Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Better Off: Tools and Machines

One of the first things we learn about the Minimites is that their relationship with technology is much more positive than we might have expected. While they have shunned every kind of modern convenience, they are still (being humans) technological creatures. The author introduces a distinction between tools and machines, which is interesting to me. The line is admittedly fuzzy. The Minimites use all manner of ingenious tools, but they mostly do not use machines. (The author in particular seems to have a vendetta against button-pushing.) They have even made innovations of their own, such as adapting gas-powered farm equipment for operation by a team of horses.
I do wonder about things like the sawmill, the ram pumps, the Pioneer Maid cookstoves. Aren’t those kind of like machines? And I wonder how they feel about steam engines?
One benefit of a preference for tools is that even if there is a mechanism, it is transparent, and so with appropriate skill the user is able repair or service the tool himself. Another benefit is the requirement of skill. All of these tools, from a simple hoe to the sawmill itself, require physical skill to operate. “Unskilled labor” is an artifact of a society of machines. Yet another aspect is efficiency. Because they are unwilling to use the power sources of electricity and gasoline, they have become quite adept at getting the most value they can out of human labor, animal labor, gravity, and fire.
For my part, I think this is a worthwhile distinction to think about. It reminds me of conversations about libraries (tools) vs frameworks (machines) in software development. I wouldn’t come down on the side of tools against machines across the board. But despite the prevalence of machines in modern society, we still have the option to use simple tools in many situations, and thinking about the differences will help us make better decisions about which to use.

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