Tools

A Story

It was a beautiful summer day. The birds were chirping and the grass was still gleaming with morning dew. I, however, was not to experience the joys of nature, as I was indoors, seething with annoyance and not-quite-but-almost rage. I was working on a program I had made, and it kept crashing my laptop, bought for college; in terms of technological progress, my machine was practically a relic. It was time for an upgrade. I spent some time looking at the latest laptops, but none seemed to fit my criteria of long battery life, high processing power and physical lightness. I spent hours upon hours looking for that combination, but it seemed I would have to keep looking. It was Sunday, I had work the next day. I should probably go to sleep soon, I thought.

That night, a twinkling of an idea crossed the back of my mind. I had a desktop computer stored in my parents’ garage, also from college; perhaps I could use that for more power. It was also getting old, why not just build a new computer altogether? Why not also get a new laptop too while I’m at it, and perhaps upgrade my phone as well? As I normally keep my phone right next to my bed (what if someone messages me and it’s important?), I reached over and spent the next six hours researching what I could do. Gone was any semblance of a good night’s rest, and I awoke, groggy and with deep bags under my eyes. I still had work of course, and that Monday was not very fun. However, my mind was still racing with the possibilities, oh the possibilities. I wasn’t focused on the reason that I needed these things anymore, it was all about the things themselves. The rest of the week, I continued to stay up until 5 AM in fervent research, throwing away thoughts of sleep. I wanted the knowledge of each and every feature, every processor, every GPU, every keyboard and mouse combination that I could possibly use, now or in the future. I needed to try them out for real.

In my area, there are no good computer stores. The best one around was a rather large store that allows you to pick out hardware components to build your own computer. It wasn’t necessarily close, so I took an hour and a half train ride there after work on Friday. It was so exciting, I could finally experience in real life what I spent a week researching! I tried out their test computers, looking at their specifications and running benchmarks, seeing if one’s numbers were higher than another’s. I tried out the laptops as well, because if I’m getting one, I might as well get the other, right? Isn’t it better to just upgrade everything in your life whenever you get an opportunity?

As I was looking through the laptops, something strange was happening. I began to have doubts in my mind as to why I was doing this in the first place. At that moment, I had a stunning realization. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep or maybe it was an existential crisis, but I realized that none of this matters. All these computers, these laptops, these phones, these tools, do the same thing. Sure, some are better than others, but fundamentally, they’re all the same. Did I really waste a week of my life researching tools? Would I be equally excited if a new version of a hammer, chisel, or anvil came out? Most importantly, did I really, truly need new things? What seem like monumental differences in features of each gadget when researched online were in fact miniscule changes that makes no difference in the day to day usage of the average consumer. The tools we were meant to control end up controlling us.

Catharsis

What we cannot get back is time. If I continued to become the slave of my tools, obsessing over each potential detail, what I waste most is time. It was not so much that I obsessed over the tools themselves but rather the possibilities of what could be, with new technologies coming out constantly and companies creating new innovations. In short, I loved research and speculation more than the real thing. I got a bigger dopamine hit by the mere research alone than by using the tool itself. You too can imagine a scenario where you obsessed over something, picking this dress over that, or perhaps this phone over another, and you too have probably noticed that in a few days, you really don’t care anymore, ascending the hedonic treadmill. In learning things as well, this attitude is apparent. If you’re learning how to cook, start making food; don’t lament your lack of a large kitchen and a well-stocked knife collection. If you’re learning how to paint, start painting; don’t lament your lack of the best paint brushes in the world. If you want to do, just start.

Of course, there is benefit to creating, buying, owning, and using tools (civilization has been wrought by human ingenuity), but remember that they are mere things in the end, nothing to obsess over. I resolved to stop researching things for hours and days, and to stop reading their news. Instead, I want to use my current things to their fullest potential, and to reduce, reuse, and recycle them away when the time comes, to eschew that which I truly don’t need. When I actually need to use a new tool, I get it and use it, not spending hours on research that could be used for the task at hand. Tools are merely a means to an end; focus on the end, not the means.