Back of the Fence

Perhaps it comes naturally with age, but I have continued to develop a deeper sense of appreciation for the refined quality of things in general. I am careful to distinguish this from “expensive” or just “excessive.” One of my favorite quotes highlights where I derive the most acute sense of appreciation:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery

But along with that “refined simplification” of aesthetic form, I count myself among those who prefer quality over quantity in the sense of a general value preference. I’m hardly unique in that preference, but I am particularly drawn to the notion that quality can be inherent to a design even if it is invisible to others. The knowledge and self-satisfaction of building a well-constructed thing holds interest for me, as exemplified by the undue amount of time I spend building computers with just the right balance among components for a particular use case. Even when all that effort is concealed in a generic-looking PC case and abstracted away by an operating system. And I’m sure some of that influence comes from a pivotal tech titan:

On Steve Jobs’ father: 
One of the most important things he taught Steve was [that] it’s important to be a great craftsman, even for the parts unseen. When they were building a fence, he said, ‘You have to make the back of the fence that people won’t see look just as beautiful as the front, just like a great carpenter would make the back of a chest of drawers … Even though others won’t see it, you will know it’s there, and that will make you more proud of your design.’
Walter Isaacson interview on NPR Morning Edition

I didn’t just compare myself to Steve Jobs, did I? I certainly hope not. Either way, that drive for making something of high quality for the sake of quality isn’t something that makes a lot of sense prima facie. Until we look beyond the instrumental value of that thing. Beyond the materialism of our moden times and back to the times of the Ancient Greeks. Because of course, everything always goes back to Aristotle.

Although modern virtue ethics does not have to take a “neo-Aristotelian” or eudaimonist form[…], almost any modern version still shows that its roots are in ancient Greek philosophy by the employment of three concepts derived from it. These are arête (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom) and eudaimonia (usually translated as happiness or flourishing). […] A virtue is an excellent trait of character. It is a disposition, well entrenched in its possessor—something that, as we say, goes all the way down[…]—to notice, expect, value, feel, desire, choose, act, and react in certain characteristic ways.
“Virtue Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In a synthesis that hopefully doesn’t leave any readers with a modicum of philosophy training reeling in horror, what Jobs’ father sought, more-or-less, was arête in fence-building and craftsmanship in general. And it is, as much as I can tell, a drive that I find myself drawn to in the creation of my own technological creations. Now, maybe I’m just flattering myself here, but I at least have the perception that I’m more-often-than-not slightly askew from the ‘economically rational’ point of view. I don’t just want a purely functional computer for people to use when I build a custom PC. I want them to have a computer that is a pleasure to use and serves as an enabling tool rather than a functional necessity.

And I guess that does make me sound a lot less like a practical Bill Gates and more like a Steve Jobs after all…

A man uses the machines you build to sit down and pay his taxes. A man uses the machines I build to listen to the Beatles while he relaxes.
Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates, Epic Rap Battles of History


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