Vivek Haldar

To tool or not to tool?

Cal Newport, an author and blogger for whom I have great respect, recently wrote about how he allows new technological tools into his life:

in an age of personal technological revolution, we all need a more explicit philosophy for adopting tools. Without this clarity, we run the risk of drowning in a sea of distracting apps and shiny web sites. My philosophy — to only adopt tools that solve a major pre-existing problem — has served me well. I use e-mail, for example, because the ability to communicate asynchronously with people around the world is quite important for my work. E-mail solves this problem. I don’t use Twitter, however, because the ability to have short, casual interactions with many people I don’t know well is not that important to my work.

He addressed some more arguments in a follow-on post.

On the face of it, that’s a reasonable position to take, especially for an academic whose job is to think deep thoughts and solve big problems. But it also strikes me as showing a lack of playfulness, which is important to cultivate, even if only in small doses. It might also miss out on entirely new ways to seed and develop academic ideas.

Take, for example, this account of how an idea started with a tweet and ended up becoming a full journal paper:

My experience with the germ of an idea shared as a Tweet at an academic conference that became a blog post, then a series of blog posts, and (eventually) a peer-reviewed article is just one example of the changing nature of scholarship. From where I sit, being a scholar now involves creating knowledge in ways that are more open, more fluid, and more easily read by wider audience.

Newport is making a stand for the lone academic solving problems all by himself, and one who is hence fiercely protective of his solitary time. But the era of the groundbreaking single-author paper (or any type of single-author paper) is long over, and science currently is advanced by vast teams.

Kevin Kelly talks about how even the Amish, famous for being luddites, have a process for evaluating and adopting new technologies:

The Amish have the undeserved reputation of being luddites, of people who refuse to employ new technology. It’s well known the strictest of them don’t use electricity, or automobiles, but rather farm with manual tools and ride in a horse and buggy. In any debate about the merits of embracing new technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative of refusal. Yet Amish lives are anything but anti-technological. In fact on my several visits with them, I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers and surprisingly pro technology.

Ten years ago when I was editing Wired I sent Howard Rheingold to investigate the Amish take on cell phones. His report published in January 1999 makes it clear that the Amish had not decided on cell phones yet. Ten years later they are still deciding, still trying it out. This is how the Amish determine whether technology works for them. Rather than employ the precautionary principle, which says, unless you can prove there is no harm, don’t use new technology, the Amish rely on the enthusiasm of Amish early adopters to try stuff out until they prove harm.

We all need a small budget of time for playing and evaluating tools with an open mind. We might discover uses we hadn’t thought of, and solve problems we didn’t know we had.