Monday, July 28, 2008

Just Tools

One of the tools people sometimes bring to bear on the future is the idea that technology is, or ought to be, ought to be treated as, or ought to be thought of as, just tools. I want to give a plug for a little sophistication and clarity around this idea-form. Tools are never just tools, but it's good to try to make them as close as possible to that, but that's really hard in more than one way.

If you run across the just tools idea, it's worth pausing to note what's not being, threatening to not be, not being treated as, or not being thought of as, just a tool, and how.

Maybe someone is talking about Technology with a capital T as an autonomous force. Maybe someone is treating a particular technology as a way of life, or getting too involved with it. Maybe a tool encroaches too much. Maybe there's just too much ado made about it.

And then, whether it's you or someone else talking, try to decide whether "Technology is just tools" is meant as a declarative statement, a reason not to worry, or more of a moral statement, for instance implying that it's (only?) when we treat tools as more than tools that we create problems. Then here are my two pence:

I should probably come out in favor of tools as tools first. I don't like tools as lifestyles. I don't like lifestyle products. I don't like products that force me to bend and shovel my whole life to fit them. I don't like that people treat technological change--in particular the development and adoption of standards--as a kind of ongoing fait accompli. I don't like how willing people are to treat technology as something you have to learn and become facile with, on pain of appearing an idiot, like multiplication tables or professional jargon. I don't like passivity in the face of how other people design things.

In particular I don't like tools that won't sit down and act like tools. To cite one trend, a lot of technological change is about putting computers into things, then putting more and more software into the computers, offering a growing grab-bag of features decided on by some sordid, faraway and out-of-control process that has not nearly enough to do with making a tool that acts like a tool.

To be just a tool, a tool mustn't be mysterious or unpredictable. Immediately most computers and computer-containing devices fail this test. We might add that just a tool needs to be immediate, apparent, sensible, clear, under control... fail, fail, fail, fail, fail...

Here is the good news about how tools should be tools: there are people who can design and build tools. It is possible to improve designs or produce better competing designs. It is possible to get funding to do so. It's possible to market, sell and be successful at it. To get other technologists and technology companies to change their ways. To show the public they don't have to settle for less, or for more-stupid; to change the world.

And the bad news is that every one of those steps is hard, hard, hard. In particular, designing something simple, making something be just a tool, is hard. The less stupidity and non-toolishness, the tougher it is. Simplicity isn't simple, it's the hardest thing. I don't think anyone gets by with just a knack for it; anyone who tries to make something simple and useful eventually grinds against the question of just what kind of simplicity matters. Then there are all the steps of getting something good out into the world.

One way to deal is to use tools that the world shovels out, but choose the best ones, of course, customize perhaps, and use them only in tool-like ways. I haven't found a clear-cut method to do this. Bad tools, I mean typical tools, will fight you, and if you engage a tool too strenuously in that fight, for instance by extensively customizing it or using it too much against its grain, then you are fighting it like an enemy rather than using it like a tool.

Technogenesis is a disgusting process involving slimy spasming organs like politics, business, marketing, geekery, an uncritical public and a pile of relevant historical accidents and mistakes that gets ever taller, never shorter. Saying so is only fatalism if you think there's no hope in this.

So now I will argue against tools as tools, by use of an example.

All of the genes of any organism code for proteins, but most of those proteins are enzymes. Enzyme just means a catalyst made out of protein, and a catalyst is a molecule that somehow wedges or nudges other molecules into or out of place, but isn't used up in the process. Often the process happens on its own without the enzyme, but having the enzyme around makes it go faster.

Most of the things your genes make are molecules that sit around helping chemical processes to happen. They are tools. Your genome is a catalog of tools. If you ask how any of the structures or chemicals in our bodies got there, most of them were produced with the use of enzymes. How did the enzymes get there? The main molecules of the genetic machinery--DNA, RNA, ribosomes--are all catalysts. How did the raw materials, the energy-carrying chemicals get there? Through processes carried out by the body's enzymes.

We are huge bags of tiny tools each owing its existence to large numbers of other tools, each helping to produce large numbers of other tools. Mutations change those tools, and when the tools are changed species change.

This pattern of mutually-supporting piles of tools is repeated at all scales of life, up through organelles, cells, tissues and organs. Also for ideas, habits, attitudes, all the blebs of learning. Up through social conventions, ethics, languages and professions. And sideways to the things we usually call tools and technologies.

Look from a tool to the pile of things it's used for, it's part of some semi-random collection of things it's suited for one way or another, and an obstruction in other places.

We pick up a tool and it's helpful for some things and not others. We didn't pick those two sets. Parts of our lives, not completely of our shaping, are made easier by having the tool. And by adopting the tool, we make some things get harder or go haywire.

Specific usefulness has never been refined in pure form. In fact I doubt a pure specific use, a pure end, can be identified. Everything's always on the way to something else, and facilitating one thing facilitates the set of things it's on the way to. Nor is there a hard boundary between the user and the used: our tools become parts of the collections of tools that are us; a tool changes us in ways defined by the interaction of that tool with the rest.

I mention this view of tools as soup-ingredients with unpredictable evolutionary effects to put a bracket around my view that we ought to wrestle tools into their rightful subservient place. Here is the heroic character, the Tool User, in an opera of meaning, complexity and history. The critical tool-using point of view is one element in the metabolism of our lives. The I/Tool distinction is always being pushed back at chaotically, and "I" has to pick its battles and admit that life isn't simply driving a station wagon and checking off of items on a shopping list. Tool Specifier, Tool Demander, Tool Builder, Tool Wielder, has an important dignity- and clarity- promoting job, an identity-defining job, but what is it in this larger picture?


So, without meaning to, I've set up one of my radical/reasonable tensions. In this case saying to hold both that maelstrom and that hero in mind side by side and ask, what is it we find so right about this particular hero? Why have we been underappreciative and why is she so unsung? Where do we find her?

And it's the point of this sputtering blog: to try to follow the plot and figure out where we're supposed to make our entrances. The Future is not a TV show on a screen, we are actors with parts. We are (from the point of view of this particular post) singing, gesticulating, hyperkinetic bags of tools. At some point or points we become protagonists; where are those points?