Part of my thinking about good tools is that something ought to work well and endure in times when so much is breaking down. Increasingly I demand my tools be designed to avoid obsolescence, free me from electronic connections, and help me do good work.
Last night we took my daughter's failing iPad back to the Apple store. A woman there reset the device, but I suspect we will be back in a month to exchange it. Most electronics are poorly made and we are patsies to believe that they are good tools.
Yet as I waited at the store I felt the desire for a tablet, a new phone, a fresh laptop to make me feel better. I wondered how I had gone so long without new electronics. These half-baked thoughts rose in the overheated oven of my brain. Fortunately, the reset done, we left before I could make any mistakes.
Later, in bed, these ideas forming, I wrote the bones of this with a felt-tip pen on post-its. I thought about my phone plugged in downstairs. Had it have been next to me I could have dictated the note without even sitting up. The ease! The convenience! But my post-it was strictly between me and myself. It was done in solitude without mediation. I was unplugged from the networks — actually, I was listening to Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on my Google Home, but the writing was at least unplugged — and connected with myself and my ideas.
Compare pen and paper to phone in terms of Wendell Berry's nine rules for new tools. Pen and paper are (1) cheaper than the phone, (2) smaller in scale, (3) do the work better, (4) use less energy (though I dislike the pen being disposable), (5) are powered by me, (6) do not require repair, (7) can be purchased near my home, and (9) do not disrupt my thinking or connections to the world. The pen and paper fail only in that (8) they are not made locally.
Implicit in Berry's rules is the simplicity of good tools. Consider the tools a carpenter wears on her belt: hammer, tape measure, pencil, razor knife, and square. She goes to the truck for more complex tools (sawzall, air nailer, theodolite, and screw gun), but the essentials she keeps at hand. Those tools are likely old because they and endure. In any craft the essential tools are simple and enduring: a chef's knife, an artist's palette, a writer's pen, a tailor's needle and thread, a doctor's stethoscope, and a coach's stop watch.
There are always specialized instruments but these give way to the basics of the trade or art. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny is a master of the guitar synthesizer but he returns to six strings and exquisitely crafted wood, a purer form that mesmerizes.
I don't need an iPad, new laptop, or "upgraded" phone. I need the constant and regular return to pen and paper, the unmediated experience of creation done with good and necessary tools that open me to my best work and lead me to more interesting places than stores which can't sell anything to fix what really ails me.
The Wendell Berry essay from which I borrowed the rules for good tools can be found here.