Posted on November 16, 2011
My co-worker, John Ito, our exhibit designer/builder, sent me this link to a short video describing a shop in New England that sells used tools. Watching it set me to reflecting about tools and the part they’ve played in my life. It’s an appropriate thing to be contemplating during this era of consumerism that has culminated in our being swamped with goods that are non-repairable and must be thrown away when they fail. When I was growing up in the fifties, a do-it-yourself (DIY) movement was in full flower. In the decades following the seventies DIY seemed to disappear into the woodwork, so to speak. You began to get the feeling that only nerds and losers bothered to fix anything, much less build anything from scratch.
The picture above was shot in my father’s workshop. He’s 94 years old now and doesn’t spend much time there any longer, sad to say. But seeing those tools, some of them the same ones I used when he first started teaching me to use them, when I was age eight or ten, stirs my nostalgia. At the time he was very active with Do It Yourself projects. He always had a well-organized workbench in the house where he operated on ailing appliances and built various projects, some of them for my own entertainment. For that reason using tools, repairing and building things seemed an ordinary part of life, one which I completely took for granted and which skills I absorbed by osmosis.
Here’s photo of my drawer of electronics tools and another of my woodworking tools, all of which were instrumental in building every exhibit I’ve contributed to Mindport’s collection. With the woodworking tools you’ll notice a certain father-son resemblance in the means of their organization, if you compare to the earlier photo of of my father’s shop. Most of my tools visible in these photos have been with me for over 40 years and are as much a part of me as my own hands. I own one set of chisels that my mother gave to me. When I was about seven years old, she took a carving class from an old German woodcarver, and bought these chisels from him. It’s pleasing to me to use tools that have a history of known human connections, as these do. These photos remind me of the contrast between the throw-away values of today, and the values of a time when many household objects, especially tools, served us well for years, during which time we grew increasingly attached to them, to the point where we’d only part with them regretfully.
During the past few decades, there’s been a growing cultural tendency in the US to value abstract mental work over manual skills. If you were a machinist, carpenter, or practitioner of any other trade that involved using physical tools (outside of computers. . . which are only semi-physical) your pay rate betrayed the fact that your profession was valued less than that of someone sitting in a cubicle shuffling paper or bytes and thinking for a living. This despite the fact that your work was the last step in a chain of activities culminating in creations that were actually necessary and useful, in the physical sense of the word.
Now that the activities of an elite group of paper and byte shufflers has brought the world’s economy to its knees, and the possibility of the collapse of industrial civilization has begun to hit the mainstream press as a distinct possibility, we’re suddenly hearing that certain physical skills and the tools necessary to put them into action might be coming back in demand. Various groups around the country are beginning to ask what steps we might take to re-industrialize America and get us producing useful things again, not only useful, but repairable and recyclable. Hallelujah!
Having done an assortment of jobs as a self-employed person, that included both mental/paper-shuffling work and physical design and construction, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate the latter. For a long time, I’ve noticed that the best medicine for anxiety and unease is to build something with my hands. There’s something deeply reassuring about seeing things that I’ve only imagined come together in the physical world, and that satisfaction serves to remind me of my deep appreciation for the tools that make that possible.