Technology is "only tools"

Steve Witham (
Tue, 10 Dec 1996 01:02:31 -0500

Once in a while you hear people say that they *use* technology, but they
don't get obsessed with it; they keep it in its place--it's "only a tool"--
and (these people say) this is how technology should be viewed and treated.

There's an important point here that even the "only a tool"
people seem to miss: by not being curious about the technology itself,
people end up taking it as a given, passively accepting others' design
decisions and even accepting the fault for bad interactions with technology.

But another interesting point is that being "only a tool" doesn't prevent
something from changing the most basic things, including our identities.
Which of the following "tools" didn't change the identities of their

Cell nuclei
Glue for making multicelled animals
Nerve cells, Spinal collumns
Opposable thumbs, straight backs, etc.
Words, facial expressions, body language
Leather jackets, motorcycles

Another way to look at it is this: what's a "mutation" in evolution?
It's the creation of a new enzyme, a new tool for the organism. All we
are are mutually-supporting collections of tools, and new tools are
changes to ourselves, mutations.

So on the one hand there is no way to stop technology from changing our
identities, or from affecting all of the important questions. The "only"
in "only a tool" is false reassurance. The word "tool" should sound
like "ontological ice slick." But on the other hand, the thing to do
is to *make* tools more like tools and less like unchangeable facts of
life, that is, to be more aware of and in control of the process of tool
creation and assimilation.


"It just keeps going and going and therefore you yourself have to keep
 going and going." --Energizer Bunny researcher