Our Tools and Us
Commonplace Newsletter #99
‘We become what we behold. We shape our tools and our tools shape us’. You’ve probably heard this famous Marshall McLuhan quote before1. Like many a clever aphorism it’s something that many will nod along with and perhaps even jot down as a wise and profound thing to bring up in some future conversation. It has a ring of truth to it doesn’t it? It has an unmistakable feel of being deeply and meaningfully true. For what it’s worth, I personally believe this to be the case.
However such aphorisms, such nuggets of distilled truth have a way of becoming mere surface signifiers, a mere shorthand. They become a means of halting thought in its tracks rather than as a means of provoking further contemplation on a given matter.
And though such contemplation is what these essays are all about, we must be mindful of not falling into that received opinion, surface level trite thinking trap.
Technology- which is to say our tools and our relationship with them- is a theme that has run through these essays since the very beginning. How could it be otherwise? Writing- this trade of mine- has tools like any other, and as much as I might want to write about the world beyond the end of my nose, at times it is only natural that I notice the tools at hand as I attempt this- the pen and the paper, but also the keyboard, the screen, the applications and yes, the internet.
It’s inevitable. We shape our tools and our tools shape us. The problem occurs when we allow the shaping to go completely unremarked upon, when we lazily assume the inevitability of this and acquiesce obliviously to its logic. Yes our tools will shape us, will change us, but the idea that certain tools should be ubiquitous while others are considered outmoded, irrelevant and to be discarded are often based on presumptions. Newer is not always better, more is not always preferable to less. We need to take our tools seriously, to examine them, to weigh up if not only if they are fit for purpose but fit for our purposes, that is, for what we as individuals want to achieve and create with them.
This sounds obvious, but I encounter very, very few people are truly examining their tools and goals in this way. The default path is to use the tools that are most aggressively marketed to complete the tasks which these tools are specifically and meticulously engineered to (narrowly) allow you to perform. In short, we are sold devices that will inevitably lead us to scroll feeds and consume bitesized easily digestible chunks of content and infotainment unless we alter their settings and our intentions2. We shape our tools and our tools shape us.
So the question is- what do you want to do and what are the tools you need to get this done?
I used to worry3 about the human and machine merging technocratic singularity dystopia. This is until I realised that we are already cyborgs in a sense and in a way we always have been. You see, all tools augment humans (because they augment our abilities), and making and using tools is a central tenet of what it means to be human. And it always has been.
Since the earliest days our ancestors have interacted with and created technologies to better navigate their way through an environment and excel beyond what their ‘natural’ physical capabilities would allow them to achieve. The axe allows for faster and superior separation of wood than bare hands, arrows travel further, faster and with more accuracy when fired from a bow than rocks flung by human hands, a pot can hold more liquid than cupped hands and can do so for far longer. Opposable long thumbs separate us from other animals because they allow us to craft and use delicate tools which differentiate us even further (although not so useful /when attempting to swing tree to tree). The animals that are closest to us in terms of ‘hand’ configuration are also those that are closest to us in terms of tool use- capuchin monkeys notably use rocks to both hammer open nuts and to dig into the earth.
This is all interesting enough and it implies that tools and devices and technologies are integral to what makes us human, both in terms of creating and using them to further our abilities. There are implications for intelligence too. In much the same way that the mind and the body appear to be philosophically inseparable when you look at them closely enough4, so too does the distinction between the mind, the body and our tools seem at times effectively impossible to discern. The idea that a samurai’s sword, a musician’s instrument or a painter’s brush are somehow a part of them or an extension of them is more than simply a metaphor. We shape our tools and our tools shape us.
This is all well and good. Though these tools will of course shape our thinking on some level, such technologies are focused on extending our physical capabilities. Eyeglasses and telescopes help us see further and clearer, firearms help us hit targets with less exertion and risk and more certainty, vehicles help us travel further faster and in more comfort than we ever could under our own strength and stamina5.
Technology, including the internet enabled devices of the present day offer an unequivocal good in that they enable people who are physically limited to interact with their environment and other individuals in ways that would have been impossible before such devices were invented. Though I instinctively want to mock Amazon’s Alexa as a device that wiretaps homes in exchange for saving the effort of walking three feet to press a button, I have seen how life-changing such voice activated technologies can be for people with severe hand and co-ordination issues, head injuries and memory issues. The difference such things make can be truly profound.
But, with digital technology problems seem to arise for people who do not have such setbacks. Rather than empowerment or the augmentation of restricted physical abilities, digital technology has a way of replacing organic abilities so that these original abilities atrophy from lack of use over time. Or, stop certain abilities from developing in the first place. Using an arrow instead of hurling a rock won’t have a huge negative impact on the strength and flexibility of your throwing arm- it probably won’t make much of a difference at all and even if it did it would be fixable with a small amount of compensatory physical rehabilitation. But what happens when you entirely outsource your ability to solve problems and remember things to technology? What happens to your brain if you put everything you need to retain and remember into a note taking system or a computer program?
When the technology of writing was relatively young the philosopher Socrates warned of how it inevitably led to forgetfulness, via a story about the Ancient Egyptian god Theuth6. Socrates- who never wrote his philosophy down- tells us via his student Plato, who of course did write things down:
‘You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so’.
So if this is the case for humble ink and papyrus, how much worse is it now when our omnipresent pocket screens can give us access to millions of books worth of text, as well as the real time (unasked for) opinions of billions of people?
At what point does digital technology- a supposed accelerator and augmenter of our ability to think, reason and discern become a replacement for these skills? Well the answer- and this is one that both technological evangelists and militant neo-Luddites are both united in ignoring- is that these things only become replacements when we decide that they are. When we give in to them. When we let them in. In life there is always a choice, and none of this is truly mandatory. Peer pressure and groupthink have a way of crumbling under surprisingly small amounts of resistance and resilience7. And of course, by people just ignoring it.
Tools may shape us as we shape them, but tools are still just tools. AI and robots are relentlessly hyped to be existential threats but in truth they are only as good and as useful as the datasets that they are built on and so they are still ultimately made and dictated by sometimes-fallible humans. Increased processing speed does not negate the evergreen principle of garbage in, garbage out. Rather than a homunculus inside the human pulling the levers, there is in truth a human inside the futuristic, supposedly terrifying robot.
The whole thing strikes me as an overarching deux ex machina, a lazy plot device designed to remove the hard work and skill of actually sorting things out. We’ll build AI and algorithms and then at some future point- it’ll happen any minute now- these miraculous machines will step in of their own accord and solve all our problems. But, human problems need human solutions. If AI is founded on human chosen, human sorted, human cleaned datasets, then a future world can only be built on the foundation of the present, just as the present is built on the foundation of the past. And if the foundation is unstable then this surely needs to first be fixed before AI future talk can even begin. This, of course is hard work and requires true thought and diplomacy and real philosophising based in reality, and not just in narrow problems of language and logic. Machines cannot do this, they can only help us to procrastinate from rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.
Our tools can enable us to do all sorts of wonderful and meaningful work, as well as facilitating destruction and misery. But they cannot tell us how to think or how to feel or how to dream. There is always humanity behind such things. Which is something we should never forget or allow to be hidden from us. This is the root of all human freedom and agency.
The desire to create for its own sake is what it means to be human.
Until next time,
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As with many famous quotes, the person who it’s attributed to neither said it or wrote it. From what I can make out the quote was actually said by Father John Culkin, SJ, who was a communications professor and friend of McLuhan. However, it’s very likely that McLuhan would have agreed with the sentiment and would have seen it as an accurate encapsulation of McLuhan’s thoughts on technology and the effects they have on us.
The fact you have read this far shows all hope is not lost. You are already over 400 words or the equivalent of about 9 maximum length tweets in and have gotten past the words meticulously and acquiesce. Tools can be made to perform different tasks. You can hammer in a nail with the handle end of a screwdriver if you want or need to, just as you can read long-form essays or even whole books on a smartphone screen- although what this device ‘wants’ is for you to send messages and take photos and scroll through social media via apps.
Well, not so much worry as get angry about. I tend towards rage rather than despair. The hippies will tell you that anger is a higher vibrational state than despondency and I am inclined to agree with this.
This is another fact that quells any feelings of despair at the proposed merging of humans and machines in the ‘singularity’. If you want to upload a mind onto a computer where exactly is that mind to be found? Is it in the brain? If so, which part? Is it in the heart, the gut or perhaps some other organ? How do you extract it? Even if this were possible (and it isn’t) how do you know this mind would even work without the rest of the body? Fear of death appears to have halted the reasoning of transhumanists and reduced them to rhapsodising hyperbole and mumbling about vague technological inevitabilities that are only a mere handful of years away.
Although this is not without its downsides and second order effects as vehicles combined with the abundant calories present in the modern environment mean that weight management is an issue in a way that it wasn’t before the advent of the mass production of the private car.
I may have mentioned this quote from Plato’s Phaedra in a previous essay.
The only place where this is genuinely an issue is with contactless payments and so forth. But this is not to do with the introduction of QR codes and payment apps and all the rest of it as it is to do with the simultaneous reducing of the older technologies of coins and paper money.