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Tools, autonomy, contemplation

A few years ago I wrote a rather silly post that was rambling on how tools were not the point, but rather the way they were used. Duh. I used the comparison between the Apollo 11 landing module code, written in Assembly, 11MB back in 1983, and Snapchat, which back in 2019 was all the rage with the first AR filters. My point was simple and silly: our use of seemingly better code or technology is appalling because nowadays it serves mostly useless ends. Thus the title of the post: From the Moon to Snapchat.

I still share a deep feeling of shame about the belief in technology but for fairly different reasons. The first, simplest one is that Moore’s law doesn’t apply to human wisdom. It took me a while to understand the limits of technological progress.

It’s 2022. I’ve spent the second half of my twenties in the Bay Area and went through the pandemic. I went through a couple of obsessive phases, driven by hope, love, fallacies, and biases fed by various things. Things I can now clearly identify as Tools. Disposable income, free time, and availability caught me as I arrived in the Bay area. Coming from a fairly rural place, I experienced a shock. I tried to navigate purchase decisions with a rigorous (borderline ascetic) framework. I went all the way to evaluating the healthiness of my relationships with each of the things, ranging from acceptable vanity to clearly healthy choices (fitness tracker, bike, sports equipment, supplements). I perceived all of these things as tools. Tools that I was using to my advantage. This simple belief in the one-way relationship I have with tools started the obsessive rabbit hole of optimization. Money, time, and energy are the only limits of this process. Today this logic based on incremental gain is the norm. Politics and businesses sell these as solutions. (Tools = solutions = progress)

For me, the pandemic has been the sunset of this logic. Observing the pandemic unfold in real life and online has been such an intelligence-insulting spectacle. The examples are countless. The loss of autonomy made us react in all the ways, the chaos inside is obvious but dulled by all the distractions. Tools make life bearable. Thus without them, we can’t function. Smartphones are an easy target of the defenders of our autonomy. Cars, power supply, the gig economy, the supply chains, our food system… we can’t live without them. They make sense, and by that I mean, we can rationally explain the reason for their existence. And yet they promote an absurd way of life.

I use the term absurd because I have seen and heard too many intelligent people devote an “absurd” amount of energy to end up telling us things like: sleep is really good for you. Mental health is important. Exercise is great. The volume and quantity of the content and technology out there are mind-blowing and yet useless. If something looks or sounds vaguely useful, we’ll have it. We can’t seem to go against that instinct. And yet we praise and seek wisdom. Tools used to bridge the gap between wisdom and the physical world. They were so limited that we were forced to consider their limits. That didn’t stop us from making colossal mistakes but there were at least limits. Maybe it is driven by some generational exceptionalism, but we seem to have gotten past the threshold of clever intellectual delusions when it comes to faith in technology. The software will not fix global warming, Soylent will not replace a home-cooked meal, iPads will not replace teachers, and an app won’t fix your brokenness…

As you can probably tell, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but something is clear now — at the end of each obsessive phase I reach an existential moment. This very unique time reveals what the stuff I obsessed about robbed me of. It’s always the same thing: contemplation. The existential dread of having been fooled again made me label this as a simple loss of time, money, and energy, but it’s something else. Contemplation reveals the conviviality in life — moments and simple things.

Using knowledge as a tool doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom. Especially when knowledge is extrapolated from data. Ivan Illich really worked its way through my skull as he defined the rarely acknowledged side of what a tool is and does. Simply put: The enablement allowed by a tool is proportional to the loss of autonomy for its user. As an example: a knife is great because it allows you to cut stuff that you couldn’t without having the knife. That implies that you depend on the knife to cut stuff. Even in the case of a primitive tool like the knife, it gets problematic when the knife becomes dull. But at least it’s a direct relationship between tool/user/outcome. It is in indirect cases where the loss of autonomy isn’t obvious that things get hairy.

Modern service operating via apps sells us a lot of small incremental degrees of convenience. Individually, the loss from each of these services is fairly negligible. It’s not because you order a meal once or twice that you’ll lose your ability to feed yourself. It’s the broad availability of this type of on-demand convenience that leads to the loss of individual autonomy. We entered the service era a while ago. Few modern tools have a clear shape and function like the knife example above. The ever-lower price of convenience is hard to put in perspective as we do our cost/benefit analysis. The loss of autonomy is rarely baked into the pricing model of classic transactions. A tool is not just a tool. The time and relationship we build with them have a cost, beyond money.

There is an invisible line. I’m not suggesting that we should all make our own knives. But we should learn how to sharpen them and use them for ourselves.

There is meaning and satisfaction in living close to the source of things. – Masanobu Fukuoka

← Index / Published on 2022-11-15