Oh the Tools We Use

Me Riding Bike
A Tool Using a Tool (Bicycle)

We all wish to have an effect on the world. To leave some sort of impact.

And part of leaving an impact is through our interaction with tools. Were it not for the “tools” that are my pen – to develop the first draft – and computer – to develop subsequent drafts – I would be unable to write this inane blog post. Were it not for this broom, I would have to find other ways of cleaning the floor. Our tools aid us in  having an effect, however large or small, on the world we inhabit.

To truly savor an “effective” life, we must feel competent. If I weren’t confident in my ability to crochet a winter hat – which is totally possible – I would probably give up after slipping up. I might wonder what compelled me to crochet in the first place.

The same is true with how we engage with tools. When we yield tools with mastery, we feel competent. When we lack control over our tools, we feel helpless. Put another way, when we use tools, we can feel competent; when we operate tools, we run the risk of feeling helpless.

A bit about the difference between using tools and operating them:

  • Using – is human-powered and human-guided
  • Operating – is machine-powered and human-guided
  • and then there are “Cybernetic systems” – which we neither use nor operate. These systems require neither human power nor direct human guidance . Think “autonomous” or “self-driving” cars.

For example, we use bicycles, and we operate cars. By using  a bicycle we’re  extending our human-powered ability to move about. By operating a car we’re merely guiding an engine- an computer-driven machine.

Plus, most of us can quickly learn how to maintain and repair a bicycle using hand tools and small parts. However, learning how to maintain a repair a car requires years of specialized instruction. Cars are not only more complex, they require access to specialized tools and with newer models – software updates.

When it comes to feeling effective and competent, tools that we use are superior to tools that we operate. Thus, the bicycle is superior to the car in this sense.

By operating something rather than using it, we risk feeling helpless when it malfunctions. When my hybrid car needs a software update – something it requires about once a year – can I rely on my wherewithal to update it? Can I enlist trusted neighbors to help out? Nope. I must take the car to a specialist, with special knowledge and special tools.


Office workers like myself are now all dependent on the operation of computers. A few times a year, the power goes out at my work. When this happens, we’re like children attending the first day of preschool: timid, unsure, aimlessly wondering. We gather in dimly lit halls and schedule face-to-face meetings. Without computers, what else are we to do?

During these times, I’m reminded of old photographs colleagues and I discovered when clearing out an office a few years ago. The photos predated our personal computer era – the 1960s and 70s. They featured impeccably dressed men and women in horn-rimmed glasses sitting on or near large, dark wooden desks. I’ve wondered whether a wet bar lie just outside the photos’ frames. Some of the people in the picture smoked cigarettes, high stacks of paper before them. Quite Mad Men-eque.

Besides the wet bar, we wondered what these people did all day. In a world without email and spreadsheets and webinars, what did they do? I’m told that during this time, a time before machines eclipsed human relationships, they gathered more, they brainstormed more. The photos revealed ancestral colleagues who appeared calm, effective, competent.

We all need to feel effective and competent. A promising place to start is with the tools we use. Those things we operate – cars, computers, smartphones, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, electrical appliances, TVs, sound systems – are constantly changing in the spirit of planned obsolescence. And in their wake, they leave us helpless consumers who must keep apace with technological “progress” and who must damage our natural world in the process.

However, the tools we use – the pencil, the bicycle, the shovel, the hand saw, the rake, the screwdriver – remain virtually the same as when they were developed. They’re within our power to upkeep and repair. They’re an extension of our human power and imagination. They more we use them, the more effective and competent we feel. The more we leave a unique and light-footed impression on our world.

Pin It
  • Jefftown37

    Self-reliance and resilience come to mind, and how relying on things we merely operate negatively affects those qualities.

  • SethLaJ

    Well said, Jeff! If we’re to get serious about social and ecological change, we must take a close look at our relationship with our tools. How can we practice self-reliance and community resilience when we merely operate machines?