James Van Dyne

Artifacts of our work

During the Edo-era, Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world.  All resources were precious. Re-use and recycling were the norm. Not because they loved and cherished nature, though that may have played a role with their Shinto backgrounds, but out of necessity. With limited contact with the outside world, Japan had to be self-sufficient. As a result, communities worked together to make sure that nothing went to waste.

Umbrellas were made of bamboo and paper. Once they started showing wear and tear they were refurbished. The bamboo was repaired and new oil paper was attached. The old paper was sold as packaging material.

Starch extracted from rice was used to repair ceramics. Human waste (night soil) was bought by farmers and used as fertilizer in their fields.

This kind of reuse of by-products was a part of life in the Edo period and the effects still reverberate in modern Japan. Letting excess go to waste even has its own word in Japanese: “mottainai”.

While we aren’t usually concerned about letting excess go to waste, mottainai is uttered on a regular basis in Japan.


I’m helping bootstrapping a product to manage software products called Kwoosh. Kwoosh will make make product management easier and more efficient for small agencies and developers.

Building this product made me realize how much of the work involved isn’t writing code. Phone calls, mock ups, chat history, design: all of this lost in time or hidden in a folder. Valuable artifacts just thrown away.

All of these discarded artifacts of work can be reused and re-purposed, so as to not be so mottainai. What if we tried to save them? Could we make something valuable out of ‘trash’?

Phone calls discussing product design and decisions can be turned into podcasts. Libraries written to help us power Kwoosh can be open sourced . Mock ups shared to illustrate how we do product development. Core ideas and philosophy from all of these artifacts can be broken into articles helping us solidify and codify our values.

What artifacts are you generating from your work and how can you reuse it?

Lost in Transition

Growing up we had this overly polished wooden chest in the living room that was full of memories. Every so often I’d pull open its lid it and rummage through the contents. It contained all sorts of keepsakes: ribbons from field day, my glow in the dark cast from when I broke my arm in elementary school covered with friends’ signatures, and stacks of odd photos and albums.

Opening the chest and browsing its contents was exhilarating. Each time I knew I’d find something new, even though the contents rarely changed. Looking through the photos I’d suddenly see myself at my 5th birthday party, then a photo of my older brother’s 5th birthday. And a photo of my Mom growing up. A small glimpse into the past.

We mostly used those disposable cameras. The ones where you just drop off the entire thing at the 1-hour photo mart and get back 20-30 memories, with a handful of shots of the cat to finish the roll. Sometimes they turned out. Sometimes they didn’t. Because the photos were limited, we generally posed for photos in some form or fashion.

Like most people, I carry a great camera with me everywhere: my smartphone and I take photos of anything interesting. And also like most people, I rarely go back and view my photos 6 months or a year prior and enjoy them.

And yet, when I do go back and look at photos, the sense of exhilaration and discovery has completely disappeared.

The sales pitch of the digital camera was a no brainer: you’re no longer limited to the number of shots you can take, so you’ll never miss a moment. Let alone have to pay and wait to see the film developed. To their credit, digital cameras do fulfill that hype.

However, the more human connection in a photo has been lost in this transition.

That feeling when you’re sitting around the living room with your friends and family, looking at old photos from years past. Each time you find an interesting photo you exclaim with great excitement “Look what I found!” and quickly pass it around the room. The paper is a bit faded and it smells a bit…old. A conversation develops around this photo and we learn more about our history. Grandpa Joe used to be tough as nails, though it’s hard to see now.

Comparing this with the digital equivalent of huddling around a computer or an iPad…the experience is much less social and that sense of connection to the past is lost.

Is what we’re losing in the digital translation worth the cost? How will my children discover photos from their first Halloween party when they’re all locked on my phone or in my Flickr account? Will our sense of connection with the past be lost? Are the merits of the technology going to last the test of time or are they merely more convenient?

While we are actively making the transition to move all things digital: photos, books, music, and more, we should think twice before embracing it so unquestionably.

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