You're Overthinking It

Soon after high school, I spent a few months working with a very no-nonsense carpenter. I suppose it was the enthusiasm that often comes from inexperience, but I was full of innovative ideas on tasks like batch-cutting decking boards and scribing interior trim. However, this guy was old school – under his name on his business card was the moniker, “The Bigger Hammer.” You know the phrase – if it doesn’t work, get a bigger hammer. The saying perfectly embodied his work philosophy, as did the mammoth 2-lb framing hammer that never left his hip. I remember him telling me (and others), “You’re overthinking it,” as he pulled that hammer out and beat some framing member into submission. I learned a valuable lesson from him, that the simplest solutions are often the best.

Fast forward about 20 years. On a semi-annual pilgrimage to the vaunted Liberty Tool Company, I discovered among the bins of tools an exquisite representative of the accelerating trend of “overthinking it” when it comes to tools. It so perfectly captured the spirit of the age that I had to buy it. It even had working batteries. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Autotape powered tape measure.

This thing is a delight to use. Besides weighing at least twice what a normal, boring tape measure does, it’s also twice the size due to the addition of a motor and batteries. With the push of a button, the tape extends to a claimed stand-out length of 7 feet. You must rely on the motor to draw the tape back in as well, a slower process than ideal but hey – it’s automatic. There is, fortunately, a manual override on the bottom of the body for all the times the tape gets stuck. And it goes through those AA batteries fast, especially when you spend your workdays extending the blade like some Imperial-scaled lightsaber to poke fellow builders in the ear. You can imagine how pleased Joshua is when I pull this out of my toolbox.

William of Occam (of razor fame) said, “It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.” Beyond simple vanity, it is complicated to do with more what can be done with less. If I now need to keep a store of batteries on hand for my tape measure in order to ease the burden of extending the tape by hand, or keep my smartphone nearby to determine the status of my cordless tools’ batteries (not kidding), I become reliant on technology and an industry that I don’t understand to do a task that once was simple and free. Of course, simple and free and durable aren’t terribly profitable qualities. This situation also leads to the slippery slope of creating new, unforeseen problems with technology that then require new tech to fix, ad infinitum.

Necessity used to be the mother of invention, but it seems that Invention has been adopted by a new stepmother: Novelty. Our necessities have been met, and we’re bored. But what’s this new, shiny thing here? Matthew Crawford laments that some new cars are being introduced that don’t even have an oil dipstick. There is an increasing trend towards taking away from consumers even the option to fix their own vehicles – soon, we will have no choice but to rely entirely on highly trained specialists to do any necessary work. Vehicles, like new tools, are being over-laden with novel technology and features that draw us in on the showroom floor but are impossible to fix or maintain for the long run (besides consuming vast quantities of resources to produce). When a complicated thing breaks, the only recourse is to get a new one. Check out the newest Apple computers: every component is permanently soldered in place. There is no allowance for consumer upgrades. Once the system is outdated, you have no choice but to purchase a new one to keep up.

So, do you have a favorite hammer? Keep using it – it will last. Those antique tools that you take pride in maintaining will be passed down to future generations, still in use long after the plastic tech-laden gadgets in the home center have been sadly relegated to the landfill. Not jumping at the latest and greatest technological “must-haves” is a radical act today.

Check back here tomorrow – Joshua has some exciting news to share about Issue Ten!

– Mike