Borrowed tools

It’s noticeable that when people in non-producing jobs (in the strict sense) talk about what they do they often use the language of the manufacturer or the artisan. There are toolkits and toolboxes for everyone from grantmakers and policy-makers to community organizations, mechanisms for implementing this or that initiative, workshops for debating this or that question, and hands-on experience. Why do we resort to these metaphors of the concrete? Lack of invention? Possibly, but I believe there are other reasons, too.

First, somewhere at the back of our minds, we suffer from the anxiety that we don’t actually make anything or have anything palpable to show for our efforts and we need these things to justify what we do, to ourselves and to others. People who work in development appear particularly prone to this, perhaps because, in an area where need is so great and so clear, it seems almost criminally frivolous not to have something equally apparent to set against it. So we have appropriated the idiom of the artisan. After all, objects of sense perception are much easier to conceive and to describe than abstractions. Secondly, I believe there is an element of memory, perhaps even of nostalgia, at work. Even in a supposedly post-industrial age, the prevailing imagery of work and utility in Western societies (who have bequeathed this legacy to others) is still that of commerce and industry – a society’s success and wealth are measured in terms of production: steel, ships, electrical goods, machine tools. Many of us will be first-generation ‘non-producers’, and our parents and grandparents will have used the words ‘tool’ and ‘toolbox’ literally, not figuratively.

So what next? The metaphors of the computer age already coexist with the largely outdated ones of a manufacturing economy. The application of the terms ‘end-user’ and ‘user-friendly’ is already much wider than their original usage. We can talk about our own programming (evolutionary psychologists are much given to doing so) and we have sound-bytes. Maybe over the next generation or two, the metaphors of the information age will become dominant and we will describe ourselves, our relation to the world and to others, through the imagery of a phase of the electronic communications revolution which will already be obsolete. Maybe the metaphorical way in which we now use the word ‘tool’ will be its principal usage, and those objects that you use manually to perform a specific task will have come to seem impossibly exotic.

Andrew Milner is Associate Editor of Alliance. He can be contacted at

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