Technology is not tools

When #edtech sceptics and technophiles start discussing their digital bone of contention the sceptics know that sooner or later someone from the latter camp will come out with: “But tech is just tools – neither bad nor good; what matters is the way we use them.” And this is supposed to end the debate, pulling the discursive rug entirely from under the sceptic, because there is nothing to make a big fuss over and get dystopian about if the tech is just tools – neutral bits of hardware whose significance rests entirely on how individuals choose to use them.

But does the debate end there? Is tech just tools, in this sense?

Technology as process

Tools are products. Products only exist due to a process of production, but thinking of tech as tools that individuals come across and then wonder how to put to use forgets this. And production would grind to a halt pretty quickly if there were no consumption – another essential aspect of the process that is technology.

Technology as power

Below the level of all the nastiness going on in the corporate-dominated business of production and consumption, technology belongs to a project aiming at increasing human control over things that were previously beyond our control. In this respect, technology is all about power, and every tool, far from being a mutely neutral object, expresses quite plainly the drive to control.

A book of the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche (popularly dismissed as a proto-fascist) is entitled “The Will to Power”. That would be the perfect subtitle for a comprehensive history of the development of technology.

Technology and the domination of nature

Technology as something we live in

The naïve idea assumes that the human being is external to the tech. We are over here, maintaining our human integrity, and the tech is over there. This is wrong. We live in technology.

The city is an unbroken expanse of technologies, without which it would be impossible for people to live in such a horrifying concentration. Evident here is a general trend in the development of technology: the way tech is used to bring people together while keeping them apart.

The purest example of this occurs in the factory, where a large number of people work together in a way that is so mechanically (technologically) mediated that there is little or no experience of being part of a meaningful collectivity. The individual is allotted a narrowly defined task to do and the most prominent feature of the environment is the technology of production (with time frames measured down to fractions of a second). The idea of being part of a collectivity with a life of its own cannot develop if there is nothing beyond the machinery of production to engage the subjective life of the individual. In the distant past, people working together might have sung together, pulling the subjective life of the individual into the collective effort. In the factory, if there is music, it will be played to take the worker’s mind off the soul-destroying nature of the task.

But it would be wrong to one-sidedly blame technology for creating this kind of social order. The development is partly driven, quite independently of technology, by a certain fondness of the individual for what others would describe as alienation – as something cutting the individual off from what is essential. The authentic city dweller, for instance, is one who prefers the large, impersonal store, where the business of shopping can be done without the irritating need to chat to familiar faces at the checkout. Rather than being forced to endure the anonymity of city life, people are just as likely to embrace it as a form of liberation from the oppressive closeness experienced in smaller collectivities.

Technology, though, is a factor in the process described by Georg Simmel (writing at the turn of the 20th century, describing a pattern that would be repeated in the 21st century by digital connectivity):

“Modern man becomes more removed from the groups closest to him in order to come closer to those more remote from him. The growing dissolution of family ties; the feeling of unbearable closeness when confined to the most intimate group; the increasing emphasis upon individuality which cuts itself off most sharply from the immediate environment – this whole process of distancing goes hand in hand with the formation of relationships with what is most remote…” (Philosophy of Money, p476)

Just as important as the city is the so-called free market. This is a too-often overlooked piece of technology (or amalgam of technologies) that we live in, and growing up in it, we grow up to accept the idea of society as an association of free individuals, where the overall dynamics of society can be kept in balance (in theory, at least) by tweaking certain technocratic levers: the money supply, interest rates, levels of taxation, monetary benefits, etc. The idea of a market society is the idea of a perfect harmony of personal liberty and the technology that allows society to be organised without demanding anything in particular from its individual members.

And we too often forget that so-called digital natives begin as market natives who have acquired a certain market-mediated notion of liberty and are happy to see society (i.e. the economy) as something to be left to the experts, and are grateful that the impersonal mechanisms of the market and the state leave them free to pursue their private pleasures indifferent to the well-being of others.

If there were one word to sum up the culture fostered by the technology we live in it would be: indifference.

Technology, the city and indifference

Technology as an object of love

The naïve idea of tech as tools assumes people approach tools uninterested in the tools themselves, and concerned only with the task in hand. But tools also exist as objects of love.

Technology love

Technology as prophet

Just as the prophets of old influenced people’s ideas of what is true and what really matters, modern technology (the media) is now an important force playing the same role. The rapid juxtaposition on TV, for instance, of the most serious and the most ridiculous helps to establish the idea of the real as a realm of facts about which one can only be indifferent. One learns to carry on eating one’s pizza unaffected by the pictures of carnage seen on the snippets of news that the TV channel uses to fill the space between the ads.

The existence of TV doesn’t entail this indifference as a necessary consequence, but in the absence of a more intelligent culture springing from elsewhere, TV is allowed to cultivate it.

Technology as masseur

Tech not only shapes our sense of reality, but also influences our sense of ourselves. Hence, the deep truth of that famous typo: the medium is the massage.

The automobile provides the paradigm for all other forms of consumer tech. The ability to drive off whenever one wants and accelerate to ridiculous speeds with just the slightest flex of a calf muscle provides a very powerful massage for the liberal ego.

Then the traffic jam massages the ego back down so that it accepts that in the larger scheme of things it is utterly insignificant. Congestion on the roads is the great modern leveller.

Someone once said that people build houses, then houses build people. They could have said: People build cars, then cars build people.

And when people talk about reforms in education, it is foolish to forget that the car is one of the great teachers of the modern individual – a perfect model for all future forms of 1:1 edtech.

Car medium as the massage

Technology as legitimation

Back in the late 18th century people were troubled by what was going on and felt there had to be some justification for it. One of the arguments was that the misery and exploitation and all the sacrifice would move us closer to universal peace. In the early 21st century we are no closer to that goal. And yet in the countries that are supposedly most advanced, people are sitting at home more or less quietly rather than filling the streets demanding a change in the course of world history. Why are they so quiet?

Technology functions as one of the great legitimating forces. A society that can produce such diverting consumer electronics and such an array of labour-saving devices cannot possibly be on the wrong track.

Technology as a mindset

Technology also exists as a way of thinking about ourselves. We think of ourselves as technology. People talk of themselves as having been hard-wired for this and that.

And then there is the way we think about history. Are we able to think of historical time now except in terms of technology, thinking of the past in terms of things like cathode ray tube TVs that got disturbingly hot at the back, and thinking of the future in terms of the mythical flying cars? Once technology has colonised our historical imagination the idea that technology is merely tools is laughable.

Technology and sense of history and time

Is it that technology ought to be “just tools” and yet has acquired a significance it does not deserve?

Technology as religion

It looks as if every civilisation and pseudo-civilisation needs a religion as a reassurance that, appearances to the contrary, there are grounds for hope. Older societies had their cathedrals. We have technology.

When people were watching the launch of Apollo spacecraft, were they not watching with the same awe that people once felt when gazing up at the loftiest of the old cathedral ceilings?

The money ran out for the space race (plus there was no one any longer to race against), but then very conveniently we had the digital revolution, and the smartphone became a little Apollo spacecraft that everyone could carry around in the palm of her hand, keeping the religion alive.

According to this religion, heaven is to be built on earth by the gradual technological elimination of all that is unpleasant. Medicine, for instance, will eliminate disease and ageing. E-commerce will eliminate the unpleasant need to go down to the shops. And digital implants in the brain will, at long last, eliminate the painful need to manually switch on the lights. (Marc Prensky gives a nice description of this app-abundant heaven on earth in his meditation on digital wisdom.)

Technology will save us, even if technology caused the things that we are to be saved from. If industry produced dangerous carbon dioxide emissions, new technology will find a way to put that carbon dioxide back underground.

Hence, the assumption that higher tech or newer tech or more tech must be, prima facie, good. The idea that a brighter future might require less tech or lower tech or a slowing of technological development doesn’t even need to be considered. It is, quite simply, sacrilegious.

Technology as religion

Technology as the ultimate end

The naïve idea of tech as tools assumes that the human being is still a healthy individual able to make his own decision about the ultimate ends he will serve while working with the tools of his choice. There is nothing more naïve than this. In reality, we find ourselves embroiled in a system (or set of systems) in which a pathological concern with the means has all but eliminated any sensible reflection upon the ends. The means (the tools) become the ends.

Talking about the technology that was all the rage at the very end of the 19th century, Georg Simmel wrote:

“It is true that we now have acetylene and electrical light instead of oil lamps; but the enthusiasm for the progress achieved in lighting makes us sometimes forget that the essential thing is not the lighting itself but what becomes more fully visible. People’s ecstasy concerning the triumphs of the telegraph and telephone often makes them overlook the fact that what really matters is the value of what one has to say…” (p482)

This phenomenon has not lessened. People claiming to be interested in education are in ecstasies about the access to information made possible by the new tech, sparing little thought for the quality of the knowledge being achieved and the quality of the characters being cultivated by the new media environment. And people write at great length about the technicalities of edtech, but there is a disturbing lack of insightful reflection on the ultimate ends of education. And the joining of ed and tech at the hip gives the tools a significance that they do not deserve.

The problem becomes even clearer when we consider the ultimate tool: money. This ought to be an unimportant means to acquire things of importance, should it not? But in a money economy the accumulation of wealth quantified in monetary terms becomes the ultimate end of our collective endeavours. The GDP must keep going up. Zero growth indicates not balance, but crisis.

In general, what we see with the rise of technology is the predominance of considerations of quantity over those of quality. Of course, a quantity only means something if there is a corresponding quality, but what we see is a decreasing ability to talk sensibly about qualities, and so blind considerations of quantity are allowed to take precedence. And the rise of quantity here is the rise of a purely technical consideration.

As Simmel described it: the peripheral has become central, pushing aside concerns that ought to have been at the heart of our civilisation.

So you want to smash tools

What is clear from the above is that tools are not specifically the problem. What is problematic is the emergence of a society – a way of life – in which technology and technical considerations predominate to the detriment of what is more essential.

Individuals may be, for some time, enthusiastic about this because of the consequent gains for a rather narrow conception of personal liberty (the freedom not to be troubled by the claims of others – the freedom to keep others at bay even while you are squashed up against them), but the consequence has been the creation of a way of life which leaves many people feeling that something is missing.

Back at the very beginning of the 20th century Simmel described how a deep sense of an indefinable lack drives people to seek “momentary satisfaction in ever-new stimulations, sensations and external activities…[Hence] the mania for travelling, the wild pursuit of competition and the typically modern disloyalty with regard to taste, style, opinions and personal relationships.” (p484) The digital revolution has been a boon not for knowledge, but for this culture of escape. One of the paradoxes of our society is that what holds it together is the way it facilitates escape from it.

For those of us who sympathise with the Luddites of old, the first task is not to smash particular tools, but to highlight that lack felt in a society where the peripheral has come to dominate the centre.


written by Torn Halves on August 5, 2014 in digital revolution and Edtech and education with 5 comments