Lessons from a hammer
Invention is insufficient.
Because I like to pretend I will read it, I still receive the print edition of The Atlantic. Actual reading of the physical magazine is rare, but the recent issue had a great article (paywall, sry, I know you are smart and can find it) by Derek Thompson about the origin of the smallpox vaccine, and how invention ultimately didn’t matter without implementation.
The article was good enough that I got out a highlighter to highlight a magazine, which I am pretty sure has happened zero times before, specifically this (abridged) bit:
The way individuals and institutions take an idea from one to 1 billion is the story of how the world really changes. The 10,000-year story of human civilization is mostly the story of things not getting better. Progress is our escape from the status quo of suffering, our ejection seat from history.
Along these same lines, I’ve recently been thinking about the hammer.
A hammer is a tool that takes advantage of physics to allow a person to perform certain tasks more efficiently and effectively than they could perform those tasks otherwise.
But a hammer isn’t just a tool, it is the essence of a tool, the quintessential tool, if you will. One of the deepest urges a toddler has is to hit things, and so most people over the age of five don’t need instructions to operate one with some success, and can generally avoid hurting themselves or others (accidentally, at least) with the claw part. Most people who have hit their thumb with a hammer don’t need to be told to try not to do that again, and most people over the age of 15 have either hit their thumb with a hammer or otherwise recognized that they should not do that.
When all you have is a hammer, it doesn’t matter if it looks like a nail: if hitting it will lead to the desired outcome, a hammer is a fine place to start. A hammer has no knowledge of or opinion about the thing it hits or the person who wields it. It can be equally acceptable to use a hammer to create or destroy.
A hammer passed from one person to another communicates concepts — of work, of trust, of collaboration, of power — that transcend language, place, and time.
For millions of years, the tool used for what we’d think of as “hammering” lacked a handle. If you’ve ever tried to hit a sharp tent stake with a rock, you know the perils of applying such a tool generally.
I like to imagine that somewhere, some day long long ago (around 30,000 BCE, apparently), Alice watched Bob use a rock to beat the ever-loving heck out of something sharp or dangerous, and Alice said “Bob, dude, give me that rock,” and she lashed a bone or a branch to it to make a handle, just to try out this idea she had.
We look at things like a hammer today and consider them obvious, but the first hammer was a rock, and no one just accidentally attached it to a handle. Doing so required observing a problem, creatively hypothesizing a solution, and then executing on that solution and observing its, um … impact.
Somehow, Alice picked this problem to solve over other ways she could have spent her time. Maybe the problem Alice was trying to solve was just that Bob kept hurting his hand, and Alice’s solution also accidentally increased the tool’s effectiveness exponentially, independent of Bob’s now-healed hand. The working combination of materials may have been one of a dozen ideas Alice tried, or bailed on before the execution stage. Maybe Alice’s ancestors had been trying to make a better hammer for generations, passing down their advances and their failures. Maybe there were a bunch of Alices all at once, sort of like that show Sense8 that was pretty good but maybe should have stopped after the first season.
We’ll never know. All we know is that there came a point when a step-change improvement in the hammer couldn’t be achieved with a better rock, and that point was likely reached rather early in the hammer’s evolution, but it took a really long time for Alice to show up, gradually or suddenly, to make the essence of the hammer we know today, and to drop it (I imagine), like a mic (I bet), at Bob’s feet.
Thirty thousand years ago, Alice’s hammer couldn’t be mass-produced — that would come many millennia later. Its effective wider implementation likely required (at least) these ingredients:
Open exchange of ideas. I suppose Alice could have told Bob not to tell anyone about his new hammer, but it seems she didn’t. Like mass production, the concept of intellectual property would also come later, and the hammer would not be unscathed.
Ubiquity of the problem. If you are a person who has never seen a hammer with a handle, imagine your sudden and visceral grasp of how much you have always wanted one.
Undeniable utility. You win like 100% of deals if you are demo-ing a hammer against a rock. I hope.
Simple instructions. If your existing hammer-that’s-actually-just-a-rock won’t work for Hammer 2.0, you can probably find a rock that will. Lashing things to things is a universal skill once you know it, so now’s a good time to learn.
Social proof. If the hammer vs. rock demo doesn’t get you, just talk to Bob.
Absent these ingredients, Alice’s hammer would have needed a strategy to achieve similar success, and who’s to say that Alice even cared whether the world had a hammer as long as Bob had one. With these ingredients, the hammer spread on its own, as evidenced by the one you have in a drawer somewhere.
First, I had no idea I was actually going to write a post about hammers, but here we are. This is what I’ve come to in my unemployment.
Second, I’m struck by the timelessness of the pattern where a person sees a problem, recognizes it’s worth solving, comes up with an idea of how to solve it, tries the idea out, and evaluates whether it worked — and how there is almost no way you put a handle on a rock without going through these steps.
I’m also struck by the universality of the fact that invention itself is not enough — without an epochally perfect set of circumstances that make implementation eventually inevitable, you’re probably going to have to do some work to achieve ubiquity.
Finally, it gets me to thinking how much we think we have honed that process of observation, hypothesis, and execution since tens of millennia ago. And yet: When was the last time you looked at a ubiquitous and generally useful tool, and realized it was missing a handle? Maybe epochs, of some sort, are the realistic timeframe for certain invention-to-implementation cycles: in human years, it’s been a really, really long time since that singularly transformative improvement in the hammer, but the rock had to wait even longer.