People want Swiss Army Knives

I ran across this graphic this morning on Twitter:

comparing a scalpel and a swiss army knife

Obviously the intended message is that scalpels are better than Swiss Army Knives. Certainly the scalpel looks simpler.

But most people would rather have a Swiss Army Knife than a scalpel. Many people, myself included, own a Swiss Army Knife but not a scalpel. (I also have a Letherman multi-tool that the folks at Snow gave me and I like it even better than my Swiss Army Knife.)

People like simplicity, at least a certain kind of simplicity, more in theory than in practice. Minimalist products that end up in the MoMA generally don’t fly off the shelves at Walmart.

The simplicity of a scalpel is superficial. The realistic alternative to a Swiss Army Knife, for ordinary use, is a knife, two kinds of screwdriver, a bottle opener, etc. The Swiss Army Knife is the simpler alternative in that context.

A surgeon would rightfully prefer a scalpel, but not just a scalpel. A surgeon would have a tray full of specialized instruments, collectively more complicated than a Swiss Army Knife.

I basically agree with the Unix philosophy that tools should do one thing well, but even Unix doesn’t follow this principle strictly in practice. One reason is that “thing” and “well” depend on context. The “thing” that a toolmaker has in mind may not exactly be the “thing” the user has in mind, and the user may have a different idea of when a tool has served well enough.

12 thoughts on “People want Swiss Army Knives

  1. I personally prefer a good, fixed-blade or locking knife. I just got absolutely sick and tired of getting cut while trying to use SAKs. Having a dozen different tools which are each used once in the lifespan of the entire knife — and do a job scarcely better than the makeshift solution of a key or a coin — isn’t worth suffering cuts on 99% of the tasks you actually employ your knife for. (I find this same issue is preserved in its image under this metaphor.)

  2. I loved my Leatherman, kept it in my pocket all the time. Then I went on a business trip shortly after 9/11 and didn’t even think about the Leatherman, as it was such a part of me. Now, no more Leatherman, and I haven’t kept one since. Thanks TSA!

  3. Eric: I used to carry a pocket knife more, but I also got out of the habit because of more security checks.

    The conference I mentioned gave each of the speakers a Leatherman with the sponsor’s logo. Then they took them back and mailed them to us to keep us from having to fly with them.

  4. Add to swiss army knife: does nothing particularly well (and will be taken away from you if you try to go thru airport security with it)

  5. Scott, to be fair, they’d also confiscate your scalpel and you’d have a harder time explaining that one. :)

  6. I feel that the entire analogy/picture misses the point. I own a leatherman not to replace my screwdriver, knife, bottle opener, etc., but as a backup in case I don’t have access to my better tools. So I feel that an apples–oranges comparison is taking place here. Same with other tools, like the little LED light on the keychain—it’s simple not meant to replace your high-powered Surefire.

  7. I carry a victorinox hiker and a leatherman micra electrical tool in my pocket. I also wear a Leatherman Wave on my belt. Use them all he time.

    That being said, a doctor that I know was in a 3rd world country and his surgical tools “disappeared”. He successfully performed a few surgeries in the field with his “original” leatherman tool. Having it saved some lives that day.

  8. The UNIX analogy seems a bit off to me.
    See this slider, which describes progress in tool-oriented approaches:
    1) New tools
    2) Improvements to old tools (and there were often arguments between 1) and 2))
    3) Improved connections

    Individual UNIX commands might be scalpels, or have grown into small swiss army knives, but usually not into some of the huge ones found in some other systems.

    Improved connections started with pipes, then the big jump ~1975 when the shell was enhanced enough to do reasonable shell programming, and then later messages and other communication methods.

    For example, cmp(1) or diff(1) were originally scalpels, but have grown, the latter hugely.

    Sed(1) and awk(1) started life more like swiss army knives.
    ls(1) was originally pretty simple, but as happened with other commands, people added flags because they wanted to get the output in a specific form, but the only way to do it was to write it to a file and use ed(1) on it … since tools like sed(1) and cut(1) didn’t exist. Later, I think people got carried away. grep(1) of course was essentially an extract from ed(1).

    sort -u came about because sort (files) | uniq was frequently used, so that was more of a performance issue than anything else, and one can argue whether or not worth it, but it wasn’t complicated, since sort was already doing most of the work.

    dsw(1) went away because it was redundant after rm -i happened, i.e., it did one thing well, but didn’t do enough to stay in existence.

    Some kinds of options mostly do I/O formatting, and are probably OK, since they tend to be somewhat orthogonal, and often an existing command already has the data in a useful internal form that is hard for something else to do. Others can interact badly, and an awful lot got added after Ken and Dennis and others of similar views weren’t watching over things.

    But UNIX+cmds is more like a large toolkit, whose pieces are sometimes used simultaneously in combinations, somewhat like socket wrenches of various sizes, sockets, and extenders that can be plugged together, or bidirectional drill with a good selection of bits.

  9. I’ve never owned a SAK or Leatherman. I’ve often used a scalpel tho’. The arrangement suits my work fine.

  10. The equivalent for a touring cyclist is a Topeak Alien Tool:

    The appeal of Swiss army knifes, Leathermen tools, and Alien tools is because there is a huge difference between 0 (no solution — you are at the roadside with a broken chain) and 1 (a solution — a clumsy but workable chain tool). The 1 solution is not efficient or pretty, but it is something that will solve the problem. One can then concentrate on getting a perfect 10 solution (or, decide that the 1 solution is good enough, since there are other problems to work on).

    In many applications, we have a goal of a perfect 10 solution, but the real problem is that we are at 0 with no solution and need to get to at least 1.

  11. I respectfully disagree.

    If that premise is true, why aren’t we all using sporks at the dinner table? Why don’t carpenters have combo nail gun/circular saws? And have you ever seen a car mechanic using a multi-tool? How would you feel if your surgeon whipped out the Leatherman Intracranial version?

    Multi-tools are great devices for contingencies, emergencies, backup. But they aren’t well suited for doing real work for extended periods of time in a high quality way.

    And sometimes I feel all those multi-tools exist just to give people a warm fuzzy feeling that they’re covered just in case. Kinda like a talisman.

    And for fun I’ll end with a dueling analogy: people aren’t buying tools anyway – they’re buying cuts, holes, etc.

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