A better metaphor for technology

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A better metaphor for technology


I spend a lot of time thinking about how words work. It’s a big part of my job, after all, but it’s also what I was studying years ago in grad school. And while I don’t want to give you an exegesis (there’s a word for you) on it, I think the collective vocabulary we use to talk about technology is a little limited. We shouldn’t be too judgmental about that, though. In the broad sweep of history, consumer tech as we usually think of it is a very new medium, and it takes time to understand a new medium.

I’m using the word “medium” intentionally here. Words don’t have a one-to-one denotative meaning. When you use a word, you’re not just referring to a single thing; you’re also conjuring up a world of associations. So when I write “medium,” I’m specifically calling on some people to think of McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” trope. Explaining denotation and connotation is linguistics 101, I suppose, but maybe a 101 course is necessary when you’re engaging a brand-new medium like consumer tech.

Anyway, I’m bringing all that up because while making this Processor video series, I’ve been trying to explain how I think consumer tech can be empowering instead of exhausting. That’s a hard message to explain in this particular moment when we’re coming to grips with the ways social media has hacked our brains and our democracy. Optimism has a way of looking like naïveté.

So I wanted to revisit an idea I’ve tried to express before because I feel like if we used different words to talk about technology, then we could bring along a better set of connotations. This week’s episode is another cut at a story I wrote three years ago: “Technology isn’t a tool; it’s an instrument.”

Using the word “instrument” instead of “tool” is a small intervention, but I think it’s an important one. The ideas and images that come to mind when you think of technology as an instrument are more useful than if you think of it as a tool. Instruments — I’m specifically talking about musical instruments — are a way to create culture.

You approach instruments with a set of expectations and associations that are more humane. It’s built into their very purpose. Instruments are meant to make something for other people, not making things. When you use an instrument, you have an expectation that it is going to take effort to use it well. Using an instrument takes practice. You form a relationship with that object. It becomes part of your identity that you make something with it. You tune it. You understand that there’s no such thing as a “best” guitar in the same way that there’s not necessarily a “best” phone.

I could go on. There are a whole host of connotations for the word “instrument” that I believe would be helpful to keep in mind as we interact with technology. Most important to me, though, is that the word helps you recognize that instruments are enmeshed in culture. They create it, sure, but they also participate in it as objects in and of themselves. They follow trends, they aren’t something tacked on to who we are; instead, they are things of their time and place.

Of course, as all metaphors do, this one breaks down pretty quickly. Some instruments are meant to measure things. Some tools can be used to create amazing art. The point isn’t to come up with perfect, fully explanatory word that covers all cases. (Words can’t actually do that anyway. Sorry.)

There’s a sort of conventional wisdom that technology is alienating. (It often is.) In his excellent book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier makes a compelling case that the binary nature of computers can make them inhuman, and if we conform our thinking to the ways computers work, we are at risk of becoming inhumane ourselves. This isn’t, of course, the goal of technologists. They are simply trying to solve problems, like the one of expressing musical notes in code. MIDI did that, but it became an early standard, which caused some issues. Lanier writes:

Before MIDI, a musical note was a bottomless idea that transcended absolute definition. It was a way for a musician to think, or a way to teach and document music. It was a mental tool distinguishable from the music itself. Different people could make transcriptions of the same musical recording, for instance, and come up with slightly different scores.

After MIDI, a music notes was no longer just an idea, but a rigid, mandatory structure you couldn’t avoid in the aspects of life that have gone digital.

By embracing technology as another kind of instrument in our culture, it is inevitable that it is going to change the way that we think. But I’m (perhaps dangerously) relaxed about that because I don’t subscribe to the idea that there’s a set right way to think that existed before that’s somehow getting “corrupted” by technology. (To be clear, I do not mean to impute that Lanier thinks that way either.) Computers are changing how we think, sure, but so is everything else. The key is to be self-aware of it so that the way you are thinking doesn’t become toxic.

Suggesting we stop using the word “tool” to describe tech is a way to make us fully engage with how it’s enmeshed in our culture. It’s a small way to encourage that awareness. When the algorithm goes haywire, it’s not just “computers” doing it; it’s the people who made that algorithm, the people who implemented it, the people who use it. When our phones distract us, it’s not some foreign invader but a piece of our shared culture we need to contend with. When people form Twitter mobs to harass others, they’ve weaponized these instruments — and we have to figure out how to deal with that.

I don’t pretend that a different word fixes everything (or, hell, anything). But I also refuse to pretend that these phones in our pockets are simply tools that we can put in a box. When somebody describes a phone as a “tool,” it feels like there’s an implicit “just” in there somehow. Tech isn’t “just a tool.” It’s an instrument for creating culture.

We all have these instruments in our pockets, so let’s try to create better harmony with them.



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