Has The Age Of Totemic Gadgets Passed?

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The lads here, mostly Devin and Matt, were talking about Everyday Carry, a website dedicated to the things we carry in our bags, pockets, and purses. Most of the EDC gear looks pretty heavy-duty – many EDCs include guns and long stickin’ knives for, you know, those times when you need to stick stuff (Merlin Mann’s is particularly interesting, for example) – and from the looks of the site it seems lots of people have totemic items, items of power that they carry to get things done. You’ve got Leathermen and diving watches. Little Moleskine notebooks. Pocket cameras and Space Pens.

I remember my first totemic item, a fat Wenger 30-tool Swiss Army Knife my father bought me when I turned eleven. My dad picked it out for me at Lev’s Pawn Shop on Main Street in Columbus, Ohio, and that knife held great power to me. I carried it everywhere, used it on my “projects” and learned how to take care (or not take care) of good things by learning to care for that knife. I still have it, a quarter century later, and it holds a place of honor among my tools, a veteran fading away next to my harmonicas and a nice Gerber aluminum-handled stickin’ knife. These items still hold power and they are important to me.

But we’re fast reaching the end of that era. What do we do that requires a knife? Our food is pre-portioned and cut, our McDonald’s apples sliced into shards and vacuum packed, our cheese pre-packaged, or meats pre-marinated. We don’t hunt – most of us don’t – and we don’t tinker – most of us don’t – and we carry most everything we need in one or two disposable devices. Who needs a Leica when we carry an iPhone? Who needs a notepad when we carry a Nexus S? Who needs a book when we carry an iPad? These devices don’t have the same import, the same heft as their simpler counterparts but does that really matter? They do the job well enough or better.

I worry that Everyday Carry is a window on a vanishing cargo cult, a group of men and women who think that something out there needs tightening and that at some point they’ll need to tell the time and the power will be out and the world will have stopped and the only thing running will be an automatic Seiko diver in blaze orange strapped to their wrist. It’s the survivalist instinct in miniature.

They’re going away. Instead we now carry one or two items – maybe keys and a phone – and go through life in a soft cushion of air conditioning. It seems that everywhere you go, there are eyes on you who will frown if they see your potentially lethal Leatherman or (and I find this inscrutable, but I’m not other people and so I won’t judge) your licensed firearm. As a watch fiend I learn the risibility of wearing a nice timepiece on an almost daily basis. After all, the cellphone has a clock right on it, right?

So maybe we’re losing totemic items or maybe we’re replacing them when magic items, items that the makers of the first knives and the first leather notebooks and the first pocket watches would have considered mesmerizing at best and witchcraft at worst. I’ve often said that if Ben Franklin came back today, what would we be able to show him that would prove he had not landed on an alien world? We’d bring out a knife, a watch, a notebook and say “Look at that. We’re still here. We still exist. We made it through ages of darkness and we made it out and this is what survived that crucible. We’re still human. This is us.”