The screwdriver

I think about Witold Rybczynski’s book One Good Turn (which is a history of the screwdriver and the screw) more than is healthy for a person. Discussing his possible candidates for ‘tool of the millenium,’ Rybcyynski contemplates the power saw:

“Does one of my carpenter’s tools qualify as the millennium’s best? I discount power tools. I had used a portable circular saw, a drill, and a sander for finishing and cabinetwork, but these are chiefly laborsaving devices. Not that productivity isn’t important. Ken kern, the author of The Owner-Built Home, estimates that cutting all the two-by-fours for the frame of a small house would take seven full days using a handsaw, and only thirty minutes using a power saw. I appreciate the ease of cutting wood with power tools, but the result, while more quickly arrived at, is no different than if I use a handsaw.”

Ultimately, he ends up with the screwdriver, which not only fastened, but also provided the technological basis for the olive press, as well as highly accurate instrumentation (read: microscopes and other scientific equipment).

I don’t know a better, more succinct analogy for the differences between technological change and institutional change than this. One of the first questions I ask of any new, seemingly-disruptive technology is, ‘Is this a power saw, or is it a screwdriver?” We could ask it of an iPad, of Obama’s get out the vote efforts, of social media, of Google Maps, of the use of the filibuster by an obstructionist minority in the US Senate, of Arab Spring, of Occupy. It is a powerful heuristic for thinking through institutional change.

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