Practical Skills and Built-in Knowledge

Years back, I joined Tim Keirnan for his Design Critique podcast to talk about shaving technology. Learning about the evolution of the straight razor, safety razor, and finally the cartridge and electric razors that most people use now was what kickstarted my interest in the ways that we build knowledge into our artifacts.

When you use a straight razor—that is, a very sharp knife—you must take care of the blade, keep it honed, and hold it at a precise angle and move it in specific ways. Without the knowledge of how to use the razor, you have a suboptimal experience.

The safety razor has a lot of this knowledge built into it. It’s built to hold the blade at the right angle. Rather than maintaining the edge of the blade, the blades come sharp and are discarded once blunted.

As our artifacts become more advanced, we build more knowledge into them. More people are capable of doing more because of the spread of the knowledge. We lose the need to learn as many skills, though, and to understand the way our devices really work. Overall, I think we’re better off, but it’s interesting to keep in mind what we lose.