Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Wisdom of Tools

Happy Easter!  I don't know why, but it's quite relaxing to say that right now.  I do have the luxury of having Monday off, which doesn't often happen most years, so I'm not feeling under any time-pressure today.  I can simply sit back and type at a leisurely pace on the subject of tools - a topic close to my heart.

Like many people, I tend to define who I am in various ways:  in terms of beliefs, skills, capabilities, successes and failures, philosophical outlook, appreciation for the arts, how I interact with people, responsibility, irresponsibility, my sense of fun, or morality... in short, too many ways to conveniently measure quantitatively or qualitatively.  The mere act of attempting to enumerate such a list (for, that is all it is) implies the existence of a concluding term - which also suggests the presence of a hierarchy of priorities.  To assume the presence of either structure would be fallacious, so I find it convenient to extract elements according to the situations in which I find myself.

Today it is Easter Sunday, so my mind wanders to concepts of belief and the nature of tools.  Now, to some this may appear to be an odd pairing, but such juxtapositions are enjoyable to me to attempt to connect.  I see tools and devices as a means to an end - and I imagine most people would tend to agree with that viewpoint.  I suppose that this is a fairly puerile observation, so allow me to continue before the thought is complete.

Tools enhance the capabilities of the worker:  the end to which they were designed was the facilitation of an otherwise-onerous or unachievable task.  Measurement, to point to a specific example, could not be achieved without a standard with which to quantify an ascertainment of dimension.  The tool's purpose is to precisely and accurately serve as a means of comparison.  Accuracy and precision are not necessarily the same things, however.  Imagine, if you will, throwing a handful of darts at a dartboard:  the tightness of the grouping with which they hit the board is the precision of the throws.  They might all hit triple five, but unless that is what was needed to win a game the precision of the shots is irrelevant.  The relative distance to the target point is what is important.

On the other hand, if all the darts strike wildly different sections of the board they may be imprecise, but if their average position relative to the target point is exact, even though none of them struck the bullseye, the net result is accuracy.  In the same way, therefore, accuracy alone is pointless.  This underlies the fallacy of the so-called "Wisdom of Crowds" (Surowiecki 2005).

The notion of the Wisdom of Crowds is captured by the idea that although individuals may be wrong in an objective sense about an estimated measurement, the overall collective result of a series of wrong answers will probably average out to a correct (and thus, 'accurate') value.  Luckily for us, good measurement tools are both accurate and precise.

Humans are, sad to say, not good measurement tools.  Take for instance the other application of the Wisdom of Crowds (The "Madness of Crowds" as Charles Mackay called it in 1841 - upon which Surowiecki's book was based):  we call it Mob Rule.

Contemplate for a moment the account in the Gospels of Jesus' condemnation and crucifixion (which some wags might term "crucifiction").  It is clear that the crowds who participated at various stages in the process were not what Surowiecki refers to as 'wise' crowds; in that they were influenced internally and externally, homogeneous, emotional, centralised, subdivided, and self-imitating.  That's about as flawed as a crowd can get, but I would infer that this the norm rather than an exception.

Of the many tools in my several tool-repositories, only a few are good for measuring with.  Take for instance the measurement of length.  I have chisels of fairly accurate widths, screwdrivers that are a fairly reliable length, tape measures, rulers, a micrometer, vernier calipers, and so forth.  If I were to need to measure a length down a stair-rail to gauge the lengths of pieces of trim I have to cut to complete the finish of the railing, it behoves me to use a precise tool, because accuracy is not important.  The problem of fitting the piece I cut to the space that it should occupy is encapsulated within the realm of only the railing and the trim pieces.  I couldn't care less what the measurements are in terms of the wavelength of light, or decimal fractions of the length of a platinum/iridium bar in Sevres:  I only care that the pieces fit.

So, humans are largely imprecise tools, but occasionally one can find the right tool amid a score of others.  Because of the existence of a few adequate tools, the Workman fashioned a result that was self-repairing and sustainable.  That so much could be achieved by so subtle a touch - even with flawed instruments chosen from a really dreadful toolkit - is supremely impressive.

My view is that tools show the quality of the artisan, which is why I always prefer to learn how to use the oldest, simplest devices I can find because they present a challenge that helps me to grow in the direction of that which I admire.

(Nifty Devices:  a Natural Distraction)