A Choice of Simple Tools

My primary requirement for a tool is that it stay out of my way. Ok, so maybe that is requirement number two, right after the requirement of the tool fulfilling its purpose. But honestly, if a tool can perform its required function then the next most important characteristic for me is that it be as non-obtrusive as possible. This applies to simple tools like screwdrivers and hammers as well as more complex tools such as computers and their software.

Simplicity ToolsWhen I pick up a hammer I expect it to be able to drive a nail into a board. I do not need it to have a compass to guide the way or a light to illuminate the path. Such things would only add needless complexity to the device and would thus get in my way. It is the simplicity of the device that makes it both useful and appropriate. The same goes for a screwdriver. Multiple attachments, lights in the body, and fancy sheathing may sound attractive at first, but when I am trying to get a job done those added complexities could actually make the job more difficult. The beauty of simplicity is that it represents just enough. Just enough to accomplish the work – not too little so that you require more time or tools, and not too much so that extra effort is expended.

This simplicity is also how I choose software. I am an Apple fan; there is no doubt about that. But I am an Apple fan for a reason. I will not deny, not in the least, that Windows and Linux may be immensely more configurable than Mac OSX. But that configurability adds a level of complexity that I find in no way necessary. That configurability actually gets in my way. I feel the same way about the Android mobile operating system versus IOS.

I like to play with Android sometimes. There are so many possibilities, so many options, and so many ways to do things.  But the devices I choose on a daily basis and that I use to get work done are IOS devices. I choose them because they are more simplistic in that elegant sense. That streamlined manner that lets me accomplish my work without addition effort, configuration, or interference. The devices are, after all, just tools. They are not my hobby. They are not my source of joy and fulfillment in the world. They are not something I choose to spend my time with instead of my family, my friends, or even a good book. My phone, my tablet, and my computer are just tools.

I will head off one derisive argument that maybe I am just not personally well equipped to deal with the complexities of Android or Linux or even Windows. My rebuttal to that would be a reminding that I make my living with all of these. I maintain complex Linux and Windows systems for a living. I am certified on multiple platforms from multiple vendors. I have the ability to make all of these systems do exactly what I want. And I choose to use Apple products as my central tools because they get out of my way and let me get work done. I can concentrate on my job, my work, and my tasks without have to worry about the tool.

There are some instances where complex tools are necessary. As much as we may hate it, a certain amount of training is needed to use any word processor or spreadsheet.  If I were going to measure or calibrate nuclear equipment, I would assume the instrumentation is not self-evident. And today’s highly computerized cars need highly computerized diagnostic tools to maintain them. But then again, that is one of the reasons I prefer my older cars. If my car malfunctions and I have to pull over to the side of the road, when I open the hood I can actually diagnose problems with my five senses. Try diagnosing anything on a more modern sealed system car without hundred or even thousands of dollars in highly specialized diagnostic tools. And trust me, car dealerships and their attached repair shops prefer things that way. They don’t want you fixing your own car.

So this is my plea for simplicity. That can mean different things to different people. The Apple iPhone is simple to me, but there are people who still prefer the simplicity of the old feature phones. And there may even be those who find the iPhone hard to comprehend but find Android intuitive. And, of course, if you are someone who never intends on lifting the hood of your car then a sealed system is far simpler for you than my 50 year old, non-computerized British rarity.

Just as beauty can be said to be in the eye of the beholder, so can simplicity, elegance, and suitability to task. That is why we have choice, why we have options, and why there can be competition. Competition even between makers of hammers and screwdrivers.

About Michael

British car fanatic, writer, pen & typewriter collector, and general eccentric. WordPress, web and computer consultant. Unabashed liberal and UU.
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10 responses to A Choice of Simple Tools

  1. Ha–hilarious. I too like my tools to stay out of my way. Word processors are easy, spreadsheets drive me crazy. Enjoyed your thoughts.

  2. Multiple tools exist to accomplish the same task because different people prefer different things. Some people approach a problem one way; others tackle it another.

    • Very true, preference does come into it. But if we agree there are certain tasks to be accomplished then there are also tools that are inappropriate for the task no matter the preference. For instance if the task is to drive a nail into a board, then a cotton swap or cotton ball is an inappropriate tool. And by logic then there is a continuum of tools. There will be a grouping in the area of workable options that allow for preference, but maybe even an architect might agree that there are those options that fall outside the realm of sanity.

  3. Matthew

    This is targeted towards software development, but lots that can be applied elsewhere. http://www.infoq.com/presentations/Simple-Made-Easy

  4. Excellent article Michael. :)

    No, I am not going to say you were long winded again. :) I am going to say this though. I prefer Apple products and IOS because (drum roll…) “they just work”. I too am able to support multiple OS’s and platforms. I know fellow I.T. folks who hate Windoze and love Linux. If Windoze was not written with such crappy code you and I would not have jobs. :) If everyone was an I.T. person and loved the challenge of learning Linux then we would not have jobs. Different strokes for different folks as they say. Why won’t we ever see a mainstream adoption of Linux on the desktop in Corporate America? We won’t see it because the majority of common folks who USE their computers to do daily tasks would never get those tasks accomplished. It would be like giving a vascular surgeon a jack hammer to do surgery. It is the wrong tool for the job. DOH!!

    • Pun intended, you hit the nail on the head. We want things that just work. No messing with it, not futzing around having to customize things. They just work. Even with my cars which I do like to play with, I have my daily driver that “just works”. There is a different category for my hobby cars and we do not even lump them into the “transportation” category.

  5. I like your ideas on simplicity here. I hate technology which forces complexity and steps me doing what I want; the programming side of WordPress is a case in point for me. Why can’t it have the same functionality as the Apple toys we play with?

    • You should do a few John Ruskin posts for us! Or at least William Morris. :) my heroes.

      A lot if people don’t understand that simple or efficient doesn’t mean simplistic or too basic. It means what is necessary for the task without getting in the way or needless frills.

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