that told him how the nail was behaving. For him you couldn't beat a well made, wooden handled hammer.

Frank agreed with Emmett about the wooden handle part, but he was an old Navy man who just couldn't abide rust. He used a yellow handled Stanley with a stainless steel head, always squinting one eye at the nail to draw a bead and aiming the hammer like it was a deck gun.

The most skilled craftsman in the bunch was soft spoken Leonard. He could run the electrical wiring, plumb the house and build the cabinetry as well. He preferred a hammer with a heavy steel handle covered with a thick rubber cushion. He liked the heft and the added bit of authority when he needed it.

More pragmatic was Ernest, who also like a steel handled hammer, mostly because it never broke, but differed from Leonard on the type of claw. Ernest leaned toward the straight clawed variety rather than the recurve because it was handy in an adze-like sort of way when tearing things out that hadn't gone in properly the first time.

Winston was an enormously strong ox of a man with a surly, distrusting disposition and a tendency to take out his inner frustrations on helpless building materials that happened to be in his path. He wielded a half-yard long, twenty-one ounce framing hammer with a sharpened steel handle that doubled as a hatchet at some times, and as a manifestation of primal scream therapy at others. He always drove his nails with one blow.

Myself, I loved my red-fiberglass handled Plumb with the rubber grip. The light handle lent perfect balance and the fiberglass gave the thing a certain life that turned driving a nail into a minor piece of performance art. To me, there just wasn't a better hammer.

Tool time

I suppose we all might have saved a few dollars and had the boss supply our hammers but that would never have worked. We would have all been dispensed some cheap little hammer from the cutout bin; perfectly useable I suppose and cost effective in a corporate sort of way, but unnacceptable to people for whom driving nails was part of their life. The fine points of hammering might not have made much of a difference to backyard hobbyists, but to us it was important.

At least some of us, perhaps most, are familiar with such tool oriented fetishism. If the office manager has stocked the supply closet with those astonishingly cheap, stick-type ball-point pens, he may save even more money than planned because I will bring my own, thank you kindly. I want a writing instrument that feels right to me, that flows the ink smoothly and evenly on the paper, that puts just the right cushion behind the roller and fits comfortably in my hand. Am I obsessive? I don't care, writing is a personal thing and I want the act of doing so to jibe with who I am, and the mere existence of an entire industry offering high quality writing instruments tells me that I'm not alone. The fact that ninety percent of the population gets by with cheap stick pens makes no difference to me.

So if something as elemental and physical as a hammer or an ink pen can stir such basic human feelings, it seems reasonable that something as pricey, complex and mental as a computer could generate even stronger emotions on the part of the user. I'm a Macintosh user for the same reason that I care about the hammer I use and the ink pen that I write with - and it astonishes me that I should ever have to explain to other people why this is so. How can someone be human and not understand?

Speaking of a "Tool"

And yet, I just read this most astonishing article in the Sunday Herald, entitled "It's Just a Computer...Not a Lifestyle." The writer, Iain Bruce, bills himself as "IT/New Media Writer of the Year," and in a single swoop destroys both the credibility of all IT/New Media writers and the dignity of the human race in the most extravagantly dopey bit of scribbling I've witnessed in a goodly while. His point, it seems, is that Macintosh users are deluded, ignorant fools because they have a preference for something he seems incapable of understanding.

Trudging through the smarmy swamp of his smirking self-satisfaction, tripping over his diseased logic, dealing with his arbitrary yet absolute value judgements and gasping through the heated vapors of utter misinformation, I can only marvel that he presents himself as a voice of reason. If this is the sort of individual that represents the PC/IT crowd, it's little wonder that "Trustworthy Computing" is a novel concept on his side of the street.

Now Mr. Bruce isn't the first PC maven to vent innacuracies and hyperbole at the Macintosh community so I wonder why I take such umbrage here. Perhaps if his ranting had been some anonymous post on an obscure message board, one could more easily ignore him, but by calling himself "IT Writer of the Year" and presenting himself as an authority on something he is obviously so ill suited to discuss, I think he has violated most accepted modes of professional integrity. But then this is not an unheard of behavior in a class of people whose job security depends on maximizing the difficulty experienced by their customers.

Every single paragraph in his article is an affront to accuracy, fair mindedness, clear thinking and to any sense that human beings are more than mere machines. He begins with the remarkable conceit that "The trouble with IT is that..." it is a "wizard field of invention" plagued by ordinary users who "begin attempting to fix the same ludicrous rules, values and obsessions on to [information technology] that they seem determined to attach to every other aspect of life." What? Lemme read that again. I assume that from his lofty heights Mr. Bruce sees his chosen profession as some sort of sacred priesthood, distanced from the low, shopkeeping minds that insist on fixing value on their lives. If he were king, it appears, anyone entering his throneroom would be required to shuck whatever values that give any meaning to being human. He goes beyond claiming that computers are just machines and demands that people be machines as well.

He then explains that Macintosh users "have hijacked the information revolution and led it blindly down a route mapped out by superficiality and style" and that they value their machines "not by utility, but the color of their monitor casings," and he uses the "repellent" new iMac as an example of this "aberration." Apparently Bruce felt it appropriate journalistic practice to cast his judgement on the opinions of others without bothering to read or listen to any of their thoughts. If he had done otherwise, he would have found that for the last eighteen or so years, Macintosh enthusiasts have filled volumes on the superior utility of their machines - with logic that he might do well to emulate.

But "hijacked the information revolution?" Please. It wasn't necessary that Microsoft, IBM, Compaq and all the rest "blindly" follow Apple down any route. But if they hadn't done so, the standard PC would today be a non-networked, mouseless, character mapped, DOS driven box with eight inch floppies and used primarily by accounting departments. I suspect the information revolution wasn't hijacked by Apple as much as it chased afterward like a lost child searching for its mommy. In fact, the only area where today's PCs have NOT copied Apple, is in the area of style. You need to get your facts straight, Mr. Bruce.

Bruce goes on, "Think of all the justifications for it that you want, but at the end of the day ownership of a fringe product means losing the benefits of ubiquity and adding to the expense, and is thus illogical."

Just reading that statement gives me shivers. Can he really be serious in stating that the benefits of ubiquity - doing whatever the majority does - trumps all other justifications for finding a better alternative? Are increased productivity, ease of use, greater product longevity, immunity to viruses, lower life-cycle costs, superior quality, better fitness for purpose and plain old user preference insignificant factors compared to the comfort of fitting in with the crowd? Is the better solution to be always sacrificed on an altar of cheapness in homage to some chintzy rationalization that Bruce calls logic?

This, my friends, is a prescription for mediocrity, a death nell for progress and a call to herd behavior that has no place in a world of real people. If these were the values that drove the industry there wouldn't even be computers, we would still be clacking beads on a cheap, industry standard abacus and writing down the results with nice, cheap quill pens - just like everyone else. Progress of any sort does not come from the comfortable middle, it comes from the fringe. Forget computers for a moment, just look at the world around you and imagine that our entire existence were shaped by such flocking behavior. What an empty, lifeless world it would be. Logical? The logic of madmen maybe.

He makes the entirely arbitrary claim that the rise of cross-platform software has taken away the Mac advantage in the creative endeavors, a dead giveaway that he has never stepped foot into a truly creative environment. Perhaps he should mosey outside the sterile halls of his IT department and actually work in a creative organization - and no, I don't mean the marketing department in his own company, where creativity is likely throttled by the edicts of "stick-pen" type technologists like him. Creativity is not an industrial process and I suspect that were a company of creative "designers and their ilk" as Bruce puts it, placed under his technical direction, the resulting explosion would decapitate him.

It is clear from Bruce's article is that he has no business making judgements on the creative process, the very real human beings who create or the tools that they use.

Mr. Bruce expresses the laughable and totally unsupportable opinion that the one-button mouse, aside from benefitting "the weak and feeble minded," increases "the risk of repetitive strain injury." (Honest, he really said that.) He states that "Apples only run one brand of operating system, the Mac OS. PCs will happily accommodate Linux, Unix, or any one of the Microsoft product range" - a contention he likely wouldn't make if he saw a Macintosh running MacOS, Unix and Windows applications in different windows on the same screen with cut and paste capabilities in between. Then he grinds the ax that Microsoft owns a percentage of Apple so buying a Macintosh is really just paying Microsoft and we should therefore just give up. Mr. Bruce should stop reading old magazines.

The silliness just goes on and on like this, in an insufferable tone of smug, prattling pomposity. Is this what the IT profession is all about? God help us.

He finally concludes:

"Here's the scoop, folks: your computer is not a lifestyle statement. It's a bog-standard machine intended to fulfil an array of user-defined functions, and spending extra to distance yourself from 90% of the evolutionary pool sounds like muddle-headed foolishness to say the least. The sooner we stop pretending it is anything other than that, the quicker we realise a computer has no value in itself and only in the things it does..."

Well I say that if Mr. Bruce inhabits that 90% of the evolutionary pool, I will gladly spend extra to distance myself from it. Pardon me, but one's lifestyle is clearly defined by what one does, and by how one does it. If you use computers in your life, then they are, by definintion, part of your lifestyle - though admittedly, if your computing lifestyle is dull and lifeless I can see how it might be difficult to recognize it as such.

It's only a tool...

So once again, someone with muddied thinking and an ax to grind pops out of the IT ether like some rabid Whack-a-Mole and dismisses the Macintosh with an argument to the effect that a computer has no value except to "fulfill an array of user-defined functions." Generally such persons do so with more knowledge and persuasiveness than Mr. Bruce, but the sentiment is the same - an harumphing dismissal of anyone who actually likes their computer, because the computer is merely a tool. It is as if the act of defining a computer as a tool somehow seals their argument and that by placing arbitrary limits on our expectations the PC wins and the Macintosh loses. In other words, they win the game by rigging the rules.

But the rules of rhetoric would here require that you first define what you mean by a "tool." Is a sharp rock lying on the ground a tool? No, it is simply a sharp rock lying on the ground - until, that is, someone of the opposed thumb persuasion picks it up and uses it to carve an antler into something useful. Then it most certainly does became a tool.

How can this be? How can this rock not be a tool and then be one, and presumeably, when tossed back on the ground it either is or is not a tool depending on whether it is found by a paleoanthropologist. The rock has not changed and neither has its potential for utility. What was the magical "tool-force" that was breathed into this humble rock that made it change its nature in this Heisenbergian way?

The thing that makes a rock or a hammer, or anything else for that matter, into a tool is the tool user. That rock might become a knife or an ax or a weapon, or just a rock, depending on the will, creativity and the inspiration of the one who uses it. The value of a hammer depends not only on the nature of its parts but on who the user is and how he is wired. It isn't some abitrary label that makes an object into what it is and it isn't some narrowly defined rule from the IT department that limits its utility. Beyond the basic truth that a rock is a rock, it is the connection between its fundamental qualities and our own anthropic sensibilities that turns it into a paperweight, a precious gem, a flagstone or a tool.

Our whole world is like that: Our values are what turn the objects around us into what we want them to be. As Robert Pirsig said in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance":

That's all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There's no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone's mind... I've noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this -- that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes-- pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts--all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forge work or welding sees "steel" as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet are what you arrive at, what you give to the steel. Steel has no more shape than this old pile of engine dirt here. That's important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone's mind. There's no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There's nothing else there. But what's "potential"? That's also in someone's mind!

Tool User

While those carpenter's hammers were simply assemblages of head and handle, their value as tools were dependent on the character and values of the various men who used them. The way they were used and how well they functioned as tools did not derive solely from absolute qualities, or else there would only be one type of hammer in the world and it would work equally well for all people. No, what created their value as tools was the indescribably complex connections that those qualities made with their users. Whatever makes that connection stronger increases the utility and enhances the "toolness" of the things around us.

A computer is no more a tool than is a sharp rock lying on the ground or an ingot of raw steel. A computer is a hunk of plastic and silicon and metal and glass, arranged in such a way that a human being might potentially use it for something useful or entertaining - and in that way turn it into a tool. Is a giant mainframe a better computer than my Macintosh? Not for me, what could I do with it? For me, it isn't a tool at all.

The "toolness" of my computer does not depend on Mr. Bruce's vapid and self-serving rules, but rather on the degree to which the qualities of that computer connects with me and inspires me to use it to best advantage. The parts and pieces that form my Macintosh connect with me in the same way as did my old red hammer. It feels right and it helps me do the things that I want to do.

Sorry Mr. Bruce, but my computer has far more value than what you say. I know because I put it there.

It's about more than computers

Part of being human lies in the complex and subtle ways that we interact with our world - the way that our values reflect against our environment.

When narrow minds sully this beauty through simple minded reductionism, it sets humanity apart from our tools, from our environment and from the rest of the world. We become cogs in a vast machine of inconsequential bits and pieces, our values disconnected from any higher concept of quality. Life is about more than nuts and bolts and specifications, it is about a search for quality and meaning that we find in everything we touch.

How dare someone tell me that I am not allowed to enjoy my tools and that I'm foolish for admiring the qualities of a special hammer or for being pleased with the specialness of my computer. If Mr. Bruce wishes to turn his world into a joyless and mechanical place, so be it. But it is nothing to be proud of.


If you want to read Iain Bruce's original story "It's just a computer ... not a lifestyle statement" you can find it here: http://www.sundayherald.com/23324. Don't say I didn't warn you, though.


Copyright 2001, Del Miller

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