Sun May 29 2011 21:01:18 GMT-0500 (CDT)

Disclosure statement: I'm still trying to wrap words around this idea. Incoherence and/or confusion may follow.

Strictly speaking, scaffolding is a temporary structure erected around a building so workers can build, clean, or repair the building's surface. More generally, it's any structure that's used to make something else, then taken away. The best general definition I've found so far is: work that contributes to making an object, but isn't part of the object.

That's an abstract description, but the concept has serious practical value.

Y'see, there's this myth that probably applies to any creative activity: the idea of creating a finished product on the first pass.. the idea that a writer produces a book starting with the first word on the first page and types straight through to the last word of the last page, or that a machinist cuts a bar exactly one inch long and perfectly smooth from the rough stock.

Seen from a different angle, it's the myth that experts don't make mistakes.. at least not mistakes that are large enough to matter. It's pretty much a syllogism:

  • If you only get one chance to make the cut;
  • and experts make the correct cut;
  • then experts must make the correct cut on the first try.

And while that's probably nice for the expert's ego, it's completely wrong.

Offhand, I'd say experts only make slightly fewer mistakes than amateurs, it's just that experts make a different kind of mistake than amateurs. An expert's mistakes have two important qualities:

  1. They don't ruin the work
  2. They can be erased

That's where the idea of scaffolding comes in. In fact, this whole thing has been a lead-up to what I consider the important difference between experts and amateurs:

  • Amateurs make mistakes in the product.
  • Experts make mistakes in the scaffolding.

You can screw up a scaffolding completely, tear it down, and do it again without ever having it show in the product. Or -- far more likely -- you can build a rough scaffolding, test it for accuracy, tweak it, check it again, and repeat the process until you're confident that whatever you do to the workpiece will be right.

Combine that with the idea of making successive approximations to the right cut, and you get the beginnings of a philosophy about how to make stuff.