Piano Tops

Buckminster Fuller begins his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth:

I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuity. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem.

One modern day piano top is the keyboard I’m using to type this blog post. The QWERTY layout was designed to avoid printer jams on typewriters. It may not be the most efficient layout, but we cling to it. When I see tools like Apple QuickType, handwriting-to-text and speech-to-text, I wonder how these new tools for transcribing text might impact the expression of our ideas.

A recent study found that handwriting promotes deeper understanding than typing (link). The scientists’ theory is that the ease of typing leads to a more notes but shallower processing.

When i want to save a thought or idea, what is the best way? Sometimes I’ll reach for whatever’s around, like somebody in a shipwreck grasping for a piano top. I used to send emails to myself with hashtags that IFTTT would automatically load into the appropriate Google Sheet. Lately I’ve been taking notes on my phone, using Evernote where I can record audio or type with a skeuomorphic keyboard, and if I had an ipad I could even try to convert my handwriting to searchable, digital text.

At what point do I benefit from a tool, and at one point should I just be using my internal memory / brain? When i save ideas in un-centralized locations, it feels like I’m scattering little pieces of my mind. But these things I am doing—creating that IFTTT script and my own weird hashtag system—is, much like the piano top, an imperfectly designed solution to a problem (my imperfect memory) that I am solving with yesterday’s fortuitous contrivances.

One way or another, there are always going to be piano tops. People are always going to use things that were designed for one purpose in ways that the designer did not intend. And I can’t think of a tool without any predecessor—if I thought a little harder I might be able to divide tools into some basic categories. Hacked solutions like the piano top are an important precursor for tools because they demonstrate that there is a need. In a world without piano tops, we would not have any of the tools we have today.

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