The Right Tool For The Job?

The headline above is not designed to be an introspective, existential question. Am I the right tool for the job? To answer this question (which wasn’t asked) I think I am the right tool for this job. This job being rattling along on an extended (and already mixed) metaphor and weaving it (there I go again) into the Smith Commission and politics and life and love in Scotland.

I think I am the right tool for the job. But I may well be mistaken and instead just be a right tool.

Tools are interesting. Marshall McLuhan talked about media as being ‘extensions of man’, technology allows us to see, reach and hear further – to extend ourselves. Alienation happens when, like Narcissus, we fail to recognise that media is an extension of ourselves. For instance email carries letters, letters carry words, words carry language, language carries meaning, meaning carries thought and thought is us. We see email as something we use when perhaps more accurately email is something that we are or a way we are.

In a way.

With the medium of tools, as in handheld implements, the connection to self is stronger. It is easier to grasp that a hammer is an extension of a person because almost literally it is. We use a complex series of muscle movements and hand-eye coordination to extend and concentrate our influence in the world around us. We could batter in nails with our fists but it would be painful, time consuming, and look very strange. Hammers allow us to extend our sense of touch, weight, pressure, balance (there are far more than five senses, the sixth sense needs to get over itself, what about the eighth? ninth?).

A handheld implement is an interesting medium to explore. McLuhan uses an analogy of the wheel to explain the enhancing but detaching process of media in our lives. A wheel allows you to travel faster across land but it also holds you above it, you don’t feel the grass between your toes (this bit is me not McLuhan) when your hurtling around on wheels. You may be processing (distance) faster but you are more separated from the immediate (the ground). This is clear in the email example. There are so many layers of technology, infrastructure and symbolic meaning involved that we glance over reality. We email constantly but only have a slight grip on what that means. We download a thought to our fingers and magic it away. We don’t know how it gets to where it gets to we just know it speeds up communication. It makes life ever more complex and ever more simple. We now have simple ways of using complicated things to tell people simple things about complicated situations. Perhaps in another time we can complex ways of using simple things to tell each other complex things about simple situations. Progress is a myth but so are myths. And not all myths are bad. They tend to be complicated. But simple to tell.

Anyway we’re off track and I’m nowhere near the Smith Commission. A handheld tool allows you to feel closer to the action – to remember that the tool is simply an extension of who you are – how you interpret and interact with the world. As a result you get attached to your tools. If you are a regular reader you may have got a (not unfair) impression of me as a artsy/liberal/hipster more versed in the art of being a tool than using tools. But recent experience of DIY has given me a renewed insight into the attachment you feel to tools you use. Within minutes the green scraper was my scraper. I didn’t choose it, it was just to hand, but I soon got a feel for it – it became an extension of my efforts to remove wallpaper. I returned faithfully to the green scraper and was luckily unchallenged. Once I’d got used to it, it felt right. From conversations I have had with infintely more practical friends who use tools in their working life this is a recognisable feeling, much more intense though years of relying on certain tools. We feel this way about the tools we use because they are extensions of us. They are prosthetic and prophetic limbs that show us where we are going and where we want to go.

On Saturday, in anticipation of reading up on it, I said of the Smith Commission that it could have been a hose with a paddle at the end. As it is we have ended up with a slightly bigger scraper. Having read more now and got a better sense of its contents I would say that yes far from being a wallpaper steamer it is just a slightly bigger an unfamiliar scraper but I would add that the blade on this scraper is duller not sharper than the old one. The bubbling kettle of the Scottish people want further and more consistent devolution as a recent poll has suggested so we can scrape away the austerity, poverty and inequality that stubbornly remains. They want a hose with a paddle on the end so we can direct our energy more effectively.

The flip side of being attached to a tool is being frustrated by the failings of a tool. When our tools slide, bend or crack it is an extension of ourselves failing. You’ll know yourself the deep frustration you’ve felt at an inanimate object that has let you down. Let you down – like it owes you something. We expect our feet and our hands to behave in a typical way – when these extensions of ourselves fail us we feel anger and despondency. We are proud and grateful to our tools for the same reason we hate and chastise them – we are them – we are our spanner’s spirit animal…

So what are we going to make of this new tool we’ve been presented with? And to make the analogy more realistic this item is not even available, let alone been dispatched. Our order may yet be substituted for a similar item. Income tax without capital gains, inheritance the ability to raise the minimum wage or adjust welfare is a blunt tool indeed. We may need to rephrase the phrase, power devolved is power retained, to power retained is power unexplained. Why was the starting point what the UK could let go of? Rather than what Scotland needs. When there is a strong, dynamic government in Scotland what is the case for retaining these other taxes beyond short term political expediency? Yes they managed to pull this together quickly but it’s a strange hodgepodge of Devo Lax.

The Sunday Herald editorial pointed out that when whole areas like health and education are devolved wholesale it is far more workable. What we wanted out of the Smith Commission was a meaningful transfer of power that changed the structure of the constitution. Instead there are bits and pieces, some more and less useful that all exist within fairly established parameters. We need areas of devolved power with constitutional flexibility that allow us to not just carry on in the same way. It’s like being told ‘I know you want to cut down the tree but here’s a pair of secateurs so you can prune it back for us, so the tree can keep growing… why are you complaining? You’ve been given a tool and you still get to chop at something?’

So the Smith Commission may not be the sharpest tool in the box but it’s currently what we’ve got in the basket awaiting to come into stock. We may have time to sharpen it and it may get duller still. We may be left with nothing more than a spatula to slap against the wall.

But not all blunt implements are bad. My favourite implement (you don’t have a favourite implement?) is a blunt one. I blogged back on September 18th about how the pen is mightier than the Sgian Dubh when I decided to tuck one into my sock to celebrate our democratic moment. Another great sock filler is the Smorkniv. A Smorkniv is a blunt wooden knife from Sweden for spreading butter. They work incredibly well, look fantastic and are safe, practical, flawless. They feel great to use. Honestly you should try it. You’ll never spread the same again.

So if we get a crap scraper and no steamer we may have to turn from the peeling wallpaper momentarily and regroup. We shall have a picnic, a picnic with all of civic society: churches, schools, charities, teams, clubs, organisations and put away all the sharp things and stand, smorknivs at the ready, willing to re-learn how to spread evenly and generously.



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