November 7, 2016

Life, Work, Tools: Sharon Poggenpohl, Editor Emeritus of Journal “Visible Language”

What is your tool—the one that helps you 
do the things you do?

MacBook Pro running Mac OS.

How has this tool helped you?

Working on fairly long-range communication projects (1–5 years) requires a stable platform of tools. The migration of work-in-progress from one computer and software system to another can be an impediment. I am reminded of the philosopher Martin Heidegger who wrote about “ready-to-hand” and “present-at-hand” in his magnum opus, “Being and Time” (2010). “Ready-to-hand” is a tool you seamlessly work through while attending to and absorbed in your project. “Present-at-hand” characterizes when the tool fails to perform and one is forced to see it as an object requiring some workaround or remedy. When the tool doesn’t perform, this makes for frustration. A tool that is sturdy and reliable is a pleasure to use. My relatively old computer is “ready-to-hand.”

I resent and resist the planned obsolescence that is so much a part of digital tools. The new tool sometimes requires a learning curve that far outweighs whatever benefit it provides. And the so-called obsolete tool is not easy to get rid of. If no friend, family member, or school is interested in it, then we pay a service to collect it for recycling in some third-world country. This has nasty repercussions for those doing the recycling because of the heavy metals and toxic materials within. This obsolescence is a product of selfish short-term thinking that plays on people’s desire for status, coupled with corporate greed. The ethics of this are at least questionable.

The value of what we do is in our project. The tools are essential helpmates but not the focus of the value produced. On an even more personal level, “ready-to-hand” supports what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (1990). This is a state of mind with high concentration on one’s project. Flow is “…the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Well-designed tools, like my Mac that we use seamlessly, are part of getting to “flow.”

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Images courtesy of Sharon Poggenpohl.

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Explore these other Design Feast series: Designer’s Quest(ionnaire) / Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire) / Makers / Side Projects

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