September 10, 2010

Using the Fewest Tools Possible makes Life Better. ~ Dan Slanger

Three thoughts about our use of tools.

The short story: my profoundly unoriginal point is ‘less is more’.

The long story: here, “is more” means makes life better, and “less” implies the use of the fewest tools possible, which has made my list of “unto death” goals I keep on an index card above my desk. It even has a motto I echo to myself:


Which is—was—my private way of saying ‘less, really is more; so keep stripping down until you die, without anymore weight than a satisfied soul happy to give its lithe self back to the world’. Right, so sometimes the sloppy Platonic mysticism nonsense isn’t always part of the thought; sometimes I just think ‘less is more’ and leave it at that.

But that’s a lot to leave it at.

Because ‘less’ has a ways to go.

First thought: our use of tools defines us.

Our tool use defines us, or, makes us different, in two ways. First, our tool use makes us different from other forms of life. While other animals enjoy simple tools, only we enjoy our tools — the MacBook and all the magic that came before it and will come after it. Only our tools push so far past the necessities that first bore them. The bottle-nose dolphin does not worry its sea sponge needs an update and the chimpanzee does not realize riches when it takes its old termite stick to the Antique Road Show.

Second, our tool use makes us different from past forms of life. To quote — and recommend — Neil Postman’s Technopoly:

embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another…To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data.

And to quote — but not really recommend — The Buggles:

Video killed the radio star.

I know the word processor, which I had fully taken to by 15, if not killed, maimed my ability to think with pen and paper — it just doesn’t flow the way it used and the way it (sometimes) does when I’m before a screen. And sometimes I think the Net has affected my ability to read a book with all due patience.

So tool use defines us insofar as it is, from the first, in us in some essential way and insofar as what is in us we give to the world and the world pays back with interest. The hammer is in us and we give the hammer to the world and, at some point, the hammer has a belt and a molded plastic no-slip rubber grip and the shelter we built with the hammer has become a multistory maze of concrete, drywall and Formica with PVC pipes and wireless waves — which cannot penetrate my tinfoil cap. The television is in us and we give the television to the world and, at some point, the television has, streaming on demand, all the shows and movies ever made, a busy background to and occasional distraction from the computer on our lap, opened to four different tabs —  the iTunes that will make our artwork numbing; the Facebook that will make our friendships ephemeral; the Wikipedia that will make our knowledge broad but shallow; the pornography that will make our sexuality wide but flaccid.

It is important, then, to ask if our tool use, in making us different, makes us better or worse or something in between. And, if something in between (which seems likely), it is important to tease out and, as much as possible, hold apart the better from the worse.

Second thought: our use of tools distances us from certain goods.

Like any sane soul, I resent my car.


Last year I refused to renew my license until April because I wanted to walk or bike all winter and my undernourished will needed some help from the law. I lived where, between December and March, life should not. But walking between those months, even if a neighbor or two wondered whether I’d lost my license to bad judgment, was worth it. I ran less but got leaner. Streets, even my own, became new when walked. And walking itself became time to mind my steps and breath, which, in the cold, became smoke and signaled some happier state of nature I’m only fully in when on a mountain or in a forest — some state whose already impossible distance grows a taunt longer whenever I drive my car, use my plastic or tally all I buy but never use.

Useless — and useful — tools mark our distance from that absent state, which some of us intuit to be, on balance, happier than the technopoly we came from and, accustomed to the raised expectations  of our parents’ magic, sprint toward.

It is that absent state — and how to always walk in its direction — that is often on my mind and, I’ve little doubt, often on the minds of other elephant readers.

To quote — and highly recommend (though, unlike perhaps Postman, you may have received this recommendation before) — Arcade Fire:

Don’t wanna hear the noises on TV,
Don’t want the salesmen coming after me,
Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more.
Don’t want it faster, I don’t want it free,
Don’t wanna show you what they done to me,
Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more.
Don’t wanna choose black or blue,
Don’t wanna see what they done to you,
Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more

‘Cause the tide is high,
and its rising still,
and I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill.

Don’t wanna give ’em my name and address,
Don’t wanna see what happens next,
Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more.
Don’t wanna live with my father’s debt,
You can’t forgive what you can’t forget,
Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more.
Don’t wanna fight in a holy war,
Don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door,
I don’t wanna live in America no more.
‘Cause the tide is high,
and it’s rising still,
And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill.

MTV, what have you done to me?
Save my soul, set me free!

Third thought: using the fewest tools possible makes life better.

That is what I think to myself when I say anti-apparatus as I:

bike to the store with saddle bags rather than take the car two blocks

eat barely touched, barely packaged foods from bulk bins rather than the more expensive, worse for you food stuffs that fill about 85% of the aisles

workout at home with sandbags, dips, handstands, pull ups and (shoeless) hill sprints rather than pay the moneychangers in the temples full of treadmills with televisions

generally, strive to do without, buy used, make myself or make like new — money is the apparatus of apparatuses.

Of course, ‘fewest tools possible’ abbreviates ‘fewest tools possible to accomplish a given end’ not ‘fewest tools possible, period’. The converse to the maxim, then, is ‘use only those tools necessary to accomplish a given end’. If my end is to write a blog post, it is necessary to use more than pen and paper. However, if my end is to ask a roommate to review my post before I click ‘publish’, it is not necessary — or as beneficial — to do so with an email rather than a walk upstairs, which, like so many anti-apparatus moments, makes me just a little bit fitter, healthier and happier.

(I should note that, every so often, my faith in an anti-apparatus approach to all I do finds a stumbling block. I recently moved and, when I did, traded a soft mattress for a homemade buckwheat hull mat, which I think I would love if I slept on my back. But I sleep — not so well these days — on my side. I suppose there’s an anti-apparatus bright side in that, come Christmas, I will give friends and family homemade buckwheat hull pillows.)

I want to close with a video of Arcade Fire’s “Windowsill” — from which I quoted — as well as a video of the Talking Heads — another already widely known band I recommend — performing “Found a Job”, which I quote in closing:

“Damn that television … what a bad picture!”
“Don’t get upset, it’s not a major disaster.”
“There’s nothing on tonight,” he said, “I don’t know
what’s the matter!”
“Nothing’s ever on”, she said, “so … I don’t know
why you bother.”

We’ve heard this little scene, we’ve heard it many times.
People fighting over little things, and wasting precious time.
They might be better off … I think … the way it seems to me.
Making up their own shows, which might be better than T.V.


Judy’s in the bedroom, inventing situations.
Bob is on the street today, scouting up locations.
They’ve enlisted all their family.
They’ve enlisted all their friends.
It helped saved their relationship,
And made it work again …

apocalyptic poetry


creative anti-apparatus resistance

Dan Slanger recently moved to Boulder to be with mountains and friends. He enjoys biking about town and his one big desire in life is to have sustainable desires. Write him at dslanger(at)gmail(dot)com or visit his neo-natal blog not quite worth going to yet.

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