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Utility is overrated.



There are few questions that suck the joy out of a room faster than this one:

“What good is it?”

As the creator of innumerable software toys that serve no useful function, I find this type of question, and its close relatives (which include “what did you make that for?”, “how are you gonna monetize that?” and “so?”) a little vexing. These questions are the blunt weapons of the unimaginative.

A question like “what good is it?” presupposes that all things must serve some common good. They must save lives, or repair toasters, or solve the world’s fuel shortages, or above all, make enormous sums of money. In short, everything must have a use, and frivolity should be avoided.

Personally, I think utility is overrated.

It is this overrated notion of utility that separates arts from crafts. A work of art will not save the world, a work of art will not cure any diseases, a work of art will probably not make you any money (unless you are one of a fortunate few).

Utility is also what separates the things we call toys from the things we call tools. A toy will not repair your home, balance your checkbook, or do much of anything beyond instilling a modicum of wonder and delight.

Wonder and delight is all we should require of our toys, and it is all we should require of our art.

To ask anything else is to ask for utility. And when a work of art becomes useful, it becomes a craft, or it becomes propaganda. When a toy becomes useful, it becomes a tool, or a weapon.

And a world full of nothing but tools, crafts, weapons and propaganda is a joyless world indeed.

There is a reason that joyless people are often called “tools”.

Now I have nothing against tools – they are the very things I use to make toys!

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14 Responses to “Utility is overrated.”

  1. infinitesteps Says:

    Well said. I have been frequenting your site for nearly a year and I have yet to get any use out of it whatsoever. However I keep coming back and I enjoy it thoroughly.

  2. flagrantdisregard » Blog Archive Says:

    [...] “Wonder and delight is all we should require of our toys, and it is all we should require of our art.” — KrazyDad [...]

  3. narcosislabs Says:

    Thanks for this Jim. It made my day. I have to talk to a group of HS jrs tomorrow about the difference between art and craft and this just made my notes unnecessary.

  4. pfh Says:

    Tools are merely a way to obtain utility. Wonder and delight are _synonyms_ of utility.

    What good is it? It makes people happy.

  5. Angela White Says:

    Hi Jim,
    You have been “tagged” on my post “8 Random Facts About Me meme” found at:
    http://cupoflizard.wordpress.com/2007/08/01/8-random-facts-about-me-meme/

    Cheers!
    Angela

  6. kudcom Says:

    At least if anyone asks about the “good” of your blog, you can always say you make a few $’s off the Google Ads.

  7. Neu Black » Blog Archive » Whitney Music Box Says:

    [...] If you still think of “art” as painting, we’re proud to introduce you to your first piece of online art. The Whitney Music Box was created by our friend Jim Bumgardner as “a musical realization of the motion graphics of John Whitney as described in his book digital harmony.” In three minutes, the largest dot will travel around the circle once, the next largest dot will travel around the circle twice, the next largest dot three times, and so on. The dots are arranged to trigger notes on a chromatic scale when they pass the line and generate music using synthesis software of Bumgardeners own design. If you’re a fan of mathematically generated work like Robert Hodgkins Flight 404, the Whitney Music Box works on a similar principle, but adds an audio element and was entirely programmed in flash actionscript. When not busy being an actionscript guru during the day at Yahoo Music, Bumgardner comes up with interesting new interactive experiments which you can see on his sites including krazydad.com and coverpop.com. We’d like to nominate Jim up for quote of the year, because we’d die to see him walk into a meeting and tell everyone “Personally, I think utility is overrated.” [...]

  8. Spencer Critchley Says:

    Great post! Reminds me of Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”:

    “The earliest *experience* of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual… The earliest *theory* of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.

    It is at this point that the peculiar question of the value of art arose. For the mimetic theory, by its very terms, challenges art to justify itself…

    …art as such… becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory…

    …In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

    (My emphases.)

  9. Random Etc. : Blog Archive : Criticism for Twitter Blocks Says:

    [...] Jim Bumgardner (aka KrazyDad, author of O’Reilly’s Flickr Hacks) addressed the “so what?” response to frivolous work in a blog post called Utility is Overrated a couple of months back. In the comments there’s a comparison with Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. In it, she states that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”. I don’t want to point at Twitter Blocks and say “art” (the Motorola sponsorship in particular makes that tricky) but I think that people are thinking too hard about things if they’re looking for the “point” of it. [...]

  10. hauntedcastle.org » Blog Archive Says:

    [...] Tom Carden responds to blog-criticism for Twitter Blocks, Stamen’s new twitter visualization.  He notes that much of the negative response is surrounding the *utility* factor of the project.  The most relevant thread from all this seems to surround this idea of the cult of utility, why things like this are generally appraised on how effectively they help you perform a task.  This is the classic Venture Capital 101 idea: Here is the Pain, and here is my Solution.  Offering the customer a solution to a nagging problem is this built in mechanism lots of people have, and it ultimately can guide their reaction to anything they see, particularly on the web.  Tom points to Jim Bumgardner’s article entitled “utility is overrated” as a response to this line of criticism. A question like “what good is it?” presupposes that all things must serve some common good. They must save lives, or repair toasters, or solve the world’s fuel shortages, or above all, make enormous sums of money. In short, everything must have a use, and frivolity should be avoided. [...]

  11. Infovore » links for 2007-09-02 Says:

    [...] KrazyDad » Blog Archive » Utility is overrated. “When a work of art becomes useful, it becomes a craft, or it becomes propaganda. When a toy becomes useful, it becomes a tool, or a weapon.” (tags: toys art creativity utility tools making) [...]

  12. Eloquation » Blog Archive » Four things your web app needs to remember Says:

    [...] Tom’s exactly right: Twitter Blocks’ utility is in its entertainment value rather than its productivity value. I agree with Jim Bumgardner when he says that “wonder and delight is all we should require of our toys, and it is all we should require of our art.” If you spend even thirty seconds being delighted by the great things you learn on Twitter Blocks, it has been successful. [...]

  13. KrazyDad » Blog Archive » Composing for Mechanical Instruments Says:

    [...] silly, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Seriousness, like utility, is overrated (see previous post on this [...]

  14. Amazing Instant Ascii Cam « mensonblog Says:

    [...] Useless but GoodTM software toy by [...]