The Scaffolding

I’ll never forget where I was sitting, and what I was thinking, when I first felt pity — rather than anger — for a bigot.

This was back at the College of Charleston. I was head over heels for a girl named Kim at the time, and we would hang out at her place or in the little bar where she worked. Perhaps it was the heady excitement of being in love that put me in a forgiving mood, or maybe it was something I’d picked up in a class, or just me finally getting around to understanding what most people know already.

A few guys walked into the bar, and one of them used a racial slur, and it was so nonchalant, so brazen, without an ounce of remorse or even self-awareness, and instead of seeing this guy, for some reason I saw his upbringing. I saw his peers, his parents, the South, the hard divide of Calhoun Street, Confederate flags, this entire support structure beneath him.

It was weird, the complete lack of judgement I felt. It wasn’t the same as forgiving someone, but it was close. My thought was: how do you blame a fish for not knowing how to fly?

Have you ever seen someone parked like this:

bad parker

When I saw cars parked like this, I used to assume the driver was oblivious, perhaps even unempathic for their fellow drivers. How could someone be so unaware of their impact, however minor, on the world around them?

And then, one day, I had to park beside a car like the one above, because the other half of the neighboring spot was also encroached, and there were no other spots left. So I parked straddling a line, just like the other two cars. Walking away from the space, I turned and saw our cars like that, and it hit me: What if the other two drivers come out and leave? My car will be left looking just like the one above. The revelation that followed was this:

It probably wasn’t the other drivers’ faults either.

One car parks a little too close to the line, which cascades throughout the day, until people are parking in what looks like a rude manner. But it’s not anyone’s fault, really.

It’s not just ugly behaviors that are built up in this way. Some of our most beautiful creations employ support structures that are no longer around to admire and to demystify the building process. I’ve always loved arches and bridges, ever since I was a little kid. I remember learning about the keystones at the tops of arches that hold them all together, and they seemed magical to me. Heavier than air, and pushing down, but somehow holding everything up!


What hurt my head was trying to figure out how those stones were put into place to begin with. Before the keystone is there, what’s doing the keystone’s job? Why doesn’t the arch fall down as the builders are trying to erect it? Because the rest of the arch is holding the keystone in place, just as surely as the keystone is propping up the rest. The whole is needed. As a kid, I imagined a bunch of workers all holding stones above their heads at the same time. Because I didn’t know anything about scaffolding.


When you see how things are built from simpler support structures, so much of the magic of what — at first — seemed impossible disappears. But the loss is fleeting, because it’s replaced with the magic of human ingenuity. Or the magic of seeing root causes and how things come to be.

There are different types of scaffolding everywhere. Once you start looking for them, you can’t stop seeing them. Any temporary support structure qualifies. Some of these structures are just ideas, or theories. Some are environmental influences. Once they’re gone, or not seen, we can be left with confusion or wonder when the story is so much simpler.

The Egyptian pyramids befuddled those who don’t see scaffolding. Scientific progress can do the same. And so can technology.

The same semester that I was learning to see scaffolding — and to understand bigotry and poor parking — I was in an anthropology class. We had to write a paper on the Clovis point tradition, which was a dominant style of flintknapping that spread through the Americas (I think. It’s been a while). Being the smartass that I am, I wrote a paper instead on how poorly we understand human history when we focus only on the things that remain. Archaeology becomes a study of the hardy, the things that last. We don’t appreciate how minor a role those things play. The millions of iterations of wood, clay, leaf, and twine tools are lost to us.

Take the time to watch this entire video (it’s the best part of this stupid blog post):

A few hundred years later, what will be left of this primitive forge will be some metal ingots and that single stone tool used to split the wood. A college student will write about a people who threw spears at animals. The rest of the tools are gone.

Without seeing the scaffolding, we can’t understand primitive man any more than we can understand bigotry. This guy playing with the elements around him, and using just his noggin, his tinkering, and what he knows (or thinks) to be possible, is discovering more about ancient man than a thousand people digging in the dirt and pulling up rocks.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the video is that it dispels the notion that our current technology would take generations and generations to reproduce if we started from scratch with only our collective wisdom. Here is a case where we understand that scaffolding exists (you have to make wood tools, to make stone tools, to make metal tools, to make better and better metal tools), but we overestimate the complexity of the scaffolding. Or we underestimate human ingenuity. I’d wager that two dozen of the right men and women could build a simple electrical computer out of nothing within a year. And I’m being conservative. If they pulled it off in three months, I wouldn’t be shocked. Yeah, that means making batteries, dynamos, wire, and glass.

Primitive man had almost nothing but time and cleverness, and these are a potent mix. What arises at the end might seem miraculous, but only because we miss all the support structures along the way. The storehouse of knowledge is by far the most important technological tool, and in the time before writing this was the most ephemeral scaffolding of them all.

Where we most need an awareness of scaffolding is in controversial topics, the ones where emotions run hot. Like the poorly parked car, it’s easier to judge what we see than it is to look for what’s missing. When that college student walked into the bar, using language that normally drove me to anger, all the fungible elements that built him up are gone. Seeing those, in the casualness of his peers, allowed me to approach him from a place of understanding. Empathy is held by flying buttresses such as these. We need them to hold up the often thin and brittle walls that make up our compassion for those we disagree with.

Religion is an example. As I moved away from religion and toward science, I became bitter and judgemental of the former. How can people believe some of this dogma, especially if it’s built on hate? And how can religious thought ever hope to understand the natural world, when science does it so much better?

But for a long time, religious ideas were the most sensible with the data at hand. And for a primitive people whose populations were tenuous, rules to force procreation made a lot of sense (don’t masturbate, don’t be gay, don’t use contraceptives). Where the scaffolding pushes some of these systems can seem insane many iterations later, but a more studied look usually shows a natural process. This search for origins is done without judgement one way or the other on the outcome; that is separate. But in what better way do you think we can bridge understanding with those who are straddling parking lines, perhaps feeling foolish but also justified in their position, knowing quite well how they got there, or perhaps not knowing that any other option exists?

It’s always better to discover the root causes of things. We might learn that many of our biases are wrong (the driver of the car above might not deserve our shaming). We might also be able to reach out to someone in a compassionate manner. When you remove the blaming aspects of judgement, you provide an opening for people to change. Blame causes entrenchment. Most people know that they are good, and so they employ cognitive dissonance to justify their handful of poor features. But when those things are not their fault, it’s far easier to get rid of them. We often just need an opening, a way to bow out gracefully.

Often we are begging for a way to alter our circumstances, to apologize, to change our minds on a divisive topic. But the space is not being made for us to move to the position we long to take, or to heal wounds with someone we love. It sucks to say that the onus can be on the people who are hurt, rather than the people doing the hurting, or that the onus can be on the person with the more sound position, rather than the person whose mores need updating, but this is often the case.

Scaffolding needs to be erected to help prop up the person who is at fault. And while the person who is under the shaky arch feels like they’re the one who needs saving, often their feet are on solid ground enough to help erect that scaffolding.

I can think of times that I was angry at someone I loved for an unjustified reason, and even when I realized that I was in the wrong, I felt like I needed to hold on to that anger to make sense of my initial reaction. All the emotinal responses and triggers, all the words exchanged and the little annoyances of the day, were gone. I was left in a strange place, like that car straddling the line, and I had to make sense of this plus the feeling that I’m a good person. All it might take is a loved one pointing out that it’s been a long day, or that they know work has been tough, or that they know someone just needs their morning coffee, and suddenly you have a way down. A reason besides the fact that you were being a shit for a little bit. Just enough to be able to admit you were being a shit, apologize, save face, and move on.

For understanding people, ourselves, history, and technology, nothing is as powerful as a grasp of the temporary support structures that make things possible before disappearing from view. I see the shadows of them everywhere. I feel how they created the good and bad in me and others. It’s hard, of course, to see things that aren’t there. But it’s so rewarding, comforting, and illuminating when we try.

Oh, before you go, check this insanity out:



30 responses to “The Scaffolding”

  1. I get lost when you say people could build a computer from scratch in just 3 months. They’d need to learn how to build lasers and so many other complicated factors…not to mention developing a computer code like C and then build software to be used by that code and so on. The rest of your article is interesting. It reminds me in a parallel sense of this article:

    And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend. (It’s not a pro-Trump piece in case you’re wondering.)

    1. A simple computer. An electrical adding machine. I’m giving them a year, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they were 4X faster.

      And the programming language is already known. As is the computer design. This was a comment about starting over (on another planet, after an apocalypse) with what we know, but needing to build things from scratch.

      1. VIVIAN CUMMINGS Avatar

        Are the people in this example allowed access to Google? Can they order the raw materials needed off Amazon?

      2. The precision engineering for a non-linear electronic device might require a long enough trail of tools that it would not be doable quite so quickly. Vacuum tubes would definitely be the tech of choice, but then are we requiring our team to work out the power generation from scratch? According to Wikipedia, ENIAC used 150kW of power. It may not have been that much, but the lesson is that any computer with primitive computing components is going to use a lot of power to drive the large number of macro components necessary. The lower precision in the quickly built-up computer would exacerbate the power consumption and the high power consumption would make the quickly prototyped components even more prone to failure.

        The difference between rediscovering modern tech versus ancient tech is that at some point in the tech curve the primary issue is having a stable infrastructure. The systems that go into the simplest things we consume are vast and precise and necessary to get the results and efficiency we enjoy.

        I do agree that it is much easier to go and rediscover the engineering path with the benefit of knowledge. Every engineering endeavor is a search informed by knowledge. Those at the cutting edge are searching in a less known space of physical reality, so their searches are less fruitful. Eastern medicine and old technology like Wootz/Damascus steel have been developed over long period of testing with little knowledge while modern medicine and metallurgy benefit from our knowledge of underlying principles. Both of these endeavors are still searches, but the modern versions are sped up and generally made more effective and reliable because of better knowledge and better standards of measurement.

        I’m not sure that anything we would call a computer is buildable from scratch in a year, but it would still be a lightning fast development compared the timeline from the first serious discussion of the electronic computer to ENIAC.

      3. The Antikythera mechanism is 2000 years old and displayed the motion of the moon and other planets. Likely they used a form of “Agile” management with a group of people working with a common purpose.

    2. With the right group of people it certainly be feasible to produce a functional mechanical computer with a couple of months of work. We already have the knowledge to build multiple types of computers, as well as how to use them. We’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. And, just as importantly, we understand the concepts and potential our collective knowledge currently allows.

      The lasers and microfabrication factories can come later, but making a usable computer with an input system, data manipulation or storage, and output? Give me a team with a blacksmith, a carpenter, a programmer, and a electrical engineer and I could give you a computer in 3 months easy.

      1. Bravo. I’ll be there collecting berries and skinning deer.

      2. Dustin,

        A mechanical computer is definitely more feasible, but if I you’re forced to do your own mining, you will find that there is a lot of chemical processing to be done. This could very easily lead to problems due to lack of availability of all the resources existing near one another and stop you dead in the water or leave you improvising on materials. I don’t know if you doubled or tripled your expected development time like you probably should have, but even if you did, I think there are enough unknowns at play here that such a project warrants an even more pessimistic outlook.

        There seem to be two opposing forces at work here. On one side is the knowledge of how long our technology took to develop and on the other a lack of realization as to how dependent the world is on stable trade of natural resources and technological components. Both of these distortions seem to make it difficult to estimate how long such an endeavor would take. The problem for me is that the more I think about such an endeavor, the more I see problems, which is easier than seeing the solutions. Then, since I won’t be spending even a day thinking about solutions, I might end up staying overly pessimistic.

  2. orlonda rosenquist Avatar
    orlonda rosenquist

    Fascinating stuff. We’ve come a long way and man still isn’t satisfied. We will always need faster ways of getting the job done. I was reminded of the movie Quest for Fire of early mans need to keep the fires burning. All about mans want to survive day to day, this has never changed.

  3. So, did you fail that paper?

  4. Apparently Captain Kirk was not the only one under the delusion that mnemonic memory circuits could be conjured up from bear skins and stone knives.

    A computer? Really? What kind of computer are we talking about, Hugh? The world is not Minecraft. You can’t beat a rock against a tree and have a vacuum tube fall out of it. From the onset, a team of people working on something like that would have to be so well coordinated they would need to be working simpatico beyond the Vulcan mind meld.

    A quick google search told me the first computer weighed 30 tons. You would not be able to recreate any modern computer chip without, you guessed it, other modern computers. So based on that little tidbit of info (raw tonnage of metal used to make the first computer) I’ll take your wager.

    I put up my captain’s virginity against $100 of your earth dollars.

    Spock (last name is too difficult for humans to pronounce, much less read), chief science officer of the USS Enterprise, and part time riverboat gambler.

  5. Hugh, you’re right about being empathetic and compassionate. But you are sitting on top of Maslow’s hierarchy and looking down at the rest of humanity and saying “why aren’t you like me?”

    People aren’t basically good. They’re good as long as there is food, water, and comfort. Take all those things away and you get the worst people possible. If you want proof, just ask the people of New Orleans.

    1. I disagree. I’ve been through several natural disasters and war zones, and most people came together.

      1. I agree, Hugh. I live in South Florida and have been though some bad hurricanes. Andrew was the worst in my lifetime. Yes, a few jerks out there, but the community came together wonderfully. No one cared what your religion, politics or sexual orientation was- we just stuck together and helped each other as a community. I think this is more the norm than some people might think. Nice, thoughtful blog post.

      2. In my experience, crisis shows that there is heroism to be found everywhere. For some, it is recognizing the person trapped under rubble as themselves. Others because of who they are and how they see themselves. For many, it may be coming together if only to not feel completely helpless in the face of tragedy.

        This goes for every natural or unnatural disaster recent history. Yes, even Katrina.

  6. I really appreciate your point about line straddlers when they park. I hadn’t looked at it that way. However, a person told me once that they park like that to prevent people from dinging their car with car doors. There’s a guy that parks in my parking lot with his big shiny truck. He gets there before anybody else, and he parks horizontally, covering 3 or 4 spots. When you do crap like that, you risk pissing people off and then someone would key your pretty paint job.

  7. I recently read J.D. Vance’s book, HILLBILLY ELEGY, and it was so enlightening. He grew up in very rural Kentucky/Ohio among self-described hillbillies, who are poor, white folks deeply entrenched in conservatism. It is a mind opening story. He tells of the chaos of his upbringing and how the only reason he is not back there collecting welfare instead of the Yale Law School grad he is now is because his cousin basically bullied him into joining the Marines. A lot of what you said here is similar to what he has to say. We have to look at the full story.

  8. Thanks Hugh. This could also be taken as writing advice. The best villains aren’t aware they’re villains. They just have skewed scaffolding.

  9. That video at the end was very cool. I know how to make fire as he did, but he’s much faster than I would be. However, by the end, my 20 year old son was watching over my shoulder and we watched every one of that fella’s videos. I think the forge impressed my son the most!
    Thanks for sharing, Hugh!

  10. I grew up in a town where blacks and Jews were not considered humans. The bigotry was reinforced by religious scaffolding of the most rotten kind. Yet, for as structurally compromised as its base components were, deep layers of it made it strong and sturdy. To this day much of it still stands. And it allows horrible prejudicial people a bridge which to cross and create harm and hurt. People who enjoy traveling that bridge are often difficult to pursuade to re-engineer. I guess I would Label them social Luddite bigots. Hugh, be careful in believing in the overall good and fairness of so many.

  11. I watched all that guys videos and I was very impressed. It is amazing what we can do when we put our mind to it.

  12. Thanks for the always interesting topics, Hugh. It’s odd that we hold the finished product to much higher esteem than that of the jigs (to use a woodworking term) that helped create it. For those in the know, the journey of the product is usually more interesting than the product itself.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about today – instead of what I should be working on :)


  13. Great thoughts! You can tell the writer came out in this post. By looking at a person’s scaffolding, you are really looking at their backstory, or what made them what they are today.

  14. Andrew Claymore Avatar

    I’ve been watching that primitive technology channel for a while now. His rotary blower for his forge totally blew my mind.

  15. Simeon Beresford Avatar
    Simeon Beresford

    A kiln would survive. baked clay survives far better than metal ingots.

  16. Ricardo Costill Avatar

    I once was the butt of bigotry and anger. The man was a coworker and while alone together he verbally raged at me. Normally I would have raged back, but this time something evolved in me and I asked him what was wrong, I said this “is not like you, what’s going on, are you alright?” In the end he was crying and I was comforting him… he just needed an out. – thank you Hugh for reminding me that; hurt people – hurt people.

  17. Ahh.. the technology tree. Every video gamer gets to experience this many times.

  18. What I find most fascinating and wonderful about this post is how you connected it to our relationships with other people. Inspiring. (Although I LOVED watching the two videos for their own sake, as well.)

  19. Beautiful post. Brings to mind two sentiments: learning to be mindful of others is a wonderful thing. Seeing that scaffolding in others (fantastic analogy), why they are who they are, through no fault of their own…feels a bit like seeing the inner workings of the universe. It all starts to make sense. Your mention of computers triggered a thought about about how we interact with computers through an interface, and how that interface has evolved into something slick and seamless with little trace of what is hidden within. I learned to code Basic in high school, writing simple lines of code that told the computer what to do. Later it was DOS. Learned about machine language in college, bits and bytes. Now I have an iMac, point my mouse around. But I can see the scaffolding underneath. Almost like The Matrix. And it’s important to acknowledge that scaffolding, I agree, lest we forget and end up like Planet of the Apes, where technology is a mystery and we must start over. Or maybe that’s a good thing?

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