What are tools?

The dictionary definition of tool is too narrow – an alternate definition I find useful is ‘any construct that allows one to achieve their aims.’ That is an overly broad definition, which could encompass everything from a wrench to a house to a glass of wine. However, it is useful in that it allows us to see the power of metatools. If tools are what give us power as humans, metatools magnify that power by increasing awareness of, access to, and fluency with those tools. The concept of metatools can even be an investment thesis – which companies most effectively increase awareness of, access to, and fluency with more powerful tools? For a company, awareness of = good marketing, access to = good distribution, fluency with = customer success, and more powerful tools = good product. Posed this way, the concept of metatools also becomes a corporate strategy statement – how may we as an organization etc. etc. 

In the definition of tools as ‘anything that allows one to achieve their aims,’ what could ‘anything’ be? I believe they can be grouped into the following categories:

  • Physical – a wrench, a car, a crane, a mobile phone, a fiber optic cable, a data center (check what it’s called)
  • Mental – affirmations, personal strategies, religious beliefs
  • Computational – software, algorithms, computational tooling, programming languages, operating systems, internet protocols
  • Relational – an organization, a church, an intentional community
  • Legal – a corporate structure, the concept of tax-advantaged carried interest, or a type of contract

(This is likely an incomplete list, I would love thoughts from readers on other categories they’d suggest.) 

Many tools are hybrids that encompass multiple of these categories:

  • A church is a tool for living a better life, being closer/more in alignment with ones higher power, aiding those you see as kin, etc etc. it includes a legal structure, often a building, a set of teachings/ideas, artifacts/designs, and in the case of Scientology even (dubious) proprietary electronic devices. [auditing device]
  • A corporation is a complex tool, shaped and directed to serve the ends of its many stakeholders (employees, insiders, founders, board of directors, activist investors, government agencies, the public and the media, customers, etc etc) A corporation can include all the tool types above – it exists as a mental construct drawn around a legal structure, a constantly shifting set of employees, capital equipment, intellectual property, communications in and out of the world, values, beliefs and strategies, etc. etc.

We should not lose our capacity to be astonished at the extraordinary increase in the power of tools easily available to us. The iPhone is unimaginably powerful by the standards of just 20 years ago, with natural language processing, vast storage, high quality photography and video, long battery life, high speed internet, maps of the whole world, etc. etc. The genius of the iPhone is also the apps available which greatly magnify its power. This is all so well known and seems obvious, but we must not forget how far we’ve come. Once you’ve considered that, consider next what tools we might have in another 20 years, projecting from that rate of progress (or even further, along the exponential of Moore’s Law.) Vast fortunes have been made (Uber, Instagram, WhatsApp, Amazon, etc.) by leveraging the power of mobile devices, and this power will continue to increase at an exponential rate (although perhaps in the form of a new device, leapfrogged out of the mobile phone paradigm at some point soon, just as in the period 2007 to 2012 we leapfrogged from the computer to the mobile device for a large proportion of activities.)

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