Fidget Tools: Anti-Anxiety Technology and Magic

I was playing Twitter with @rogre the other night, and we made a conceptual leap that led me to recognize one of my favorite forms of technology. I was asking around for opinions on the best Qur’an translation (I ended up going with this one), and @rogre suggested some apps I could use for text search and audio while I read. He then added this, which I found inscrutable for only half a second:

His post showed this beautiful contrast between the car key remote he’d used for 11 years and the other key, which had never been used. The amount of wear on the object in 11 years was amazing, and @rogre reported missing the comforting texture of the old one after it was replaced with the immaculate copy. It “served not only as the key to the car,” @rogre said, “but also as my fidget tool or Kombolói-like Anti-Anxiety Device.”

If his point was that reading scripture is no substitute for fidgeting with a sacred object, I agreed wholeheartedly. I love tumbling sacred verses in my mind as much as the next religious person, but I need my fidget tools.

I did not have to look up what “kombolói” meant, because I was already intimately familiar with the idea. Since I was a kid, I’ve kept rocks and crystals I use as my “fidget tools.” I certainly think of them as anti-anxiety devices, although their significance to me is really on the level of magic or spiritual power. My latest one is a tektite, a rock-like glass formed from terrestrial debris by the impact of a meteorite. It means a great deal to me — it’s even implicated in the completion of In Real Life — and I roll it in my hands constantly to absorb its good vibes and release my bad ones.

As I told @rogre, I think I learned the practice from my mother’s father, who had a set of Baoding balls that mystified me. He gave me his tefillin, another kind of fidgety sacred object that I get plenty of use out of, but I think he took the Baoding balls with him to Heaven.

Sure enough, kombolói are a long-standing technology for passing time and defraying anxiety. They look like prayer beads, but they need not have explicitly religious meanings. Such objects can definitely serve as powerful totems — and mine do, as I said — but I’m particularly interested right now in just that more basic, immediate way of using them as “anti-anxiety devices.”

@rogre opened a vast wormhole of links to read here (his ongoing catalog of sacred objects and theories thereof can be found on Pinboard), but I think the treasure at the bottom is this post from Julian at Near Future Laboratory. He designed a high-tech, light-emitting kombolói with lots of craft and care.

There’s a category of technology here that I care deeply about. I’m still seeking a name for it that will suffice for me. “Totem” only covers the magic part, “worry bead” only the anxiety part. Neither name conveys the critical role of the tactile sensations by which this technology works. I could just go with “kombolói” precisely because of its enchanting lack of precise meaning for me. I’ll call them fidget tools like @rogre did.

I hope it’s clear that fidget tools are a technology, and that their technology-ness does not reside in components or engineering. Whether they’re painstakingly wired and programmed or fused in the blast of a meteorite impact, all fidget tools operate in the exact same way: by fitting reassuringly in a human hand.