Essays on Technology and Culture

Building to the Builder’s High

My Dad used to keep an 1950 Plymouth in the garage of our Northeast Philadelphia rowhouse. He thought that one day he’d have the time, energy, tools, and whatever, to put it back in working order. Until then, it was just a hulking metal mass that stood in the way of getting Christmas decorations out. The car sat in the garage from before I was born until my early twenties, when he wised up and sold it to a new neighbor who actually restores cars for a living.

I’ve never restored a car. In fact, mechanical aptitude is one of the few things I didn’t inherit from my Dad. My Dad knows how to do a lot of physical, real things. He was a plumbers assistant, a carpenter, an electrician, and for the last decade of his career, a construction inspector for the City of Philadelphia. He could build things and he could rebuild things. Me? Anything more complicated than a LEGO set or IKEA furniture is asking for trouble. Instead, I’m the one they he turns to—the whole family turns to—for tech support. This is why I insisted that my parents buy a Mac not long after I switched.

Michael Lopp recently wrote about “The Builder’s High” he gets from making things. Writing gets him high, and I sympathise. I only know how to build two things, one is an essay, another is a site to host essays. Yet, I’ve only gotten that builder’s high a precious few times in my life. One time was when I was seized by inspiration and threw together a gorgeous mock-up redesign of a friend’s website in Photoshop that never got used. Another time is when I started a novel one night in December of 2008—the same novel I quit to focus on this thing.

Building stuff is hard. I could get all into Mihályi Csíkszentmihályi, and Flow, and all that stuff, but I suspect you’ve read all about that elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s gotten harder since we started, as Rands says, “swimming in everyone else’s moments, likes, and tweets.” There’s nothing stopping us from turning off the stream if we truly want to. Since the Industrial Revolution, there’s always been something more appealing than expending the effort to build things, whether it’s TV, radio, books, or just kicking stones. Time was most everyone learned how to play an instrument, but not everyone wrote music. It takes a certain mindset to want to struggle and beat your head against the wall to make something the world has never seen before. When it’s done, though, it feels great.

It doesn’t feel nearly as good to read a Twitter timeline, or to post on one. It does feel good, on some level, or we wouldn’t do it. We share our moments, and we read others shared moments, and for most people, that’s enough to satiate the voice that screams at us to make something and have it be seen. For people who want to do more, it’s good enough to be dangerous. It takes a little vigilance to keep those moments from devaluing our own. We can drown in other people’s moments, and we can lose our moments by focusing too much on sharing them. There’s a balance to be struck, and it’s harder for some of us to strike it than others. Being aware of this give us something to strive for. I’ll never be as handy as my Dad, but as long as I can build—and rebuild—something, I’ll know I have something to be proud of.