Tools shape the way you think

TLDR: Tools shape the way you think.

Longer version.

When designing tools for a specific problem, you have a context-based focus for solving that problem, and that context will act as the constraints you’re working within when solving that problem.

It also means that when you analyze a tool, you’ll see a model of the constraints that existed when that tool was designed, and you’ll see a model of how the designer was thinking when they came up with that tool.

The constraints that surround a situation will vary according to the specific circumstances.

  • Energy base. ie. What's the budget?
  • Technology base. ie. What materials currently exist?
  • Technological capabilities. ie. What existing tools do you have access to?
  • Future tachnological extensions. ie. What expansions to your current tool-set currently exist so that you find ways of extending your capabilities?
  • Known safety issues. ie. Rule Zero. Do not be on fire.

One large class of constraints relates to the laws of physics of this universe. It’s mostly an implicit assumption, but one that’s always worth keeping track of. New techniques are constantly being discovered, and older techniques refined. This changes the energy cost of doing something, which changes how you think about the range of solutions you are capable of working with successfully.

The invention of cheaper ways of extracting aluminium from bauxite ore led to engineers considering ally as a material of first choice, rather than iron or steel.

You can see the same changes taking place with the uses of plastics, and we’re just at the beginning of the carbon nano-fibre revolution.

Keeping track of future discoveries of the physical qualities of currently used materials is also important.

It’s why we don’t use lead pipes in plumbing today, and it’s why we no longer use white asbestos for fire-proofing… :smiley: (A fire-proof example of Rule Zero.)

If this is true for the physical tools we use, it’s even more true for the conceptual tools that shape the ways we see the universe,

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a thumb.”

When the only tool you know about is a hammer, then you’re not going to use screws efficiently.