Tinkering, Not Making

Making implies the construction of something from constituent parts. We “make” dreams come real or “make” dinner. Making means putting form to materials. Unspoken, but also true, is that making is what we consider progress — our shared story is one of making bridges, buildings, and vast infrastructure systems.

So what is “making” in practice? In order to make, we need to understand the materials and how to work with them to create something new. A carpenter should not only understand, but think with wood — the flow of its grain, xylem, and phloem — in order to build something with it. This way of thinking is pervasive in the built world.

As pervasive as it is, it’s worth wondering: are there alternatives? What about creating something from something? Or making nothing from something?

Our world is already so full of things that other people have made, and ambitious folks looking to re-invent (see: make) the next thing. This can often be a wasteful and hubris-laden exercise that sounds something like: why look to the past when we can invent the future? In many ways, making is easier than understanding the complexity around us and engaging with it — something I like to think of as tinkering.

Tinkering focuses on mending, repairing, taking apart, and putting back together. This way of thinking centers on understanding the complexity of systems that already exist, and then reshaping them.

What if we dug into the rich history of things we’ve made, and rather than disposing of them, took them apart and put them back together? Breathed new life into the old and existing? What if craft was not just about how to make something well, but to understand whether we should make something at all?

The most ecologically friendly car is the used one, with the ore already mined, shipped, and constructed — not the newly-built electric one. Google Fiber failed because it tried to build its own telecommunications system from whole, rather than build off existing infrastructure.

Examples like these of our hubris — of what progress means — are everywhere. Sometimes, as the saying goes, progress isn’t walking ever-forward toward the cliff’s edge, but taking a 180 degree turn, and walking forward. Tinkering may be that turn.

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