The most powerful and pervasive myth about technology is that a tool is fundamentally neutral; all that is of any consequence, according to this myth, is what one happens to do with that tool. This myth is powerful because it does contain an important truth: one and the same tool can be used for both morally good and bad ends. However, this is far from the whole story.
Technology, as Melvin Kranzberg has put it, is “neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Furthermore, as McLuhan and a host of others have observed, media carry total effects that are independent of any particular uses to which they are put. One of the most consequential aspects of any given tool’s non-neutrality is the power of a tool to shape perception. The old well-worn line — to the person with a hammer everything looks like a nail — neatly captures the basic idea.
Today, I was once again reminded of technology’s power to shape our perception and experience. Irma spared my home but not the many trees around my house. So I’ve been working these past couple of weeks to clean up limbs and debris. Some of this work I’ve undertaken with the help of a machete. It’s an elegant and effective tool, and I’ve been grateful for it. And sure enough, machete in hand my immediate environment is transformed, I see and feel my way through it differently than I would otherwise. A limb or branch now presents itself as something that could be struck. And with machete in hand I feel encouraged to strike.
I was reminded of the historian David Nye’s discussion of the difference between reading a tool as a text and using it. Each yields a different kind of knowledge.
The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context. It can be a basis for verifiable statements about its size, shape, and uses, including its incorporation into literature and art. Based on such observations, one can construct a chronology of when it was invented, manufactured, and marketed, and of how people incorporated it into a particular time and place. But ‘reading’ the axe yields a different kind of knowledge than using it.
This is true not only of axes and machetes and other tools that are obviously and overtly taken up and used with the body. I’d suggest that it is true of just about every kind of tool and technology. Every technology somehow mediates our relationship with the world around us, and in doing so every technology shapes our perception of the world. One of the most important things, then, that we can know about any technology is how it shapes our perception.
Happily, this kind of knowledge is not limited to the experts and scholars, it is available to all of us if only we stop to think and reflect upon our experience. A measure of self-awareness and a willingness to contemplate what it feels like to use a tool or how it directs our attention or how it represents the world to us would be enough to achieve this kind of knowledge. It may take a little practice, but we’d be a little better positioned to use our tools wisely if we took the time.