Dependence on Tools

23:31 Wed 17 Jan 2007. Updated: 01:11 18 Jan 2007
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The tools I have in mind here are electronics, mainly computers, and in some cases software. Our devices obviously help us do things… but are they the right things, and does the help come at a price?

I generally think that they’re clearly positive things. We can do things faster and more efficiently, which just has to be good, right?

I’m thinking about this partly because I forgot to check in my primary TiddlyWiki, meaning that it was more awkward for me to do things like add to lists, or check things off lists. Obviously the tasks themselves shouldn’t be any harder—but they felt like they were. So in using that software as an aid for my productivity, I’ve also become partly dependent on it, thereby adding another thing that can get in the way of my being productive.

The issue I’m trying to get at goes a little deeper than that, though. So even when “deprived” of that tool, the structures I’ve built around it survive, and I still think along similar lines to how I would when using the tool. This is a good thing, meaning that the tool helps me to create them in the first place, but they can survive without it. But what do those structures take away from me?

Most ways of thinking inhibit certain other ways of thinking. Literacy, while obviously a wonderful thing, tends to inhibit oral culture, and moves away from traditions that are passed on through speech and kept in the mind, rather than on paper (or on disk…). This makes them more “accurate” but less malleable, less alive, and clearly aids conservatism—in the sense that once written down, works are not going to change with every telling.

What similar constraints are computers enforcing, perhaps without our full awareness? There may be competing and contradictory trends, e.g. the impact of easy spell-checking. Does this make people less able to spell without its help, because they rely on the tool, or more able, because the tool is a kind of teacher/reference that makes the requisite information more available?

I’m more interested in the subtleties, though. I suspect, strongly, that there are many more ways and modes of thinking that most of us are aware of, and that we’re just not conscious of the extent to which our minds are shaped by our environments. My instinct is that software, especially hypertextual approaches to information management, and programming as a way of manipulating information, are beneficial, but I don’t have a way to prove this.

2 Responses to “Dependence on Tools”

  1. kevintel Says:

    You’re human. You’re all about the tools. This is the competitive advantage that humans have (every living thing has some sort of competitive advantage) to keep them in the game. It’s not the big brain, or walking upright, or hands. It’s the use of tools; we’re designed the way we are, to allow us to make and use tools, and it is this that has kept us in the game as a species. With tools, we can become flexible, and take on the abilities of other species around us, and manipulate our environment.

    So enjoy it and celebrate it, because as a species that’s what you’re good at.

    Hmm, I think I need to slow down on the herbal tea infusions.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Well, celebration and enjoyment are great, of course, but I still wonder what pathways are closed off by using certain tools over others. But I have no intention of giving up on tool use…

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