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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.

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