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Traditions and tools

2 min read, August ‘20

If you're entering a new field, in addition to learning the vocabulary and honing your skills, it might also be worth investigating the interplay between the field's traditions and tools.

Traditions are customs or beliefs passed from generation to generation. They're arbitrary: if humanity restarted, different traditions would form and flourish. Nature may inspire traditions, but they are distinct. Tools are what we use to accomplish tasks, and they are the manifestation of traditions.

Traditions are lenses through which we view the world. Different outlooks can lead to the creation of different tools for similar tasks. For Newton, calculus was geometric. For Leibniz, analytical. While Newton wrote notation “more for himself than anyone else”, Leibniz regarded good notation with more care. The tools dy/dxdy/dx and y˙\dot{y} each reflect the traditions that influenced its inventor.

Tradition also encompasses artistic or literary styles that are established by an artist or movement. The visual arts are entirely tradition. Had the world transpired in another way, its events and cultures would have spawned other artistic expressions. Design is grounded in foundations of space, distance, and balance and achieved through tools: rulers and pencils, Figma and Photoshop, sculpting clay and drafting triangles.

Being aware of the characteristics of tools can help you figure out what to focus on. Perhaps instead of working with the tools you know, there’s room to find or create new methods and devices. If you’re job-seeking or simply trying to get something done, how critical is your tool of choice? Are you just procrastinating by comparing the nuances of photo editing software?

In computing, tradition includes open source licensing, hacker culture, idiosyncrasies of UNIX, and what programming languages are in vogue. Universities’ core computer science curricula prioritize ideas that transcend implementation: algorithms, data structures. Though these aren’t the only things universities teach, these concepts are notably less ephemeral than tools, like frontend web development libraries.

In the CS classroom, tools are often pawns to theory. The first week of the semester might be a crash course to a programming language so you can spend the remainder practicing concepts with it. In industry, however, it’s common for tools to be more dominant. Another variation on the link between traditions and tools: in art, drilling techniques and owning specialty tools don’t mean much if you have nothing to show.

Making tradition explicit — like overriding your brain’s instinct to hide your nose from your view — has powerful implications. You can sometimes observe and absorb traditions by hanging out in online spaces with a community. How do people make a mark on the field? What are their classic punchlines and perennial debates, what’s the latest news, and how do they view themselves in the world?

Thanks to Linus for discussing these ideas and providing feedback and to Theo and Max for reading early drafts.

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