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The Wisdom of Single-Purpose Machines

The Wisdom of Single-Purpose Machines

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
2 min read

Somewhere along the way we lost track of the technology we invite into our lives. Originally, it was designed to do cool things that were highly useful.

In the old days, phones made and received phone calls to make us more connected. Typewriters clacked pages with beautiful ink stains to help us write faster and more clearly. And books – yes, books are a sophisticated technology – gave us information while providing a peak into worlds familiar and foreign.

Commerce voraciously extends its tentacles to every part of our lives. Have we asked what its technology is actually doing for us? Or perhaps even more to the point, have we asked what technology is doing to us?

Let’s go back to the typewriter. Beyond the obvious appeal of typewritten work – it was always legible and consistent – typewriters allowed us to make carbon copies and save our hands from tiring after long writing (or rewriting) sessions. But typewriters made noise. And took up precious desk space. I’d speculate that they made our handwriting worse (since we didn’t write as much) and changed the way we wrote and edited. That’s about it, though.

I recently bought a word processor because I have the focus of a toddler after a trick-or-treating bounty. Writing on a laptop has proven to be too much responsibility for me. Too much distraction, and too many options to do things besides writing. When I made the switch, I realized two things:

  1. While writing on my computer, the vast majority of the time was spent doing other things
  2. The way I write has become fully integrated with the tool set I had available to me

Just thinking about switching away from a laptop – and this is just for writing drafts – was stressful. Many functions of writing are lost when giving up an internet-connected device: research, editing, collaboration, formatting, cloud syncing. Notice that none of the features I described make a material contribution to the act of writing drafts.

What is the purpose of a mobile phone? To make calls? Not really. To keep us connected to Amazon/Google/Facebook/Apple/Other? To send silly GIFs or emoji to friends? It’s hard to say, but the anxiety that comes with the thought of giving up our smartphones is intense. Like three triple espressos intense.

The single purpose machine knows its job. It doesn’t induce anxiety in us. We know exactly why we have it, and what to do with it. The single purpose machine is intentionally built to do one thing well. Swiss army knives, on the other hand, do lots of things. But they don’t necessarily do them better than the individual components inside. The scissors don’t cut well, the saw is too short, the corkscrew too flimsy.

Single purpose machines are built to accomplish one goal again and again. Maybe it’s time we choose our tech for the goals we want to accomplish.