We're really just tool-using creatures set loose in the modern jungle
(I should really be finishing writing a spec right now... it's the last thing I have to do before I head out for a long weekend... but I have to get this out of my head or I won't be able to focus any better than I have been for the last half hour.)
Yesterday, as my bus was sitting at a stoplight, having finally made it downtown through the rainy traffic, I watched as the bus driver (probably 5' 3" or so) pulled a two foot long stick out from behind her chair. She leaned waaaay over to the right and poked at the small fan sitting at the base of her front windshield, adjusting its angle so it blew air from the defrost more efficiently across the steamed-up window. She was pretty good with it, too, making subtle adjustments until it was just right.
As we neared my stop, I walked up to the front of the bus and leaned near her. "So, is that a Metro-issued stick, or is that your own invention?"
She grinned, a little embarassed. "Oh, it's mine. I made it from a duster. I can use it to change my route numbers, too!" She gestured to the keypad and display, high above the windshield. "That way I don't have to get out of my seat when it's not safe or I don't have time to stop completely, like when I'm late coming off of an earlier run."
We pulled up to my stop. I complimented her on her ingenuity, and got off the bus.
As I walked up to the gym, I of course started thinking about her solution from a design perspective. My first thought, as a designer, was to start redesigning her "cockpit". Surely there's some way to integrate the sign controls into the space around her? Surely there's some way to make the defrost mechanism more efficient, so it doesn't require the Metro mechanics to install little aftermarket fans at the base of the windows? And I walked along, thinking about new console designs and arrays of micro-jets around the edge of the windshield.
But then the anthropologist side of my obsessive personality took over. I love it when people have little tricks like that. To me it speaks directly to the fact that we are a tool-using species. The bus, one could argue, isn't a tool for her any more -- it's part of her environment, as much as the veldt or a watering hole would be to earlier hominids. The stick is a tool she invented to address her challenges in dealing with her environment.
I think of the myriad ways people adapt in their offices in the same way. On my main monitor right now, I have three pieces of paper taped to the edges that have information I always need to reference -- the ascii codes for certain special characters, the web-safe color values and their associate hexadecimal codes -- as well as three yellow stickies with information that hasn't quite graduated to a typed sheet (although it probably should since we're moving offices in a couple of weeks).
I'm also reminded of Miz Becky's mom, who had her kitchen re-done a couple of years ago. Being of modest height, she told the builder that she needed some way of getting to the top shelves. He crabbed a bit but eventually built her a very short, two-step staircase style stool -- just tall enough to let her get to the upper cabinets, short enough to be very stable, and nice enough to keep in the kitchen instead of needing to be put away. When he delivered it to their house, he admitted that while it was sitting in their shop, he sold three more to people who stopped by and said (all three, apparently) "Oh my, I've been looking for something exactly like that!"
So, fellow tool-using hominids, I'm curious: What clever solutions have you used that grossly enlarged forebrain of yours to come up with? How do you use tools to interact with your environment?
Beth, on Friday, May 28, 2004 at 12:11 PM:
I generally just use tools for purposes other than the ones intended. A typewriter eraser that looks like a pencil with a brush on one end makes a really good inside-the-arm-cast scratcher.
Mostly, this story made me think of ravens. I've just come off a two week trip in the Grand Canyon and I saw these smart little buggers in action. They are said to be the only being other than humans that make tools. I didn't seen any tool making, but I'm a believer. I did see them UNZIP a rather large (and thought to be protected) duffle bag. A big bag of beef jerky was their reward.