Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 27, 2006

“What’s the Big Deal? It’s Just a Tool.”

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“It’s just a tool” #1

“It’s only a tool.” I have heard my students repeat this phrase countless times. In doing so, they are merely echoing what seems to be one of the most widely- held assumptions in our society. As such, it is rarely critically analyzed. Even the most thoughtful people seem to have difficulty taking technology seriously as an issue that merits sustained analysis. Christians, in particular, must not fall victim to the seductive view that technology is neutral. Over a series of posts, I want to expose the faulty, even lethal, assumptions lurking in this phrase.

Let’s first look at two different ways of reading this phrase, depending on which word we accent. If we say it is only a tool, we are assuming that this device, whatever it happens to be, is similar in all important aspects to those things we typically classify as tools, like hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, or jack knives. But this is surely wrong. All technological devices cannot be lumped together into the omnibus category of “tool” without glossing over crucially important distinctions. We can surely see that a nuclear power plant is a far different device than is a screwdriver; a car is quite different from a bicycle; a SAM missle is not the same thing as a bayonet; a computer network is distinct from the interstate highway system; and a typewriter bears little resemblance to a computer. Our classification of technological devices needs to match the complexity and sophistication of the devices it classifies.

Historians and sociologists of technology have emphasized the following rough classification of technological artifacts. I believe these classifications can best be arranged along a continuum of their levels of abstraction from human mastery and control. (It is adapted from Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality).

  • We work with tools. These are devices in which we provide the energy, pacing, imagination, and creativity, e.g. all of those devices we typically think of as “hand tools.” Tools are under constant human control. Humans have an immediate relationship to their tools.
  • We labor with some machines. These mechanical and electronic devices have typically abstracted essential human productive capacities from “tools” and made them part of the essential operation of the machine itself, e.g. power looms, lumber mill saws, kitchen mixers, calculators. The energy, pacing, imagination, creativity and immediacy of the “tool” is now mediated through the machine. There is a difference between cutting a board with a cross-cut saw and guiding it through a giant lumber mill saw. These devices are never completely under human control; humans must adapt themselves to the idiosyncracies of these machines, as my great-grandfather found out when he got his arm caught in a mechanical cornshredder while trying to unjam it. Office workers who imput data into a software program all day are laboring with their computers. Such persons are required to ‘keep pace’ with the machine; their own creativity, imagination, and sense of pacing is discouraged, even penalized. Humans have a mediated relationship to these machines.
  • We operate other machines. These are devices in which the human attributes of energy, creativity, imagination, understanding, and control are completely controlled by the machine. Humans merely operate it, e.g. a machinist who operates a computerized lathe in the factory from the safety of an air-conditioned office. Humans must conform themselves to the demands of the machine. Humans have a remote relationship to these machines.
  • Workers tend or monitor still other electrical networks and systems. Humans are at the greatest ‘distance’ from these ‘machines,’ e.g. security guards who monitor surveilance cameras, supervisors in nuclear power plants who monitor read-outs and make minor adjustments, many factory workers who monitor sophisticated equipment.
  • We can see the difference between crafting this post with pen and paper while sitting in an over-stuffed chair and manipulating symbols on-screen while sitting at a keyboard.
  • We can see the difference between needle-pointing a pattern into a piece of fabric and operating a computerized sewing machine that automatically creates the design.
  • We can see the difference between playing the piano and choosing the rolls for a player piano.
  • we can see the difference between a child using her crayons to create and color a picture and manipulating icons on a computer screen to color a software-generated picture.
  • We can hear the difference between a local church choir singing from the loft and a cd sound-track of a professional choir coming from the speakers.
  • We at least intuitively sense that there is a difference between a soldier killing an enemy with a knife and programming a cruise missle to kill an enemy while sitting thousands of miles from the war-zone.
  • We ought to see (and hear) the difference between engaging in animated conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee and sending IMs back-and-forth while each of us is watching television.
  • We can see the difference between spending hours choosing the ingredients and preparing the meal for guests and popping tv dinners into the microwave minutes before guests arrive.
  • We can see the difference between a craftsman ‘knowing’ an inferior ceramic mug when she sees it and an operator who relies completely on the computer to identify inferior mugs on the assembly line.

    The only way that your computer is ‘just a tool’ is if you use it to prop open your office door.

    The first point, then, is that not all technological devices are “tools.” We need to carefully identify the kind of device it is, whether it is one we work, labor, operate, or tend. The differences between these ways of being with our technological devices make dramatic differences in our moral, political, social, and economic analysis. The rule seems to be that the greater the degree of abstraction in our relationship with machines, the greater difficulty we have in recognizing and heeding the norms that ought to guide our use of them.

    Secondly, if we accent it’s only a tool, we tend to assume that this device is morally, politically, philosophically, technically, or economically neutral. The technological device is assumed to be neutral or benign; most often it is considered ‘good.’ It is the human who is responsible for the wrong, harmful, or evil uses of technology. People most often use this phrase as a discussion-stopper: it is what it is, and that’s it; nothing more, nothing less. We hear this assumption all around us. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” How often have we heard this naive bumper sticker rationale for having minimal gun regulations? Guns are presumably ‘good’ while humans are, on this view, prone to criminal acts. The assumption is that problems occur only in the misuse of technological devices. When used properly and as designed technological devices are, at the least, neutral, and, most often, good.

    There are serious weaknesses in the view that technological devices are neutral. I will explore several of these in subsequent posts.

    See posts #2 and #3 in “It’s just a tool” category to continue this discussion.

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  • Responses

    1. Good thoughts. Glad to see this being discussed more.

      “Nothing is more obvious than that a new technology changes the structure of discourse. It does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence, and by demanding a certain kind of content.” (Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, p. 51)

    2. […] “What’s the Big Deal? It’s Just a Tool” […]


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