Recognizing Social Tools

The Modern Survival Guide #102

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And one of the things that I find fascinating about the world is the way people use tools. Not just wrenches either; I know, I know, the intro pic is misleading. No, I’m talking about the BIG tools, the tools that define our lives, but that so many of us just consider part of the background noise of the world.

This is a serious survival concept for the modern world: many of the things that we think are cast-in-stone facts of existence are actually just tools. Recognizing that they are just tools is a powerful thing; it gives us authority to investigate how we use these things, and gives us permission to ask why we use these things.

As such, recognizing tools is vitally important in the struggle to understand our circumstances. It’s the difference between thinking, “The whole world is out to get me,” and thinking, “This particular part of this particular system is not working for me, and I should change it.” It’s the difference between thinking, “I can’t change this! It’s sacred!” and thinking, “I can and should change this because it isn’t working!”

This is often the difference between living a good life and getting kicked in the teeth. So here’s a quick reminder. The following things are tools:

  • The Constitution (and the government in general)
  • The law
  • Your rights
  • Your religious organization
  • Your political ideology (and associated party)
  • The English language (and any other language)
  • Capitalism (and any other economic system)
  • Money

Once you know that something is a tool, it becomes an option you can use to change the world. Remember, using tools is how humans became the dominant life form on this planet. Never, ever, underestimate the power of tool use — and always be on the lookout for more tools!

A tool is generally defined as “a device or implement used to carry out a particular function.” This is an interesting definition, because while “implement” typically refers to an object, “device” does not. A device can be just about anything that’s made to accomplish a particular purpose.

We’re used to looking at tools as objects. You see a wrench, or a hammer, or a chainsaw, and you think “yeah, that’s a tool.” But it’s important to expand that concept.

For example, a gun is a tool. So is any weapon. It’s an implement used to kill things, and as a result it’s a very limited tool. You can use a pistol as a paperweight, but it’s not very good at the job. A computer, on the other hand, is a very versatile tool. You can use a computer to do any number of things, and it also can be used as a bad paperweight when it breaks.

Scale up. Money is a tool. It’s strange to think about it this way, but the purpose of having paper money is so that we don’t have to lug around coins; it’s a tool to increase the amount of cash one person can carry. The purpose of coinage was to establish a legitimate substitute for barter. The purpose of barter is to trade one thing for another. Therefore the purpose of our monetary system is to enable us to trade a representation of value (paper money) for something that we need or want (goods and services). Our monetary system is a device which makes it easier for us to get what we want, and therefore is a powerful tool.

Scale up some more. Our system of government is a tool. Democracy in general is a tool to enable common people to have a say in the rules that govern society. Representative democracy, in particular, is a tool to enable people to do that without having to engage in all the tedious business of governance themselves; they get a representative to do it for them. Like any other tool, it comes in multiple varieties and some may be suited for certain circumstances more than others.

Scale up a bit more yet, and it’s arguable that the core philosophies that influence our government and society are also tools. Capitalism is a tool, for example. It’s a combination of several devices used to establish valuation on goods and services (competition) and increase productivity through incentive structures (paying money for goods and services). It’s a unique system for that purpose, but it’s far from the only one. The whole range of economic options, from subsistence barter to feudalism to communism, are all tools that accomplish different purposes.

If you want to be a heathen about it, it’s arguable that most religions are tools too — they’re devices we use to influence behavior, control people, and protect ourselves from existential uncertainty. If you want to be slightly less cynical about things, they’re the systems we use to communicate and negotiate with God. Prayer is a tool to talk to God. So is any worship service.

These macro-level tools are what you might call “social tools,” tools that exist mostly as concepts but which we nonetheless use to make sense of, organize, and control things in human society.

At this point probably a bunch of people are yawning and going “Great, you blew my mind, what’s on TV?”

Hold up.

This is super important.

It’s super important because knowing that something is a tool presents you with different options from knowing that something is a natural phenomenon.

Let’s go back to Capitalism for a moment. If we think of Capitalism as an economic theory enabling a market system, and as such as a tool, that lets us think about it in certain ways. All tools have a purpose, for example, and Capitalism has definite purposes: it helps our economy grow, it increases rates of production, and under the right circumstances it increase many peoples’ quality of life. Thinking about Capitalism as a tool also lets us consider its maintenance; like any complex tool a capitalist system requires maintenance in order to work properly, and if you don’t do the maintenance the tool doesn’t work as well.

Now, that is a very different view from the idea that Capitalism is a force of nature, or an unimpeachable truth, or an uncontested foundational principle. Saying that you want to adjust a force of nature is an exercise in futility, saying that you want to change a philosophical truth is the same as saying that it isn’t true, and saying that you don’t like the operation of a foundational principle is to challenge everything about a society. Trying to change a capitalist system while holding such viewpoints is very hard because you’re no longer adjusting a tool — now you’re trying to change reality. People get persnickety about that.

This is the fundamental difference between saying “Capitalism is the best economic system because it’s the natural order of the marketplace!” and saying “Capitalism can be a good economic system if we keep it under control.” One of those statements leads to runaway monopolies, robber-barons, and massive wealth imbalance. The other may lead to those things, but also holds the option for doing something else.

This is the importance of recognizing tools: using a tool implies power and control over that tool. A tool is a device of control and deliberate effort. If you see something as a tool, you implicitly recognize these things and will act accordingly. This gives you authority and responsibility for how the tool is used. If you view something as a natural occurrence or truth of existence, then you surrender authority, power, responsibility and control over that thing; it becomes “just how things are.”

It is absolutely vital for the proper functioning of society to recognize tools when we see them. Otherwise we fall into the trap of treating the systems that sustain our communities and nations as “just the way the world works,” instead of seeing them for the vastly complex and interconnected machines they really are. That’s a recipe for losing control of these systems, creating social imbalances, and giving up control to the few people who remember which levers do what.

So please, remember: if humans built it, if humans sustain it, if humans nurture it… it’s probably a tool to do something. If that thing isn’t being done, the tool isn’t working properly. And if the tool isn’t working properly, we can and probably should change the tool.

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Allen Faulton

Allen Faulton

Searching for truth in a fractured world.

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