Monday, October 24, 2011

WtMoM: Limitation vs. Justification

What to Make of Making

The way in which a person reacts when they recognize a limit speaks volumes about their character. Whether it's an external limit, like a traffic law, or an internal limit, like a disability, the way they deal with constraints shows us who they are.

You see, Users justify themselves in transgressing limits; Makers accept limits.

To be clear, by, "limits," I mean those things which you cannot (or should not) change. It's what remains to impede you after you've overcome complacency, mastered your craft, and fueled the drive that keeps you going notwithstanding friction, distractions, and doubts that are part and parcel of living on this planet.

Some limits are structural. That is, they arise from the nature of the context in which you operate. Should you be stationed at an Antarctic base, for example, nude sunbathing would be out of the question. We generally think of the "laws of nature" as synonymous with this category, but it's much broader. You can't use an automobile, unmodified and unaided, to cross a large body of water. It's not that amphibious cars are impossible, it's that the cars we purchase and use are not amphibious.

At the other end of the spectrum of limits we find those that are purely social conventions. Speed limits, for instance, seem, as Hamlet would say, "to be honored more in the breech than the observance." Limits of this sort are much easier to flaunt because the only sanctions are social: if you egregiously violate the law of gravity in context that allows for more than a few seconds of acceleration, you will be dead. If, armed with your radar detector, you drive with either the brake or the accelerator in the fully depressed position, you may get somewhere faster or earlier, or you may get a ticket. (You may also wind up dead, but that's neither a necessary nor consistent outcome.)

The less immediate the consequences for transgressing a limit, the greater the temptation to risk it for the potential advantage. But users take it a step further: they're not merely willing to bend the rules or take a short cut, they believe they are fully justified in doing so. Perhaps you need to speed because you're a little late. You wouldn't have slid you car off the embankment if there had been a guardrail there. The economic and political woes besetting the current administration can always be blamed on the policies of the previous one, but they'll take credit for anything good.

Indeed, in the economic department, proponents of growth are basically system beaters who avoid paying the price now by growing out of the problem in the future. Nor is that kind of thinking reserved for Washington-based think-tanks: the common wisdom about mortgages is to take the largest one you can now because your income and the value of the house will both grow. [Like the man behind the curtain, please ignore the last four years of the housing market.]

It's not that makers discount or are opposed to growth, it's that they're more interested in durability and sustainability. True making includes, "made to last." With that mind-set, when confronted with limitations, the maker's response is not, "How can I get around them?" but, "How can I use or adapt to them?"

One of the limitations of the mighty oak beams builders had available four hundred years ago to span spaces like chapels is that they lose their structural integrity (i.e., may no longer be able to support the weight of the roof) after about four hundred years. It's said (and I choose to believe) that after completing a new chapel four centuries ago at Oxford University, the builders planted oak trees for the express purpose of providing replacement beams nearly half-a millennium in the future.

If that seems to lofty, then think of it this way: given an assignment, users will complain that they can't complete it they way they want to because of the constraints; makers will say, "Within those constraints, let's see what we can do!"

Image: Bill Longshaw /

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