We Were All Makers Once

My initial explorations of technology lead me to take things apart and see how they worked. This is more difficult today. Increasingly technology is encapsulated in chips, boards, and software. Hidden. There is more under the hood as the hood becomes harder to lift. The things that surround us increase in complexity as well as obscure their methods evermore. Today opening up an object exposes not its inner mechanical logic and function but unveils a mystifying path of copper and chips.

Even the simplest things are Antikythera mechanisms; purpose lost to the depths in a sea of complexity. We throw away more complex goods every day at faster rates. Our landfill becoming more beautiful as each day passes. As our devices increase in sophistication, our immediate comprehension of them diminishes. Makers rise against this tide, wishing to understand, hack, change, appropriate, and most of all genuinely own the chipsam and
jetsam of modern life. I think it is wrong to conclude that the maker movement is some recent endeavour, however. Dreamed up at Faires around the world. We were all makers once.

I picked out the first gray hairs from the dark blonde, using tweezers. A tool I am very unfamiliar with. Was going to a Fashion TV Party. Figured that I didn’t want to give a model a Freudian body check at an inconvenient moment. Navigating the 3D space above my head in reverse I felt an immediate empathy towards the well-practiced plucks women do apace. Also, compassion towards the inept tinkerer before me in the mirror caught up in a life filled with screens and keyboards his dexterity excellent in FPS games but negligible with any real tool. His hands more often busy moving a cursor across a screen than things in the real world. I also thought through my life.

We think of ourselves growing wiser, smarter and more experienced. We think of year by year being better able to handle the increased load that this world levies upon our shoulders. A gradual Atlas rising, bearing new continents, mountain range by mountain range. But we lose something as well. In this growing up. This long-term thinking. This analysis. This experience. It makes us lose the innocence of wonder. In response, many suggest to “seize the day.” I hate Carpe Diem. The fatalism and nihilism of it. The desperation. Opening up the world’s last vintage of Beaujolais Primeur as the Aliens attack. A frantic Waltz on Titanic teak as the bows burrow beneath the waves. A bear hug and bright whistle before we go over the top, escaping our muddy trenches for a brief moment of pounding earth under the open sun before we are cut down by machine gun. The desperate thrashing of a fish in a drying puddle.

We are young until we stop dreaming of the future. We are old when we dream only of a past not realized. Carpe Diem is a nightmare to me, a frenzied and pathetic plea to blithely spin the Roulette wheel. We wait our breaths entombed, for the plastic ball to deliver us from idle hope. Somehow this desperate hollow tic, tac, toc will place the ball underneath the right number and make everything OK. Anyhow if we keep joyously emptily tossing/spinning this ball, it will turn out alright in the end. A gambler’s idle hope, leaving the outcome to the fates. If you chose to be a passenger in this life, so be it. But, don’t you dare complain about landing at the wrong airport. Don’t you dare think that a last minute adjustment or a frenetic ever present tugging at the throttle will get you where you need to go. Seize the day all you will and all you want, but you will cling hungrily to only 1/29,000th of your existence. Rather than seizing a particular 24 hour period at a time, I believe it would be better to change our attitudes and frame of reference for all of our time.

Have you ever watched a child who is unable to walk trying to stand up? Not for one moment but for many across many an hour? They don’t do giving up. I don’t mean this in a Marine Corps ooooraaah “quitters never win” kind of way. It is not so much “failure is not an option” but rather “failure is not a concept I am familiar with at this point. I am trying to reach the ball on the couch and will continue to do this with all my energy until I am either distracted or fall asleep.”

Adults persevere, grit their teeth and pick themselves up with determination. Adults motivate themselves and cheer themselves on as they go once more into the breach. For adults, the fear of failure and not accomplishing a task often drives them. For adults, it is in the face of opposition that we win. For long-term goals, these may be useful skills, but as an attitude in life, it pits you against the world and the world against you. The planet becomes an obstacle course to be defeated, rather than a garden of wonder to be explored.

Small children, they just keep on going. Try stand, tumble over. Try stand. Fall. Try stand. Fall. Rinse repeat. They just want to know what’s on top of that table. Want to see the view from the couch. Want to reach something out of reach. There is no darnit, no feeling of lack of accomplishment rushing over you like a cold riptide come out at you from beneath your depths. They just keep on going. Again and again and again. Their wonder and curiosity keep them at it. Gumption and effort are natural byproducts of their many quests and in seemingly limitless supply. The world is not filled with things that can not be done or should not be done but rather things not known, things not explored and things not seen. It is a wonderful thing to see the world like this, not in terms of “seize the day” but rather in terms of “let your curiosity seize you.” Letting your curiosity guide you to do things for curiosity’s sake. In other words, live not as if each day is your last but rather if it were your first. The wide-eyed sponge taking in information, learning, exploring, experimenting, seeing what in this world does what. This to me is what making is. And, all children are makers.

Central to their lives is the curiosity-driven construction, destruction, tinkering, and analysis of the objects in their path. What does this thing do? Can I eat it? Is it strong? What happens when I throw it? You might laugh at a kid hitting a toy against his head or biting everything but how exactly would you go about making a Vickers Hardness scale or determining something’s approximate tensile strength without the prerequisite tools? How would you right now with your bare hands impact test something? Life is one big Beagle journey or Star Trek away mission where everything is new and unknown. Experimentation, observation, and curiosity the only tools. As dexterity increases and the mechanical properties and uses of many materials have been explored the child sets out to truly create. By the time they are given crayons or other materials to formally make they’ve been doing it for years of course.

Adult minds separate and categorize, the world neatly subdivided. But, kids have been, to possible chagrin, making with food, dirt, sand and anything malleable they can get a hold of for years. You might not like your child playing with their food but must admit that of all the materials they come into contact with many food items represent a tantalizing opportunity to make. If almost all the things you touch are hard plastic or wood, then mashed potato upon contact will instantly be recognized as an exciting material to create something with. Meanwhile, it will take some years for them to receive a similar material that has been cleared for the ‘make things’ category called Play-doh. This upon closer inspection is indeed more colorful and strong than mashed potato but does not taste as good.

Kids create unbounded. Unworried about the result. Caught up in the creative process, modulating, repairing, changing tack, a whimsical journey with no end. They make and make, creating everything without fear of failure. They are exploring, trying, learning again and again.

Then we start growing up. We start to notice that Mary makes much nicer paintings than we do. We realize we would never be van Gogh. We start to compare ourselves and our output to the world at large. Start to give up because we don’t have certain skills, rather than just continue exploring only to discover that we had learned these skills along the way. We start to measure ourselves. Grade ourselves. Compare. Feel that we had failed. We worry that the things we made were ugly. We doubt our ability to do certain things. As our knowledge of the world increased our belief in our abilities decreased. Part of this is encountering realism, longer-term goals and learning more. But, a part is also that we stop doing for doing’s sake. We stop exploring, being as curious, being so unbridled and unbounded. We categorize this world and place ourselves in these categories limiting the type of things we do. We start to touch things less and let our lives revolve around screens. Passive watchers observing stories unfold rather than active makers of things. And we do “get ahead, ” but we also lose so much.

Oh, to live each day as if it were your very first. Wide-eyed, imagination unchecked and curiosity absolute. To just be busy with one’s hands. To understand and learn. To make, create and break all of the things then remake them once again. To eat Play-Doh and make something with mashed potato. Make art without wondering what a critic would say. Letting your curiosity seize you into doing something for doing’s sake. This is the reclaiming of a part of your former self. This is the reconnection you have with your wide-eyed past. It is this that you rediscover when you become a maker. We were all makers once, and then we grew up.

3 thoughts on “We Were All Makers Once

  1. I am truly flabbergasted by this beautiful essay of thoughts on human creative powers and nature. Inspiring and mind blowing insights like this make me feel a proud human being and guardian of this planet.

  2. When I was 16, I could only afford a just-barely-functional Ford to drive. That was the best possible gift. I spent countless hours with my father, dismantling and rebuilding the carburetor, replacing the alternator, testing plug wires and the distributor, etc. By the time I was 18, I had mastery over the older cars, though I had to walk, tow, push or bike fairly frequently, since the car was an eternal work-in-progress. I’m now not qualified to explore my car, and my son will never so much as touch anything under the hood, if there are hoods at all in 11 years. Cars – especially electrics – don’t break much, and require little maintenance. We gained something, but we lost an intangible dividend in the trade. I’m a designer/engineer/inventor now, and successful at it. My son, growing up in a world of perfect things that never need dismantling or frustrating weekends of oily repairs, will never have this gift.

  3. “live not as if each day is your last but rather if it were your first.”
    This struck a chord.

    This will definitely strike a chord with people inversely proportional to their age (or where they perceive themselves to currently be on the birth to death continuum). This is explained in a very fascinating book: Algorithms to live by.

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