Getting Jiggy with it

When I first read Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest I really wanted to like it. Instead, I found myself arguing with it constantly, not because it is filled with bad advice (it’s tremendous advice, actually) but because of its libertarian posturing. Following most of his strictures closely, one would either have to become a collector of vintage tools or a boutique consumer of specialized products. It always struck me a bit like the big Mercedes SUV’s one sees all over Ithaca with “save the whales” or “go green” stickers on the back.

I suppose I wanted to either love or hate the book, and in the end I just couldn’t. I learned from it instead. I learned a lot, though I confess to using Shinwa sliding bevels over  Vesper tools.

I built the old-school joiner’s tool chest he describes. I originally thought that I’d use it to store kitchen supplies and tools in, believe it or not, because I already have several mechanic’s tool chests, including a full on rolling cabinet (not pictured here). What I found was that this tool changed the way I work, and changed the efficiency of my shop much as he described it would. I figured out that it was far too big to use in the kitchen, so I might as well use it somewhere, right? I still want to take a “workshop” approach to kitchen storage, but that’s a story for another day.

I loved using this box so much that I never bothered to take the time to paint it or finish it in any way. As you can see from the picture, the rolling tool cart and small chest next to it are a total mess. Nothing put away, crap just laid everywhere, etc. In contrast, using this chest I almost automatically put my tools away. No mean feat, when you’re as big of a slob as I am. In fact, I’ve become such a convert to traditional tool chests that my next project may be to build one of the Dutch small chests to go next to the big chest, to replace the mess here—so that I can move the mechanic’s chest and cart where it belongs, into the garage.

The trick is that the traditional chest isn’t just a box to put stuff in, it’s a jig that promotes efficient work habits. Schwarz knew that, and I suspect a lot of people who have built them have figured it out too.

Yesterday, I was remembering Matthew Crawford’s discussion of jigs and decided to revisit the book. I never took the time to do reading notes for it, and I keep wanting to do that since I read it in January. Today won’t be the day I start that; I’m still wrestling with a larger octopus. Funny how thinking and writing about kitchens and houses can send you straight back to the shop.

Crawford notes that his definition for “jig” is adapted from “The Intelligent Use of Space” by David Kirsh, and recommends it strongly. This paper, published in the journal Artificial Intelligence in 1995 makes distinct claims about the way that experts function in the world:

  1. The agents we observe are experts, or near experts, at their tasks, despite these tasks often being everyday tasks.
  2. Experts regularly find that enough information is available locally to make choices without having to plan on-line, using conscious analytical processes.
  3. Experts help to ensure that they have enough information locally by partially jigging or informationally structuring the environment as they go along.
  4. The human environments of action we shall be examining, the equipment and surfaces that comprise each workspace, are pre-structured in important ways to help compensate for limitations in processing power and memory.

Crawford doesn’t cite this directly, but using it allows him to argue that a cook in the kitchen structures his environment in such a way to facilitate the tasks he needs to perform. It’s a spatial usage of the term “jig” that is quite powerful when trying to explain how we negotiate the world as agents of change. Following Kirsh’s sources lead me to Philip Agre, who made even more explicit claims about the structure of the world implied by this mode of thought.

In his doctoral thesis from 1988, “The Dynamic Structure of Everyday Life,” Agre summarizes the historical thinking on negotiating everyday life, which he calls “the planning view,” in this way:

If an agent’s activity has a certain organization, that is solely because the agent constructs and deploys a symbolic representation of that activity, namely a plan.

Everyday activity is fundamentally planned; contingency is a marginal phenomenon.

An agent conducts its everyday activity entirely by constructing and deploying plans.

The world is fundamentally hostile. Life is a series of problems to be solved (11)

As an alternative (and a way of breaking through problems in the development in artificial intelligence) Agre proposes “the situated view” thusly:

Everyday life has an orderliness, coherence, and laws of change that are not the product of any representation of them.

Everyday activity is almost entirely routine, even when something novel is happening.

Everyday activity is fundamentally improvised; contingency is the central phenomenon.

An agent conducts its everyday activity by continually re-deciding what to do.

The world is fundamentally benign. Life is a fabric of familiar activities. (11)

In the universe Agre constructs, a plan is simply one possibility among many others in negotiating any activity. The world has an order and coherence independent, and unaffected by symbolic representations. We improvise our way through, depending on what happens. Thus, as Kirsh builds from this, jigging is introduced to control in a limited way the possibilities inherent in a given situation. Jigs either afford or constrain  outcomes in any given set of contingent circumstances.

In the case of my floor tool chest, I put things back most likely because it’s simply the most direct and logical thing to do. I can’t really balance them on the surface of the chest, as I tend to do with the mechanics chest. To put things back inside drawers as you go is counter-intuitive, because drawers do not afford easy access in the same way that trays do. What seems really attractive about my future dutch tool chest plans is the way it can constrain behavior as well;  one really can’t pile anything on top of the sloped lid, or its mating surfaces, the way you can in a mechanic’s chest.

Crawford uses and explains the technical terms affordance and constraint (taken from the visual theories of Jerome Gibson) admirably. From a practical standpoint, Chris Schwarz does a great job with toolboxes, workbenches, and tools in general; the only real complaint I have is the lack of a richer discussion of potential theories as to why they work the way that they do, e.g. what are the particular affordances and constraints of tools, jigs, and fixtures? To be fair, he does (like any good tool reviewer) discuss the good parts and bad parts of particular classes of tools, but he doesn’t do so in anything approaching a consistent fashion.

In the run-up to the release of The Anarchist’s Design Book, Schwarz claims to only have feelings about craft while standing at his bench, rather than when writing. I don’t see that working leads to any sort of feelings that might be symbolically represented, so I suppose he’s essentially justified in his evasion of discussing them.

I’m too busy dealing with contingencies in my shop to have anything remotely resembling feelings, theories, or plans. I do, however, develop theories regarding the best way to jig things to achieve some level of success, before I enter the workshop; I have a lot of feelings and theories in that aspect and I don’t understand why Schwarz insists on being anti-intellectual and evasive in that regard.

My favorite discovery through all this reading is the distinct possibility that “The world is fundamentally benign. Life is a fabric of familiar activities”—this sure beats the idea of a canned response to a hostile world.

Without theories of the everyday world, our understanding of intelligence (either human or machine) is impoverished, and sometimes the simplest theories are the most powerful.