single purpose tools

I feel like there’s space for someone to go about making a bunch of single purpose tools. A computer like device exclusively for writing essays. A phone like device exclusively for running. An Apple Watch like device exclusively for swimming. A computer like device exclusively for coding at work.

In many ways, I know this sounds like a step backwards. Like the point of technology in ways is to make things horizontally useful. Such that your creativity could expand horizontally, beyond bounds, and produce things with unlimited creativity and flexibility.

I think there are many upsides of this dream. And these are perhaps the things that people have focused on when thinking about the future of the internet as this all encompassing horizontal world that we can explore.

There are obviously many downsides, though. I think it’s worth thinking those through as a way to validate whether or not this “single purpose tool” concept may actually be a good one.

One thing that tends to dominate tool usage is this notion of the free energy principle or this idea that people will always default to the laziest thing available in the system in front of them. Simple idea but has powerful implications. Whenever you open your laptop, if opening an online dopamine casino is just one or two clicks away, there is a high chance that you are actually going to do that. So when you open your laptop with zero intention of going in and scrolling down a timeline of facebook or twitter, and inevitably 5 minutes in go in and find yourself doing that, why are you surprised?

Like I get the appeal that these are supposed to be productivity machines — but if we think just for a moment about the downsides to optionality. The overwhelming nature of having too many options. The obviously bad part to being overloaded with information. Then it should be obvious that unlimited horizontal access to everything at all times, or at least in my default state of life, does not feel obviously conducive to taking steps forward.

Perhaps having constraints is actually what leads to innovation. And at minimum, a set of blinders to helping you focus seems like a reasonable sort of thing, especially at work when you are being paid to do a thing. Like I am pro freedom. I want to be able to do lots of things. But I also have the ability to understand systems to the degree that I will, no matter by willpower, sink to the bottom of sorts more often than I would like. It’s not that I have no discipline. It’s just that I know I have bad days. And sad days. And days where scrolling will sound like a good idea even though I know they are not! Not even days, moments.

In addition to having too much flexibility, perhaps there would be all these benefits to devices that could be fully optimized for single purpose use cases. Like we could probably optimize particular workflows or aesthetics or styles just for a particular use case, and I imagine we would end up in places we have not yet quite figured out.

I imagine a device perfectly optimized for writing would have a lot of the gadgets perhaps typewriters used to have. Specialized keys for things that only writers would need to use. I think in court they have special keyboards for stenography – transcribing the consonants or some version of that. Like there certainly must be ways to optimize if you are working backwards from a very particular use case.

Phones are one such example where we have this horizontal device in our pockets. Sure we could do anything. Sure we could search for anything. But what do people do? Reasonably they play games. Sometimes those games are categorized in the games section in the App Store but sometimes they are in the social media section. Social networks are not really networks. They are games. They are media. So what happens when you have all this freedom? Do you draw on your phone a lot? Do you do a lot of creative expression? Are you creating things you are proud of? No. You are addicted to validation trying to cure your insecurity and so the free energy principle states that of course you are just going to find yourself doing the minimum useful thing. The lazy thing. That’s where you land.

Single purpose tools could solve this. They would know this. They would expect you not to be your best self. But to be your worst self. Because it’s your worst self to prepare for. We all like our best selves. We need to defend against the manipulative behaviors of our worst — and the single purpose tool could have built in rails for that. We as technology people tend to underestimate the bounds of the worst case person. Who breaks the flow of the best case person. That is what we could defend against.

I think that single purpose tools could make a comeback.

I think people are maybe sick of scrolling. The solution may be a simpler phone. A phone that goes backwards in ways. And the users will end feel like it’s actually going forwards.

If I wanted to build a new computer, I’d pick a niche case for it probably. I think you could make the equivalent of a kindle, but just for writers. So a device perfect for writing.

It auto loads one blank screen. Has thesaurus built in. Has chatGPT built in. Has a great keyboard. Has a button for printing directly out of the device. Has Spotify built in. But that’s it. Maybe a timer.

Think of how much more you would get done this way.

Think of how fund it would be to be using something like that. I get excited just thinking about it.


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