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of tools and objects

We live in a profoundly conceptual era. Never before in human history has so much of what we do, how we do it, and why we do it, been driven and mediated by abstract networks and modes of being. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and I am anything but a Luddite: I am an enthusiastic technophile, albeit with philosophical caveats. But I also have a fondness for the capacity of technology to augment our direct interaction with the physical world.

Almost ironically, I stumbled upon this line of thought while I was in the full throws of a bout of minimalism. I was busy throwing things away, avidly reading blogs about living on couches out of a backpack, and (as I would later realise) replacing physical clutter with procedural difficulty. One day, in the comments section of a just such a blog, I found a link to the final Viridian Design note. This would be my introduction to bright-green environmentalism, lived-cyberpunk, and Bruce Sterling (who became one of my favourite authors). The whole post is worth reading, especially as a historical document of a wholly different era of internet and climate discourse. It had a profound impact on me in many respects, but the ideas I want to focus on in this post are best captured by the following quotes from Sterling:

The everyday object is the monarch of all objects . . . For instance, you cannot possibly spend too much money on a bed . . . You’re spending a third of your lifetime in a bed. Your bed might be sagging, ugly, groaning and infested with dust mites, because you are used to that situation and cannot see it. That calamity might escape your conscious notice. See it. Replace it.

. . .

I strongly recommend that you carry a multitool. There are dozens of species of these remarkable devices now, and for good reason. Do not show them off in a beltpack, because this marks you as a poorly-socialized geek. Keep your multitool hidden in the same discreet way that you would any other set of keys.

That’s because a multitool IS a set of keys. It’s a set of possible creative interventions in your immediate material environment. That is why you want a multitool. They are empowering.

A multitool changes your perceptions of the world. Since you lack your previous untooled learned-helplessness, you will slowly find yourself becoming more capable and more observant. If you have pocket-scissors, you will notice loose threads; if you have a small knife you will notice bad packaging; if you have a file you will notice flashing, metallic burrs, and bad joinery. If you have tweezers you can help injured children, while if you have a pen, you will take notes. Tools in your space, saving your time. A multitool is a design education.

If this sounds a bit dramatic in places, then Sterling’s ironic tone probably hasn’t landed. Don’t worry, it went over my head too. Once you hear him speak in his Austin-geek drawl, a lot of that falls into place. Nevertheless, when I first read these paragraphs, they spoke to me in a way that will probably seem out of all proportion to their subject matter. The influence this had on my life is hard to understate.

***

In the years previous it had become obvious to me that consumerism and habitual acquisition were part of a nexus of degradation at large in our lives and our world. As a result I had discovered that most chimeric of virtues, asceticism, but reborn and rebranded as a kind of spatially negative aesthetic. It was grounded in levels of affluence and means (and even consumerism and waste) that I immediately found troubling, though I tried to work through it.

The first key insight I gained from Sterling was that the core of the problem wasn’t having too much shit, but rather having any shit, at all. If you actually had a house full of wonderful, useful, life-enhancing possessions, and no dross (dross being anything you don’t actually value, no matter how theoretically priceless), you would have to be a vulgar ascetic to just throw them away in spite of that for no other reason than to not own them. Likewise, if you had only a backpack to your name, but had the means to rent an apartment and buy a nice bed, it would be ridiculous to avoid doing so just because they’d be on a mental list of Things You Own that you were optimising toward zero. Zero possessions wasn’t the correct end to have in mind. Zero shit was the correct end. Sterling was obviously not the first or last person to describe roughly this thing; these days it will be familiar to any viewer of Marie Kondo. But he was the first person I encountered who wrote it in terms and within a context that made sense to me. When I was young my mother used to recite a West Clare saying: own a good bed and a good pair of shoes, because if you’re not in one, you’re usually in the other. In a way I was primed for Sterling’s mantra.

The second insight is almost a corollary: if optimising for life-improvement and empowerment is the real standard by which to gauge possessions, then the multitool was surely the most pure expression of that. At the time Sterling wrote the last Viridian Design note, the iPhone was a year old, and smartphones overall were not yet the computing powerhouses they have since become. Today they are the ultimate in compact utility, magical black soul gems with powers that only a few centuries ago would have passed for witchcraft (and aptly, they are the conduit through which increasing numbers of us are losing our souls). But at that time, the multitool was still king, and through designs like the Wave was going through a niche revolution of its own, solidifying the pliers-based concept as a stalwart alongside the venerable Swiss Army Knife.

That they were useful items was not a revelation to me. Since childhood, I had owned SAKs of one form or another. My father had given me something similar to the Victorinox Tinker when I was young, and having lost it I eventually bought a decidedly beefier model, the Hercules. They both served me well and I got endless use out of them, but they were both things I owned rather than carried. There is a widespread phobia around blades (despite every kitchen being full of them), and it had just never occurred to me to carry anything like that on my person. Yet even as I read the words, I knew: of course you should. They are endlessly handy. It’s not about being MacGyver or being able to survive the zombie/trump/antifa/zuckerberg apocalypse. It’s about not being frustrated by trivial obstacles and inconveniences, like a box or an annoying thread or a broken pull-tab or a cork. It’s about turning sources of irritation into fonts of satisfaction. Isn’t that just obviously worth doing?

But you can’t do it if your little red SAK (hehehehe) is at home in a drawer. My Hercules was just way too big and overbuilt to lug around, so based on some ‘good 1st SAK’ internet research, I bought a Vic. Huntsman. It’s the kind of classic SAK design almost everyone has seen: red handles, nail-pick tools, can opener, corkscrew, and the world’s greatest scissors (really). But it also had a saw, which although I used a few times, they were all times when I could have gotten hold of a real saw. And it was adding a whole LAYER to the knife, which was obviously a gross excess. So I decided to buy a slight variant: the Climber. This one had the exact same toolset, minus the saw – perfect! But then I discovered the Compact, which had the same capability, and shaved another layer. So I bought that! And in the meantime I had discovered pliers-based multitools, and torches (more on this later, you better BELIEVE there’s more on this later). There were/are(!) endless forums and blog posts about this stuff, and the related conceptual phenomenon of ‘every day carry’. And I absolutely fucking GORGED.

***

I’m sure it’s obvious by now where I’m going with this. Consumerism and object-fetish had snuck in under the guise of utility and function and capability-augmentation. In a sense I was lucky: I had other addictions that took priority, so my relationship with ‘gear stuff’ was never overly terrible. Nevertheless, I made a no-bullshit commitment for this blog, so I’m going to tally up the tool/gear shit I can think of that I bought during this phase:

– 6 SAKs
– 4 Leatherman multitools
– 6 LED torches
– 2 folding knives
– 2 bushcraft kinves
– 3 tactical molle-style backpacks
– 2 smartwatches
– a traditional big watch-thing
– 3 other backpacks
– many raincoats/ponchos

I’m almost certainly forgetting some stuff, and I cannot be arsed to try and list smaller accessory nonsense. But I can look back hand-on heart and say that an SAK, a Leatherman Wave, a torch, a backpack and a raincoat would have done me just fine. One mitigating factor is that the tools/torches were never owned all at once – stuff got lost. But except for a couple of occasions, I bought the new thing before the old thing got lost, and having a new thing is probably why I misplaced the old one. A couple of the SAKs and multitools are definitely living 2nd lives with other owners because I gifted them, but some just got eaten by an airport or a house party or live in a box somewhere.

If you are the kind of person who has made it this far, you probably know that this is tame. This is positively *restrained*. You may be counting dollars in flashlights, or clenching your teeth to stop yourself doing so. I’m not high-horsing it here: I just happened to be an alcoholic, so I had other priorities. But there is an entire gear-enthusiast ecosystem out there, of which ‘EDC’ is just a subculture. Rows and rows of pocket knives, pens, multitools, backpacks… it just goes on and on, and it’s a mostly self-sustaining consumerist clutter machine, each acquisition in turn inevitably failing to fill the hole. The term ‘flashaholic’ exists, and men (yes, they’re almost all men) giddily trade the term to each other on internet forums, as their wives tell them yet AGAIN to come to bed. Yeah, that’s right. I see you Jake Sully.

I wasn’t sure whether to lead with the good or the bad. I went with the bad; maybe that tells you something, maybe it doesn’t. But there is good, and it’s really good.

***

Though I am chastened and fearful, I am absolutely sincere when I say that having a multitool and torch on your person at all times is a transformative experience. It basically turns you into a shitty early 1990s vision of a cyborg. The multitool is the most obviously liberating of the pair. The world is full of packets and boxes and nuts and screws and bolts and oddly durable plastic shit that will be around long after anyone who could have owned it. So there are just endless situations and indeed opportunities to use them. And they very much feel like opportunities – it is a genuinely satisfying experience. I have repaired a friend’s bike for her commute, helped a stranger get his kid out of a broken toilet cubicle, fixed a holiday-home radiator, repaired a friend’s necklace, built another friend’s couch, saved a barbecue, and emergency-opened a few dozen wine bottles, often for strangers. These are just memorable, fun examples – I couldn’t possibly list all the flat-pack furniture, household repairs, and chores they’ve helped me with. OK, I never got to help injured children with my tweezers, but I use my SAK multiple times every day, even if it’s just to get some stupid jam seed out of my teeth with the toothpick. A multitool allows you to use and modify and interface and have fun with your material world, whether ‘natural’ or anthropic.

The torch is, to the uninitiated, more controversial. Sure, more timid citizens may raise their eyes at SAKs, but at least they understand them. Carrying a dedicated flashlight has the odd effect of marking you out as a sort of benign weirdo, ergo more scary. The camo-clad survivalist knife guy is a stereotype almost familiar enough to be comfortable; flashlight enthusiasts aren’t even a normal kind of weirdo. If you’d only collect katanas, at least your girlfriends could break up with you no-questions-asked.

But make no mistake: the torch is a powerful, almost philosophical tool. I am a non-violent person, but for me the torch occupies what I imagine to be something like the place guns do for 2nd amendment activists. It is rich in ideological symbolism as well as perceived utility, and aligns wonderfully with the kind of person I am and the kind of interests I have, as well as with my practical needs. The torch is the tool of the seeker, the searcher, someone trying to find their way along dark paths. It illuminates and contextualises what once was dark and difficult to analyse, and brings understanding to the imperceptible. To others its wielder can seem distracted, even irritating, by turns assisting and blinding people with their sometimes thoughtless probing. But more often they use this ability to serve as a beacon, a visionary, someone who can lead others out of darkness and confusion. It is the purest symbol of the age of enlightenment, reason, liberty, and hope and progress in general. And the batteries are rechargeable!

To shift into a less lofty tone, a good torch is just a really excellent tool. I reach for it less than my SAK, but still often, because there are just loads of situations where more and movable light is good. Just last night before bed, I broke a bowl due to a condiment-cascade in the fridge, and it was great to be able to put my torch on the floor, throw everything into horizontal relief, and accurately and quietly sweep up the pieces. Otherwise I’d have had to get out the hoover and making noise or risk missing pieces, because without that relief lighting, you always do. There’s zero reason to be restrained by the limitations of our environment when we can easily, readily and temporarily adjust and improve it. A torch gives you direct and immediate power over darkness.

***

Of course, man cannot live on LEDs and can-openers alone. But these were my gateway objects to a broader approach to possessions. At a high level, here is my take-away and its corollaries:

– Own good, useful, beautiful things that improve your life.
↳ Avoid superfluous tack
↳ Avoid minimalism *per se*

I realise that anyone who has got this far probably wants to know how that plays out for me in practice. So here’s a run down of some more specific advice that I think most people could benefit from, or at least adapt to their own circumstances.

I’ll probably write little bits about my favourite tools from time to time. But I don’t want to get sucked into the consumer vortex, been there, done that. Instead I’ll try and focus on overall mindset, and aim to avoid product fetishisation and planting need-seeds. Hopefully it will be of some interest.

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