Choosing Challenging Tools

In the 1950s, we imagined a future where robots and machines did all the work for us; we would only need to push a few buttons every few minutes, and watch as tasks accomplished themselves. We’re not quite there yet, but we certainly can accomplish a tremendous amount of work by pushing a few buttons.

I can reach my mother across town via the phone. I can shop via the internet and I can cook a ready-to-eat meal in the microwave. I can chop three onions in three seconds in my food processor. Tools and technology have made our lives better in thousands of ways. But some experts worry that our reliance on technology may create a society of have and have-nots. Not money, the conclusion you may have jumped to, but skills – the ability to actually do things.

Writing for The New Yorker, Tim Wu says that we now have the option of two kinds of technology: demanding and easy. He defines demanding tools as “technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure. By this measure, a piano is a demanding technology, as is a frying pan, a programming language, or a paintbrush. So-called convenience technologies, in contrast—like instant mashed potatoes or automatic transmissions—usually require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.”

Wu writes that our choice of instant everything may eventually erode our ability to do anything. I see this in my personal life; I haven’t done much math since I first picked up a calculator in my late teens. To me, math is a chore that is best done by machines. I don’t pick up lint piece by piece from my carpet, and I don’t add up figures by hand.

But I do think often about how much I admire people who choose challenging tools, people who know how to make things, build things, or repair things (and do math.) When the pump on our irrigation system stopped working a couple of weeks ago, we called six pump installation and repair companies to ask for a visit and estimate. Not a single one returned our calls. My husband went out every few days to take apart the pump and repair or replace the component he thought might be the problem. No luck. I watered my herb garden by hand and watched my radar app hopefully for signs of rain.

Finally, on his fourth try, my husband figured out the real culprit. He repaired the pump for less than $20, saving us the cost of replacement (around $200, in addition to labor if we’d been able to hire any.) In the process, he learned a lot about the inner workings of the pump. He’ll be able to repair it on his own with confidence next time.

Choosing to master a challenging technology or task gives you confidence to take on the next task. We build skills in layers, laying them on like nacre over irritants. Once you have taken apart a machine, you are more confident taking apart the next machine. Once you master cooking techniques, you can become creative and experimental with food.

Choosing instant technology not only causes our skills to atrophy, but it also speeds up the pace at which we work, demanding more and more productivity in any given moment. Wu calls this “the tyranny of tiny tasks.” He writes, “Instead of fewer difficult tasks (writing several long letters) we are left with a larger volume of small tasks (writing hundreds of emails). We have become plagued by a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive.”

There’s another, more insidious, problem with instant anything. We mistake being able to do something for being able to do it well. Being able to flow words into a PowerPoint presentation doesn’t make you a good presenter. Being able to operate MS Word doesn’t make you a writer. Heating up canned soup isn’t cooking.

It takes time, sometimes years, to master a challenging tool. And time seems to be the scarcest commodity of all. I’m okay with that, as long as you don’t confuse instant with mastery.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 100 emails to answer.

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