Once again, I’m in Italy, but I’m thinking of France. Or rather, I’m thinking of some things that we have in France. I’d like to lay my hands on them now, as in touching them I’m reminded of what life once was and what it can be if we let it. I’m speaking of a collection of old tools which have been forever in the barn. A whetstone. A level. An ax. A small hand saw. A hammer. Some people finger rosary beads. I would go to these tools right now for spiritual consolation if they were here.

Yesterday, I spent a good part of the day at my computer listening to Jonathan Harris, the digital artist, speak eloquently about—among other things—what technology is doing to our lives. He made so many salient points that it would be impossible to share them all here, but I encourage you to use these links to the talks in question. (AIGA, Flash on the Beach).

But one of the things he said which I must share with you now regarded tools. Once upon a time, our tools were just tools. We used them to further our aims, do our work, perform our tasks, make things. And when we were done, we put the tools aside or left them behind. Today’s technology has changed that. The brilliant design of iPads, iPhones and computers themselves attracts us ever more towards them whether or not we actually need them, so that instead of their existing in service to us, we feel compelled to be in service to them. We want to use them just to use them, but not necessarily to further a thought, tell a story, make something beneficial, create art, or simply do work.

I confess that aside from this blog, my work and my daily communications (isn’t that enough?), I often find myself drifting to the computer as if it will fill a void, give me an answer, get me through a bad moment. When in fact, what I probably should do is turn it off and get a stiff cup of tea. It requires great discipline to use it as a tool. And I am determined to start regarding it as such.

This topic got me thinking about other tools and about their beauty in our lives, about the way they draw us out of ourselves toward a physical world (and physical manifestations of ourselves) instead of further inward toward a deeper isolation. I would like to pick up a hammer today, and drive a nail deep into a piece of wood. I would like to sharpen a blade against a stone. I would like to lay a board plum or straight and measure its truth with a bubble trapped in glass. But chopping an onion will do as well. Or knitting a sweater. Brewing a coffee. Recording a date in an actual datebook. Holding a cup. Writing “I love you” in ink on a piece of real paper and leaving it on my daughter’s pillow. These daily acts, involving the old tools of our lives become sacraments compared to the mindless sitting at the keyboard. They require our presence, not our absence. They keep us real.

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8 Responses to Tools

  1. PEIROUX says:

    j’ai les mèmes à la maison !!!
    i’got the same at home….

  2. Probablement tous les ont, no? Mais pour moi ils sont trop beaux…comme des objets d’art…

  3. anna says:

    Beautifully written, photographed…
    but some of us live alone and actually use our computers as tools as well as a means of communication. There are ways of knowing when to turn the computer off and pick up a book or write a letter by hand. I realize that you’re saying we’ve become too dependent on certain electronic tools and “social networking” but they have also allowed us to read your blog, hear from you more often than we would have otherwise, see your beautiful pictures, discover Italy in ways we couldn’t otherwise…

  4. I’m well aware of that. Living overseas, I would be miserable not to be able to communicate using my computer. So what you’re talking about isn’t just true for the “some of us” who live alone. I’m not even attacking social networking. I’m talking about the tool requiring more from you. As opposed to being at your service. Since I’ve had an iPhone, I’ve spent much more time “on” the device than I did before, and it is not contributing, really, to my well being. I knew some people would respond as you have; my mother probably will too. And I agree. But I’m talking about the way these devices consume some part of us when they are not serving precise functions. You should see the Jonathan Harris pieces. They are amazing, insightful and inspiring.

  5. ron says:

    just the other day, i had a conversation with one of our other department heads who was bemoaning the amount of time he spent on facebook. as he was socially networking, he kept thinking, and i paraphrase, “this is giving me no pleasure; i’m not really enjoying this.” (he went on to say that he’d rather be playing x-box, which is not really a “human” experience like hugging, conversing in real time/place, pen-to-papering, but he enjoys it, it engages his mind, his imagination, provoking thought, creativity, intellect, surprise, awe, admiration….)

    pleasure: interesting measure of something’s goodness and worth….or how it’s contributing to our experience. does it give you pleasure or is it a duty, obligation, routine, expectation? is it really enriching? satisfying? happy-making? whew….

  6. Janet Champ says:

    love what you said about requiring ‘presence’ as opposed to ‘absence’. So lovely. And again, so true. It’s so easy for me to send quick little emails, virtual e-cards, go onto facebook, blahdeblahblah. It takes not much effort. Not much thought. A keystroke and a ding. And yes I can reach out to Filipo in Sardinia, or you in Milan, or Chris in New York and so on and on. But writing a tangible card with my own handwriting? Picking up the phone and actually speaking to one person and hearing their voice back? Sending a letter of condolence instead of an email with regrets? That takes some doing, some care, some time. When we were in Mexico our friend Elisha spent a great deal of time knitting a scarf. It was 85 degrees and gorgeous and the scarf seemed of another time, not simply another season. We’d drink and laugh on the beach and jump into the water, search for the right lucky rocks, go surfing, and Elisha would do all of this but never drop a stitch. It was marvelous and strange. And then the last day she finished and triumphantly handed it over – okay, threw it over six margaritas – to another friend, as a gift to say ‘we were all here together’. Elisha is 33 and seldom emails, almost never checks her facebook page. Sitting there I realized I want to be much more like her than anyone I now know. Always present. Never absent. You wrote that; I love the sound of it.

  7. Catfish says:

    I asked someone a few days ago if he could remember when we had no cellphones in our pocket and before the internet, you know…those days when we had our own thoughts? I used to go camping alone. I had a ranch in Oklahoma and it was ten miles from the nearest phone pole and had no paved roads near it. I would go out there with no way of anyone tracking me down. I could see the entire Milky Way and heard only birds and cicadas, cows and coyotes. I wouldn’t speak a word to anyone for days. While I think I would miss being reconnected to friends I have missed for decades, I fear that the days of meditative solitude are becoming rarer. In fact, there will come a time when if you don’t have a digital presence you won’t be able to vote or drive or buy anything. I wish we could find the right balance. I wonder if soon we will have to call for unplugged time.

  8. Pingback: Old thing. New life. | The Daily Cure

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