For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the same pen. It’s a standard ballpoint, the kind sold in bulk boxes for dirt-cheap prices. It’s got a cap with a little hanger piece jutting out. It’s got a long tube running down the side of it, which can be removed, for some reason. The main attraction is the little metal tip on the end which dispenses ink evenly across a page. Nothing is exciting about a pen. It can write well, feel good to hold, and maybe even switch colors if you’re the type of person to write in green.
The restriction of the pen, though, is that it will never stand on its own. Unlike its grandfather, the feather quill, the pen has no character. It holds no value as a still object. It brings neither joy nor sadness. No one will ever question you about your BIC Round Stic M. The value comes from the user who holds the responsibility to do what the pen alone cannot: create. To some, this is a tragedy; I would imagine the begrudged former users of quill and ink found the 19th century’s “Metal Nibs” to be awfully drab. Progress often means the removal of detail for the goal of efficiency. This pen may be boring, but for the unit price of 10 cents a pen, I think I can live with that.
Some days I’ll look at my hands after a DBQ or a “Do-Now” and notice that a particular spot on the side of my right hand has become noticeably darker. People often think of writing as a mental task where the process mostly lies within the walls of the head. I think this viewpoint is a bit reductive, because while it’s possible to write without consciously thinking (e.g. a signature), you can’t take notes with a capped pen. My fingers and keyboard are just as responsible as my head is for what I am typing—maybe even more so. A pen gives anyone with a few cents—or the courage to ask for one—the ability to give their thoughts life. Maybe it’s drab, but to me, the pen and its accessibility are immensely beneficial to humankind.
If pens are a utilitarian dream, Pez is a universal nightmare.
Pez is a toy intended for children. It’s a small figurine, usually with the head of a popular character plastered on top. The design is often quite nice, which makes them good artifacts to collect. The problem, of course, is that pez dispensers are really bad at doing their job, which is to deliver candy.
Pez dispensers are pointless; the process of unwrapping the candy and loading it is as awkward as it is tedious. Sure, it’s possible to load the dispenser faster by steadily dumping in the package, but for kids, this can be a real ordeal. Not to mention that even once the Pez has been loaded, it serves no purpose. It tastes mediocre but has no sustenance to it. Similar to Altoids or Tic-Tacs, they provide very little else besides flavor. Sure, they are only meant to provide kids with a source of entertainment, but I don’t think they do a good job at even that.
The standard, cheap pen in front of me has four separate parts—five if you count the cap—all of which can be removed by hand and put back together. I’m sure you have messed around with a pen, taken it apart, and looked at the pieces. The mere fact that this is possible proves two ideas: first, it shows that the manufacturing process is simple and elegant—all parts are likely made separately and then put together to create the final product—and secondly, it shows how the design is elegant and practical. Sure, it may be possible to create a unibody pen through a more complex process, and perhaps there would be some benefits. However, a more complicated process would yield a higher cost, more room for mistake, and, in general, more problems for very little gain.
This is not really about pens. I want you to see value and beauty in the simple and the elegant. I want you to look at the stapler—which is, in actuality, just a better Pez dispenser—and appreciate it. I want you to look at the pencil and see how it can be used for hours and never require more upkeep than a quick sharpening. Compare this to the Apple pencil, which needs to be charged and costs 200 times more. The problem with technology is that the truly great inventions stop seeming so remarkable, and people stop caring about them.
I urge you all to be wary of new technology as a solution to modern problems. Contemporary gadgets may seem more convenient, but they also come with large, unforeseen drawbacks. A car may seem faster than a bike—until you are stuck in traffic for hours, need to pay for repairs and insurance, and spend hours commuting. A Hyperloop may seem faster than a train—until it costs a billion dollars and starts failing in five years. Sure, moving a whole school to a fancy cloud-based service could have some benefits—that is, until it stops working for no reason twice a month, necessitates each student to have a personal laptop, requires a dedicated team to repair and maintain these laptops and for every teacher to learn a new system, makes work submissions overly complicated, hurts students with unreliable or no internet, requires thousands of dollars in resources and replacements for old systems that inevitably break, and damages students’ mental health with strict deadlines, hurting both student and teacher productivity. Good thing that will never happen.