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On Tools and the Aesthetics of Work

In the summer of 2022, an engineer named Keegan McNamara, who was at the time working for a fundraising technology startup, found his way to the Arms and Armor exhibit at the Met. He was struck by the unapologetic mixture of extreme beauty and focused function captured in the antique firearms on display. As reported in a recent profile of McNamara published in The Verge, this encounter with the past sparked a realization about the present:

“That combination of craftsmanship and utility, objects that are both thoroughly practical and needlessly outrageously beautiful, doesn’t really exist anymore. ‘And it especially doesn’t exist for computers.'”

Aesthetically, contemporary digitals devices have become industrial and impersonal: grey and black rectangles carved into generically-modern clean lines . Functionally, they offer the hapless user a cluttered explosion of potential activity, windows piling on top of windows, command bars thick with applications. Standing in the Arms and Armor exhibit McNamara began to wonder if there was a way to rethink the PC; to save it from a predictable maximalism.

The result was The Mythic I, a custom computer that McNamara handcrafted over the year or so that followed that momentous afternoon at the Met. The machine is housed in a swooping hardwood frame carved using manual tools. An eight-inch screen is mounted above a 1980’s IBM-style keyboard with big clacking keys that McNamara carefully lubricated to achieve exactly the right sound on each strike: “if you have dry rubbing of plastic, it doesn’t sound thock-y. It just sounds cheap.” Below the keyboard is an Italian leather hand rest. To turn it on you insert and turn a key and then flip a toggle switch.

Equally notable is what happens once the machine is activated. McNamara designed the Mythic for three specific purposes: writing a novel, writing occasional computer code, and writing his daily journal. Accordingly, it runs a highly-modular version of Linux called NixOS that he’s customized to only offer emacs, a text-based editor popular among hacker types, that’s launched from a basic green command line. You can’t go online, or create a PowerPoint presentation, or edit a video. It’s a writing a machine, and like the antique arms that inspired it, the Mythic implements this functionality with a focused, beautiful utilitarianism.

In his critical classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that the form taken by the technologies we use impacts the fundamental nature of our cognition. When we switched media consumption from long newspaper articles to television soundbites, for example, our understanding of news lost its heft and became more superficial and emotionally-charged.

When pondering Keegan McNamara and the Mythic, I can’t help but apply Postman’s framework to the machines that organize our professional activities. The modern computer, with its generic styling and overloaded activity, creates a cognitive environment defined by urgent, bland, Sisyphean widget cranking — work as endless Slack and email and Zoom and “jumping on” calls, in which there is always too much to do, but no real sense of much of importance actually being accomplished.

In Keegan’s construction we find an alternative understanding of work, built now on beauty, craftsmanship, and focus. Replacing everyone’s MacBook with custom-carved hardwood, of course, is not enough on its own to transform how we think about out jobs, as these issues have deeper roots. But the Mythic is a useful reminder that the rhythms of our professional lives are not pre-ordained. We craft the world in which we work, even if we don’t realize it.

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In other news: My longtime friend Brad Stulberg has a great new book out this week. It’s called, Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything is Changing — Including You. In my cover blurb, I noted that this “immensely wise and timely book provides a roadmap for a tumultuous world.” I really mean it! The idea of preparing yourself to thrive, and not crumble, when faced with inevitable change is self-evidently important, and Brad does a great job of delivering the goods on this timely theme.

Pro-tip: if you do buy the book this week, go to Brad’s website to claim a bunch of cool pre-order bonuses that he’s offering through the first full week of publication.

11 thoughts on “On Tools and the Aesthetics of Work”

  1. Too much information when few things matter: that reminds me of the book Essentialism. Acting like those everyday stimuli don’t exist is the first recipe for success.

    Reply
  2. I love the idea here. People still use old typewriters as art pieces and coffee table decor in their homes. It’s hard to imagine something similar occuring with modern computers. Laptops are used until they’re dead, and then they’re recycled or thrown into the junk drawer.

    I think this craftsman/engineer might be onto something.

    Reply
  3. They have become Swiss knives, tools for all. Especially mobile phones, they’re maps, navigators, radio, compass, torch, voice recorder, word processor… all in one.

    I gave my kids a voice recorder the other day. So that they can have a one-action device to play with and understand what it is, on its own.

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  4. What a find!

    My copies of ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’ – McLuhan,
    the Medium is the Massage are always in my mind.

    A good summary is that one line by Culkin in an article about McLuhan:
    “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

    Timeless, humbling AND empowering at once.

    Reply
    • That quote it itself based on one by Winston Churchill to the UK Parliament in 1943: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Churchill was referring to the reconstruction of the bombed House of Commons, emphasizing how the design of buildings influences the behavior and culture of the people who use them.

      Reply
  5. WordStar was more fun than WordPerfect, which was quite a bit more fun than Microsoft Word. There has not been a professional writing application since WordStar and its pale descendants including EMACS. Everybody writes – there is opportunity here.

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  6. In my opinion, another huge value of this is that it has a distinct physical location. There’s a lot of power (at least for me) in having a physical place to do things. When I’m in my woodshop for instance, I am not engaging with distractions. I’m there to create things and I’m limited (or, empowered) by the tools around me.

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  7. As someone who formerly worked in IT but transitioned to become a classical fine art painter, I love the concept of objects that are both utilitarian and beautiful. Many craftspeople of the past took great pride in creating all manner of objects that were more than simply useful, as Keegan McNamara discovered. Owners of these well-crafted objects also loved them for their beauty. Beauty is important in life.

    Reply
  8. This goes back to the idea of writing things in a book, on real paper.

    Paper and pen are used for one thing.
    Creation.
    When writing with a pen on paper, there is no distraction, only you, Your mind, and the physical act of putting words on paper.

    Thats not to say that paper and pen can’t be works of art in themselves.
    They definitely can.
    Good quality paper in a nice notebook will always be more enjoyable to use than cheap printer paper.

    The same with pens.
    Would you rather write the same note on printer paper with a Bic Ballpoint pen, or in a nice notebook on quality paper, with a nice fountain pen, that writes better and has more character than any pen could ever have?

    The note written on good paper with a fountain pen becomes a work of art in itself.
    And going back to read it later is more enjoyable.

    Reply
  9. Nice. Your essay emphasizes the profound influence of tool aesthetics on our work and cognition. The Mythic I, handcrafted by Keegan McNamara, epitomizes the fusion of craftsmanship and practicality, offering a stark contrast to today’s industrial and impersonal digital devices. McNamara’s computer is designed for specific tasks like writing, coding, and journaling, redirecting our focus from multitasking chaos to singular productivity. It reminds us that we shape our work environment and challenges conventional notions of productivity. I would like to share https://writinguniverse.com/essay-writing-service/ free tools for writers. While we can’t all have custom-made computers, McNamara’s creation encourages us to rethink the balance between aesthetics and function in our daily tools.

    Reply

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