• "The point isn't nostalgia, that things were better in simpler times, but that the conditions we create (deliberately or accidentally) for and around the practices we pursue have a tremendous influence on the ways we carry out those practices. In the case of computer programming in particular, the apparent benefits of speed, efficiency, accessibility, and other seemingly "obvious" positive virtues of technical innovation also hide lost virtues, which of course we then fail to see." Culture as a byproduct of conditions.
  • "Type words to interact with Fireplace or just sit back and enjoy. The logs burn down to ashes in about 30 minutes each." Charming, delightful.

Blessed are the Toymakers

22 September 2011

I wish more people were making tools for a specific creative purpose rather than for general consumer adoption. I wish more people were making tools that very intentionally do not scale—tools with users by the dozen. Tools you experience not through a web signup form, but through pathbreaking creative work.

Robin Sloan writes about being frustrated by the startup generation’s love of toolsmithery. Or rather: their recurring commitment to selling services.

Now, I know that I’m a toolsmith – but I only really make tools for myself. Some of them are on github; some are not even there, either because they’re just so bespoke or so useless. Some I use daily; some I barely use at all. Regardless, I wouldn’t sell them to anybody.

But I thought about the article, and ruminated, and my best comeback is: blessed are the toymakers.

If you can make a tool, you can make a toy. The common output of workshop apprenticeships were both tools to be put to use, but also toys or knick-knacks to demonstrate and practice skills.

I love making toys. Little mechanical things, to be fiddled with, to be explored, created with purpose and intent and intended to express an idea. Most of my borderline-nonsense Twitter bots are just that: toys I wanted to play with. One of them lived for an hour before I decided it was so rubbish I wasn’t letting it out in public for a while. Some of them have lasted a very long while and have a great many followers.

The best toys have hidden depths. The best toys are all super-simple on the surface; super-obvious. They let you know exactly what you ought to try doing with them. But as you explore them, you discover they have hidden depths. And: hidden affordances. Spaces for imagination to rush in. Toys allow you to play games, inventing rules that make the toy more fun, not less. Toys allow you to tell the stories you imagine, not that are baked into them.

As Matt Jones said in his his Interesting 2007 talk – “stories are the contrails that toys leave as they roar through our world and our imaginations“. It’s one of my favourite Jones-isms. I’ve been returning to that notion a lot, recently.

Toys demand fiddling with: they invite interrogation through hands and messing around. And they can be disposable: if they’re no good, make another.

The toys my Dad made for me were wooden. The toys I make – for myself, for friends, to make a joke real – are digital. But they’re there, and they all come down to an odd idea I wanted to explore, or a joke I wanted to make real. They are not vague ideas, tweeted and then forgotten about, tossed to the wind in a meeting, or imagined up but never created. They work, they’re real. No smoke and mirrors here – but no Great Purpose either, no business model. Just something fun, something interesting, to scratch an itch, to see if it’s fun in your hand.

I make toys to find out what’s interesting, to explore what’s next.

Reading Robin’s post, I came to agree with him. After all, I’m a staunch believer in the whole “Liberal Arts 2.0” idea; I’m one of those humanities graduates who learned to code.

Why not put technological skills to use making art (as I argued at Culture Hack Day)? Go one step further: rather than putting technology to use serving existing media – the books and films that Robin talks about – why not just invent new forms of media, as Jack Schulze and Timo Arnall describe? The new liberal arts are not on the edge of something big; they are on many edges, all at once. We get to decide where they tip over into; what’s at the bottom of those cliff-faces. Maybe those media will have the tiny audiences Sloan describes; maybe they’ll become huge. But we get to decide, and right now, there is space to play, and a need for those of us with weird skillsets – technological hands and flighty, artistic brains, or vice versa, ‘consecutive or concurrent’ – to go explore.

Inventing media is a big job. We could start by making toys.

  • "Each Bakugan is effectively a marble with the imagination taken out, the rules written down, and formalised, because each one can be used in a card game which apes Top Trumps, but in a more collectible, mercenary way." Duncan Gough on the sad facts of toys that just don't work (see also Fortress of Solitude). Also: I liked this quotation.

Dylan is six or seven, and frustrated that his toys don’t live up to their promise:

If the Etch A Sketch and the Spirograph had really worked they would probably be machines, not toys, they would be part of the way the adult universe operated, and be mounted onto the instrument panels of cars or worn on the belts of policemen. Dylan understood and accepted this. These things were broken because they were toys, and vice versa. They required his pity and patience, like retarded children who’d been entrusted to his care.

Jonathan Lethem – The Fortress of Solitude.

I’m enjoy the book a lot, but that paragraph leapt out at me early on and has been dog-eared since.

Margaret talks a lot about one possible pillar of good game design being “how is this interestingly hard?” I described this to her, and she suggested that what distinguished many (but not all) toys as toys were being things that were interestingly shit.

Of course, not all toys are; many of the very best are just genuinely interesting. I immediately leap to Lego to answer that one. But broken-in-interesting-ways allows for subversion and exploration; enjoying it not despite, but because of brokenness. Difficult-in-interesting-ways allows for mastery. Both are interesting, and worth pursuing.

And yet: reading Dylan’s disappointment, as he realises the Spirograph is just not as tolerant a device as the cover of the box suggests, I felt that same feeling in my gut; the same feeling I felt at six or seven, realised all my efforts with my Etch A Sketch were doomed to being rubbish. Interesting, but broken.