Monday, February 14, 2011

More Thoughts on the Distinction between Tools and Technology

Tools and technology are not synonymous: a cell phone is a tool in the same way that a nuclear weapon is a broom.  And the difference is not just a matter of size or scope or flexibility or organizational sophistication.

The most important distinction between tools and technology has to do with goals.   Tools extend your ability to act in pursuit of freely chosen ends whereas technology dictates the end to be pursued—and often becomes the end itself.  

Much of the confusion about the distinction stems from the fact that it is not always possible to establish whether something is a tool or a facet of technology without taking into consideration the goals to which its use is being directed.  Take something as simple as a wrench.  In the hands of a mechanic maintaining an automobile, a wrench is just another facet of industrial technology: it is necessary for the functioning of the machine in the same way that a specific kind of gear or pulley is necessary.  Machines need maintenance, and human wrench-handlers are part of the mechanical process.  In the hands of a person disabling a bulldozer that is being used to clear a path through old growth forest, the very same wrench is a tool.  Its use is directed at freely chosen ends, and the fact that it was designed so that it neatly fits the bolt-heads of the machine is no different from the fact that a specific kind of hunting knife was shaped to separate skin and fur from muscle tissue.    

Tools can be complex.  Tools can involve division of labor in a superficial sense.  The use of some tools requires multiple persons, each performing a specific movement or function at a coordinated time (e.g., casting a large fishing net).  And tool manufacture frequently occurs in stages that require the imposition of a hierarchically organized process.  This is true of the construction of even fairly crude stone tools: first you hew the general shape, then you fashion the cutting edge (through the systematic application of multiple flaking tools), then you attach the handle.   For more sophisticated tools, each stage can be assigned to a different person, depending on artistic aptitude or experience; but even with sophisticated tools, the entire process is transparent to each person involved and each step can be reassigned without a substantial loss of integrity to the final result.  

Technology, however, involves specialization and the unequal distribution of specialized knowledge.   The process is not transparent—even to those who are in positions of authority over the process. 

Oh, yeah.  Authority. 

Authority is an essential component of technology.  The very idea of authority has its source in the division of labor and the isolation of specialized knowledge associated with technology.  It is informative to note the two (not mutually exclusive) ways that we commonly use the term authority: a person who possess specialized knowledge (an expert) and a person who has power to control our behavior.  Primitive societies have wise elders and others who may be in possession of knowledge that is not in general circulation, but they do not have authorities in either of the senses that we have been trained to accept. 

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Technology has its origin in Neolithic domestication.  Civilization is a consequence of applying domestication technology to humans.  And it is not hyperbole to say that civilization is a technology itself—or that you and I are tools in the service of the goals of the machine.  

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