Tools and applications, software and hardware…
“I just have to find the right one to solve my problems.”
The lure of the right tool is powerful. But tools carry potential problems.
A task manager can be abused in procrastination. An Inbox can be overused into oblivion. I might search for a “better” writing program, get lost in its intricacies, and never end up writing. Even meditation, an entirely internal tool, can help some, while others can find themselves agitated and confused.
The question of how we approach our tools is not insignificant. Every tool has a cost, even beyond its learning and practice.
Let’s first consider what a tool even is:
“A Tool is an object, external to agency, used to shorten the distance between a vision and its realization.” – Dini 1
Consider tools at the grander scale of society. In some cases, tools make things not only more likely, but possible at all:
“First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence. They have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life. They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.” – Vannevar Bush 2
But it’s not all roses. In fact, we can get downright morose about it. Whether it’s Isaac Asimov’s:
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
Or Carl Sagan’s:
“…that same technology that permits us to travel to other planets and stars also permits us to destroy ourselves” – Sagan 3
The more powerful the tool, the higher the cost, at the very least, in terms of the caution it demands. Humankind was not “made” for most any of our technology be that weapons, porn, or social media. And yet we create it.
If we are to find some harmony, Asimov’s insight seems to present us with an impossible choice: either do not use technology or advance our pace of study.
The former is not truly possible. As humans, we are inherently tool users. Even speech is a tool for communication. The latter does not seem possible either. Our technology already seems to be accelerating at a break-neck pace with no real plateau in sight. We develop, build, and fashion, cultivating our tools, internally and externally, including in our latest productivity hacks and applications.
Perhaps we are going through a “technological adolescence,”4 a term used by Carl Sagan to describe the dangerous times we live in, the possibility of extinguishing ourselves, but also a sense that we may solve our problems and grow past them.
As a species, we have no one to help us understand and develop what is both useful and dangerous. We’ve learned fire, though not without much trial and error. In fact, we continue to have trouble with such a primal tool. Heck, Prometheus repeatedly had his liver eaten by an eagle for his trouble in gifting it to us. Do we ever leave adolescence?
Well, Heracles was able to free Prometheus after killing the eagle. Perhaps we can find our way out, too.
I particularly like Sonke Ahrens’ view:
“Good tools do not add features and more options to what we already have, but help to reduce distractions from the main work, which here is thinking.” Ahrens 5
The benefit of a tool stems from the vision we have as a human being. The better we understand the problem we have, an end we are moving towards, and how our tools affect ourselves and our environments, the better chance we have of making them work well.
A complex task manager is not a detriment if it can be learned and practiced. However, the aim is not the learning and practicing. The aim is not the tool itself. The aim is to support our selves to make solid decisions and maintain a clear mind with a sense that what we are doing is the thing to do.
Whether using a digital task manager, a fancy note taking application, or simple pen and paper, it is our approach and our reflection of how they affect us that matter.
1 Dini, Kourosh. Workflow Mastery – Building from the Basics, 2013.
2 Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic, no. July 1945 (1945). https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.
3 and 4 Sagan, Carl. The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. Reprint. Penguin Books, 2007.
5 Sonke, Ahrens. How to Take Smart Notes. Createspace, 2017.