Philosophy of tool use

Causal Direction

It has taken me a very long time to come to a fruitful understanding of tools. It was when I watched my artist housemate use a pen with a needle taped to the end in order to poke holes in clay that it finally fell into place.

Tools are things that someone invented to help them do a task. The tools flow from a purpose. All tools were once ad-hoc inventions, like the needle taped to a pen. The only reason we have manufactured tools is that some tools are so useful or needed so often that it is possible to make a profit from the object – perhaps a sharp point embedded in a nicely-shaped handle.

When I was younger, I used to believe that one had to do things “right”. That there was a set way to go about a thing, and if one learned the rules one would be successful because of doing it “correctly”.

This certainly applied to tool use. If I wanted to try a new hobby, I would go around the shops assembling all of the sanctioned tools, expecting that this would make me able to magically do the activity. I normally didn’t in fact do the hobby because I did not have the purpose. I did not have the drive, the project or the idea that I wanted to enact. I had the entire process backwards. Tools flow out of a purpose, a purpose cannot be manufactured with a collection of tools.

One has to have the drive to do something, some purpose or goal. In the process of making that drive become a reality one sometimes ends up developing a system of tools to get it done.


This is not to say that most systems of endavour such as painting haven’t developed specialist knowledge when it comes to tools. All systems have a sort of lore about them that say “do use this type of tool, don’t use that one”, normally for good/interesting reasons. For example, some of the pop art work of the 60s and 70s used household paints and rejected oil or acrylic paints. They used whatever came to hand, and rejected expensive ‘establishment’ paints. The result is that a few decades later the paint is sliding off the canvas because it does not adhere well to the canvas or the primer, and these ‘valuable’ artworks are being stored flat, never to be seen by the public or collectors hanging on a wall ever again.

However, despite this “lore” of tools, each person can choose whether to use or ignore the advice, and tools remain secondary to the task.

That Productive Feeling

I think it is quite common for people to assemble the accoutrements of an activity around them in an attempt to emulate people they admire who seem to have so much drive, focus, or interest in something. This tendency to copy successful people was adaptive in our past, because copying the motions of a successful adaptation is much quicker and easier than learning it oneself from first principles. (I read this in A Book therefore it is not an Unfounded Assertion).

However now I think it can lead to sadness and confusion. Everyone one is staring at those few who have focus and wishing they had it too. We long for focus and output and success. But instead of assembling the tools of a practice, one needs to try to detect signs of the actual drive inside of oneself. The drive is an uninhibited enjoyment of something. Or the compulsion to do something. When looking for this drive, it is crucial to realise that what focus or drive feels like “on the inside” is very different from what the output looks like on the outside.

Have you ever noticed that when you praise someone for something they’ve made they always shrug it off as “nothing” or “easy” or not worth praising? And you disagree and say it is amazing? Well that’s because that person does not relate to the outside object like you do. What they are feeling inside is colourless and ordorless compared to other emotions. It is not white rage, red anger, green envy, blue sadness or black depression. They are rather carrying out an activity because it puts them in flow. A state of “mind with no mind”, a state which is energetic but relaxing. The output is simply a bi-product of the flow state. When the output is praised, the person doesn’t feel it is praise-worthy, because all they were doing was “relaxing”, almost being indulgent. Some people describe this as doing an activity “for its own sake”.

Of course, this is not the only reason for drive. Some professionals say they feel “compelled” to write, to paint, to make songs etc. and it is a restless drive that they feel compelled to satisfy. In this case the feeling of drive is almost a burden that cannot be ignored, like having to eat every few hours. None the less, being compelled to eat doesn’t have a easily recognisable “feel” to it, it is more like background noise.

If one genuinely wants to detect the signs for “drive” inside oneself, in order to emulate the output one admires in others, it is key to realise that it is almost hidden from view. It is odorless and flavourless. It apparently arises unbidden, is akin to background noise and it will not feel as satisfying as you might think. The output of the drive will be quite random. Remember that what we admire in others is not symmetrical with what we can achieve ourselves. If someone praises you for some output and you want to shrug it off as nothing, then there is your drive, unnoticed all this time. (Out of interest, what tools were you using?)

However, if what you want is something more meaty, more satisfying, like prestige or praise or feeling cool, then you might want to try something different altogether. Producing sexy artistic output only comes from that boring drive with no flavour, and you won’t feel so good about the praise when you get it.

Either way, assembling the tools of a discipline will not help you feel the way you want.

Rigid Lore

A common mistake with tools is to become rigid in the “lore” of the tool use. I see this a lot with digital tools. Many web developers in my field become fixated on the tools they use, even having holy wars over which is the “correct” way to do things. The truth is that we should focus on the task, and use whatever tools make it easier or more fun to achieve the task (if any!)

Lots of things are tools

Remembering which way the causal arrow flows for tools can help reduce frustrations. My example is Twitter. Many people say to me they don’t understand why people like Twitter, but it became clear to me when I realised Twitter was a tool. If you stare at an unfamiliar tool, it is almost impossible to work out what people use it for. But if you need to use it yourself, the purpose becomes clear.

For the longest time I didn’t have any reason to use Twitter, and I couldn’t understand it. These days I want to find random strangers that like communicating their ideas about philosophy in words, and Twitter suddenly became a meaningful tool for me.

It’s ok to not “get” what the latest apps are for. It’s probably because you don’t have a reason to use it.

Meta tools

One thing I like very much is when people use tools “wrong”. This is a sort of meta activity for tools.

Creating a tool can be about rejecting the functional fixedness of objects to make something useful. Meta tools is rejecting the functional fixedness of tools themselves, using tools for purposes other than what they were made for.

The pen with a needle taped to it is a good example. The pen is a tool initially invented for writing, but since it is also ergonomic for a human hand, it is good for holding too. Therefore a pen can be a “stick” or a “handle”. A pen is better than a stick or a handle as there are more of those lying around the average household than carved handles or nature’s sticks. Similarly a needle is designed for sewing work with thread, but it is also simply an “ouchy point” of a convenient length.

The most useful tool I’ve ever owned is a wooden sculpting tool, but I have never used it to touch clay.

This happens equally with digital tools too. Photoshop is an interesting example. It is a market-dominant almost useful tool which people have bent to their personal use. Many artists draw and paint with it, despite the annoying interface and the way that Adobe treats the brushes as an “afterthought” sort of feature. While others only ever mask, crop and reduce red-eye on professional photos with it (as it was first designed for). I’ve even heard of people who have trained themselves to use a mouse in their offhand, while using a stylus/drawing pad in the other hand in order to use it more effectively.

Thanks to a conversation with @vgr, we discovered that Twitter is a good tool for Q&A thanks to a lack of features or funtionality that “supports” the Q&A format, because features can often be over-engineered, or restrict the user too far with what they might want to do with the tool.

A recent tweet that I now can’t find talked about fashions in digital tech, whereby two somewhat opposing philosophies rise and fall in prominence. One is to detect what the user wants and then to deliver it as simply as possible. We are currently in a phase of that fashion, with ever-easier user interfaces, massive baby-ish rounded buttons, Machine Learning systems and ever narrower options. This mode fails when the detection system is not good enough, or the user is an edge case. It is quicker and easier to do a common task, but it shuts down the user as a tool maker.

The other philosophy is providing many options for a user, without knowing what they want or how they want to do it, and allowing them to take their own path through the software, using it for whatever they see fit. The downside of this method is that people need high motivation and may get lost or turned off by all the options. However it is when people “use tools wrong” that the users provide opportunites for software to evolve to be better, or for users to assert a need that no-one had ever imagined.

Rejecting rubbish tools, using tools wrong and creating one’s own tools are ideas that were previously highly taboo to me, because it violated my wrong idea of how one went about any given activity. In reality, the purpose comes first, followed by the need, and tools will naturally come to hand. I wouldn’t suggest outright rejecting advice about better tools, but all tool use is ultimately personal opinion, so feel free to have strong opinions of your own and if you’re getting the task done, that’s what matters in the end.


2 responses to “Philosophy of tool use”

  1. I loved this! Enough insights for several posts.

    My friend Beth Preston has done some of the best work on the philosophy of tools. Notably including your observation that they are frequently “misused” improvisationally! That causes problems for the mainstream philosophical view of tools, and of made objects generally. Taking improvisation and collaboration seriously leads her in interesting directions.

    If you’d like to read more, check out the “Journal Articles and Book Chapters” of her CV (and then look them up in the Usual Place To Get Academic Papers).

    Although, bother, her most recent one, the Ethnotechnology Manifesto, seems not to be easily located.

  2. Mikael Brockman says:

    I will withhold praise for reasons mentioned in the post and just mention another useful axis for thinking about tools and their use which I found in Elaine Scarry’s “The Body in Pain” (a brilliant, beautiful book): namely creation vs harm, which aligns with society vs destruction of world, and which is seen in the instant when a torturer picks up a household item (a tool for cooking) and uses it as a weapon (to destroy the tortured’s world, ridicule his allegiances, diminish his nation and threaten his family).