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« Holiday Air Travel Question | Main | Bagatelle »

December 31, 2007

Gadgets ... and Tools

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Christmas is over, sales have started, and I was wandering through Honolulu's Ala Moana shopping center this morning in a probably futile attempt to burn off some flab.

In addition to Gucci, Prada and their Italo-ilk I noticed a Sharper Image store. I almost never shop at Sharper Image, but decided to go in anyway and see what they are offering these days.

About a third of the way around the store I spied it: an electric necktie rack.

That, my friends is a GADGET!!

Which got me to thinking. I've never been fond of gadgets, but my father liked them a lot. He wasn't compulsive about it, mind you; he'd just bring one home every few months. And I would think "Why the hell did he buy such a silly thing?"

Unfortunately, I can't remember what it was he bought in those days -- say, from 1955 to 1975. Nor do I know why he bought them. Perhaps they were a kind of toy. Or maybe because he was an engineer, he liked whatever cleverness there was in the design.

As for me, I like tools. I don't have many tools, but if I have need of one and it's affordable, I don't hesitate to buy it. That's because a good tool can be used again and again.

[Gives matter further thought]

Some objects are clearly tools (a screwdriver, for instance) and others are obviously gadgets (what I saw in Sharper Image). They form opposite ends of a continuum of things that perform (or help people perform) tasks.

To me, gadgets perform tasks to a ridiculously automated/mechanical and non cost-effective degree. Yes, pushing a button and having that electric tie rack display ties in rotation strikes me as silly because it didn't seem to be able to hold more than around 30 ties. But the gadget operates on the same principle as those gizmos (tools, actually) in dry cleaning shops that allow the clerk to find your stuff amidst a hundred other garments.

Or consider an electric screwdriver. If you only need to place or remove screws occasionally, it borders on being a gadget. But if you work with screws a lot, then the convenience and saving of wear and tear on your body make it a true tool.

Then there are wine bottle openers. The most basic tool-like opener has the curled metal point we're all familiar with along with some kind of lever at the other end. You can buy one of these for a few bucks. Then there are large, heavy, complicated devices that almost seem to suck corks out of bottles; some of these can cost a lot of money. At what point does gadgethood kick in here?

Yes, it seems to be an eye-of-the-beholder thing. But I still don't care for (what I consider to be) gadgets.



posted by Donald at December 31, 2007


You went to the mall as a means of working out? Now that is a definition of optimism.


Posted by: Don McArthur on December 31, 2007 8:07 PM

Um, I guess I shoulda mentioned that our hotel is about a mile and a half walk -- each way! -- from the mall. And it's been rainy here in what they jokingly call Paradise. Lord, do I ever suffer to crank out a lousy blog post! ;>)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 31, 2007 9:38 PM

It seems reasonable to say that many of the items sold in the Sharper Image (and Brookstone, a similar chain) are purchased as gifts, rather than for the buyer's own use. This gift/own use distinction sounds like a reasonably good proxy for the gadget/tool distinction.

Posted by: Peter on January 1, 2008 9:59 AM

How quickly gadgets become tools when used by the disabled.

That kind of draws the dividing line for me. If you require it for doing a task it's a tool if you don't need it for getting a task done it's a gadget.

Posted by: TW on January 1, 2008 2:37 PM

Peter has a good point here; when considering gifts for others one is free to buy them ridiculous, amusing, impractical gadgets, and the recipient is almost certain to be pleased. My son gave me a Brookstone ballpoint pen with a motorized fan at the top, for Christmas, which is not only hilarious to behold but symbolic. I often work myself into a frenzy, as a freelance writer, and blogger, and need cooling off.

Posted by: Lloyd Mintern on January 1, 2008 3:26 PM

I guess I'm a gadget person. I think the electric tie rack sounds really cool.

Posted by: annette on January 2, 2008 1:20 PM

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