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From Tools to Tool Uses

Rethinking How We Think About Tools

In thinking about digital tools we naturally draw analogies to the physical world. In this latter context, tools are often engineered for a specific and clear purpose. A 3/4 inch ratchet wrench is used to secure bolts of that size, and so on.

The translation of this single use understanding of tools to the digital world, however, is creating havoc in our digital lives.

Many modern digital tools, especially those in the social media sector, are engineered to offer dozens of different features, and can be used in a wide variety of different ways. We lose significant control over our time and attention when we settle for thinking about these tools only in the binary sense of: “I use it,” or “I don’t use it.”

Consider, for example, a Facebook addict who checks his feed constantly throughout the day (the average American Facebook user spends over 50 minutes per day on the service — typically split into many, many small checks). Now compare him to minimalist Tammy Strobel, who only uses Facebook’s Fan Page feature as it offers an effective channel to share her online content with fans.

Both “use Facebook,” but the impact of this service on their time and attention is vastly different.

With examples like this in mind, I’m increasingly coming to accept that whether or not you use a tool is not the whole story — it also matters how you use a tool. If a particular social media service supports an important value in your life, for example, don’t let this be the excuse that allows the service full hegemony over your time and attention. Instead, think carefully about how  exactly you will use this service in such a way that optimally supports those values without hurting other things that matter to you.

Adapting to the digital world  is not just about curating your “tools,” but also carefully crafting your “tool use.”  Working with this latter concept greatly expands your options for cultivating a good life in a high tech age.

(Photo by Giorgio Montersino)

27 thoughts on “From Tools to Tool Uses”

  1. Great take on this. Social media platforms continue to offer more and more capabilities which end up causing users to spend more time in the platform but for different reasons. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Rarely, if ever, do we give thought to why we’re using digital technologies. I understand why it might be an attractive proposition to sell it to others — hell, I’ve been there — but when we reflect on what’s meaningful in our lives, hyperconnectivity and distraction cannot order themselves above contemplation, kindness and love. Having read Deep Work, I’ve now ceased using all social media channels, and all I do is maintain a blog where I share the occasional post. Good luck to all those people who think, having introduced social media into their lives, that it’s now indispensable. It’s not; and the sooner we realise that the better.

  3. The interesting thing with Facebook is that they split out their Messenger functionality to a separate mobile app to try to increase user “engagement” across multiple apps. However, what they may not realize is that it gives the user the opportunity to delete the Facebook app in favor of focusing on direct communications with friends through Messenger app. By doing that, the user is no longer funneled into the attention-grabbing News Feed that sucks up so much time.

    • Kyle,
      It’s interesting you should bring that up. I’ve done exactly that, and I think that, aside from it being able to fragment my attention anyway thanks to the kind of “always on” friends I have on there, separating Messenger from Facebook has been something of an improvement from allowing myself access to an endlessly scrollable news feed.
      Still, I was bitterly disappointed to find myself desperate enough at one point to scroll the “My Day” feature at the top. Messenger had been the one place I didn’t have to be randomly hijacked by updates of people’s day. Now I just deactivate my account without allowing the Messenger feature to stay on.
      Success rate 30% (if that).
      Cal et al. were right. These things are engineered to be addictive.

    • Exactly! And that’s what I’ve done. Now Facebook it’s nothing more than a texting alternative like WhatsApp.

      It’s nowhere near my home screen either. Since the app sends a notification in case a new message arrives, I don’t need to check the app myself. There are similar add-ons for Chrome as well, and when you click on them they’ll just open a new tab with your message, not your Facebook home screen.

  4. Another aspect of digital minimalism involves matching the complexity of your tools to your needs. If you have little interest in photography, for example, does it make sense to buy a top-of-the-line digital SLR if you’re only going to use it take snapshots? A digital SLR is loaded with features, which take time to learn, and then you’re tempted to buy a range of lenses for it. Having spent all that money, you now feel compelled to spend time learning how to use your tool to its full capacity, instead of starting with an honest assessment of your needs and goals in photography.

    I recently spent a month using a minimalist version of Linux called elementary OS, which provides a very familiar interface to Mac users. It resembles, both in its form and its limitations, Mac OSX in the early 2000s when it was first introduced. It feel stripped down to the essentials, and the apps that come with it are similarly minimalist: a music manager with a simple interface that hearkens back to the early days of iTunes, a basic email program, a bare-bones calendar. What I found while using it was that I spent less time on the computer because the constraints imposed by elementary’s minimalism forced me to focus only the tasks I needed to do regularly.

    All of this makes me feel that digital minimalism involves not just using tools wisely, but choosing tools wisely.

    • Brad,
      Thanks for bringing up elementary OS. Never heard of it, but it ties in really well with the principles in discussion; I definitely want to try that next and will have to look into it.
      I’d like to clarify something you said, though: Did you mean you recently spent only a month using it and then went back to another standard OS, or did you mean you’ve been using it for a month until presently? I only ask because if it was indeed the former, I’d be interested in knowing why you stopped using it.

      – Vinny

      • @Vinny, I could have easily stayed with elementary OS, but encountered a few bugs and incompatibilities that made me decide to try Linux Mint as an alternative (I could easily have also tried Ubuntu but saw better reviews for Mint). My overall impression is that both elementary and Mint are excellent alternatives (elementary is like MacOSX; Mint is like Windows 7). I was worried that Linux would require more time spent fiddling with the computer to make it work, but in both cases the transition was fast and simple, no geekery required. But I’m not going to switch to Linux full-time because 1) collaboration with others is easier in Windows or Mac, and 2) I do a fair amount of photography and the photo management/editing apps in Linux have a pretty steep learning curve (or are just plain harder to use than their counterparts on Mac and Windows) that it’s not worth my time. I don’t want to fall into the trap of spending a lot of time and effort making Linux work for me when I have solutions that already work on conventional platforms. But man, it’s close. I can do 80-90 percent of what I need in Linux, just as easily as in Windows or Mac. I’m using Linux on a 9-year-old laptop and it is fast, responsive, and attractive. I’ve never had to use the terminal and the interfaces of both elementary OS and Linux Mint are very intuitive.

      • Another thought on this: I showed my laptop running elementary OS to a friend who was frustrated with her Mac, and she loved it. It certainly is simpler, with fewer things to go wrong, but eventually you’re going to bump up against the limitations. It seems to me that a better practice would be to cultivate the ability to use only the features of an operating system or individual app that you actually need. People complain that MS Word is bloated, but so what? You might spend 95 percent of the time using only 10% of its features, but if you need to make use of other features during the other 5% of the time you’ll be glad they’re included. With elementary, you either do without or you find some other tool that can provide the missing functionality. That can be a deal-breaker.

        This circles back to Cal’s main point: focus on using tools to accomplish what you need, rather than expanding your perceived needs to meet the tool’s capabilities. I have a 9-year-old smart phone that I only use for making calls and receiving texts. That might seem like a waste; a flip phone could do the same job, but this old phone has a wonderful physical keyboard (it’s a Nokia E-71) that is much easier for texting than a flip phone. And surprisingly its battery lasts longer than that of any flip phone I’ve used. The point is that this little machine offers a lot of functionality that I never use, but it’s perfect for the jobs I need it to do. If we use a similar approach to our computers, our apps, and social tools, it puts us in the driver’s seat rather than letting our apps and our devices distract us with their endless possibilities.

  5. You have a point there! I think it is in the interest of Facebook to implement more functions so the people will even spend more time using it. Also, they try to activate a feeling of being social while using Facebook. But instead, you are sitting alone at home with your phone in your hand.
    So I totally agree with you that we should check on how we use these tools. But not many think about that. Because I think you can use Facebook “the right way” to find new friends or to stay connected. But you need to use it the right way. Thanks for your thought!
    Have a nice day!

  6. I’ve been doing what Tammy has been doing lately. I am working on being even more vigilant in scaling back and even using 3rd party platforms like Hootsuite to schedule and post my content.

  7. This series is proving incredibly useful, particularly as a final year PhD student who has a tendency towards digital overwhelm and lack of focus. I recently decided to get rid of all social media in an attempt to clearly think about what I use them for and their value to me. My research touches upon human values so I am always interested in thinking about what values such platforms and their uses promote or diminish.
    After a month of barely using Instagram and Twitter (and eschewing Facebook entirely) I realise that I don’t gain enough value from these platforms to warrant their use, and that they promote values in myself that I find negative, i.e the urge to buy something as I saw it on Instagram etc. Now I am faced with trying to find the sources of the small number of useful outlets, for news or for research, that are of actual benefit to me. I could stay on social media and only interact with these outlets, but find it is all too easy to get sucked into distraction.
    I also have a fear that as someone who wants to forge a career in academia I “should” have a social media presence, at least that’s what we get told, particularly by the network I am part of (ironically the Digital Economy Network). I just don’t feel I am willing to compromise my own values anymore or to use platforms that offer little value in terms of learning, connecting or communicating.

  8. You bring up a point that I was considering when I started blogging again, but most of my posts were reminiscent of ideas owing a great debt to you and to the author you admire, Jaron Lanier. That is, I was beginning to write about giving up social media and leading a post-Facebook life.

    This posed a couple of problems when it came to using social media as a tool to spread the message of giving up social media. First, there was the existential question of whether it was consistent morally or even from a marketing perspective to use Facebook and Twitter to promote article about how bad social media was. Secondly, there was the practical consideration that if I was auto-posting the limited brilliance of my RSS feed on Twitter and Facebook, the readers who found me there would want to engage with my ideas there instead of on my blog or via email.

    So I would argue that there’s another important distinction besides the one you make between a multi-purpose tool and a single-purpose one. The difference I’d propose begins with the idea that no one ever got addicted to a 3/4″ socket wrench or a pair of pliers or a knife — and both of the latter are multi-use tools. So in that respect, a more apt metaphor for Twitter and Facebook are to a bottle of whiskey. So while I personally believe in promoting abstinence, at the point where I promote that in the bar room, I risk becoming something of a boor.

    As always, though, great ideas here! Also, I realize my position is open to the criticism that folks already off of social media and reading blogs don’t need to be told to give it up. I haven’t worked out what to say about that one.

  9. I liked the last thought – think about optimal tool use instead of petting several favorite tools.

    Thank you for sharing this point of view.

  10. I agree 100%, Cal. Purposeful use of tools can no doubt be helpful.

    I still think it’s dangerous territory though, particularly for the “average” person. Once you set foot in the arena, you are one step closer to the $billions spent on grabbing your attention, despite the best of intentions.

    The “any given benefit” mindset may unknowingly creep back in.

  11. Hey Cal,

    I would like to ask you how you deal with pressure when time blocking? These thoughts like “oh no, i will not make it’ or ‘faster, i haven’t time’. Sometimes i was really angry that other people are making it harder for me, because it seems irrelevant for theme.

    Greetings from Poland

  12. A 3/4″ ratchet isn’t used to secure bolts of that size, but to turn sockets with a 3/4″ attachment, which are in turn made to fit a variety of bolt sizes.

  13. I like this topic and the discussion that has followed. I have recently started to use Twitter solely for news feeds from various sources to try to see what news is trending from different parts of the world. I don’t communicate through Facebook at all and I enjoy not having much of a digital footprint (though I have created a website as a requirement for my class). I understand why companies want your attention and time all for the sake of keeping everyone “connected”. I believe that adapting to the digital world depends on the kind of content (people or otherwise) that we want to stay connected to and who we want our message to reach out to. Thank you Cal for starting this topic and as a side topic, I wonder where everyone gets their news from?

  14. i am not a great fan of facebook myself but i like your take on this. it seems we just get accustomed to one way when lo and behold yet more tools to discover…definately seems like a muse to keep us wasting more of time on facebook…

  15. It has become essential for you use the tool carefully, because what ever you do or search it will be reflected in your news feed/timeline. Because the re marketing tool companies using can pull you somewhere you don’t want to be.


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