Just a tool?

Meandering around the web I stumbled across a quote from Seymour Papert on Tom Carden’s site. In it Papert talks about the “Just-A-Tool” fallacy, which he explains in the following way:
“By this I mean the failure to distinguish between tools (reasonably described as just tools) that improve their users ability to do pre-existing jobs, and another kind of tool (of which this book offers an excellent example) that are more than just tools because of their role in the creation of a job nobody thought to do, or nobody could have done, before.”
Now I think I would go further than Papert and say that the notion of just a tool is always a mistake. My sense is that the tools we use shape what we do in more profound ways than we often recognise.
This got me thinking about Marshall McLuhan’s notion of media (and tools) as extensions of man (man, of course, meaning humankind). A quick google and I found this article by Todd Kappelman. Some of what he had to say about McLuhan was familiar to me, but some I had either forgotten or never picked up on.
Beginning with the familiar, he talks about what McLuhan meant by an “extension”:
“An extension occurs when an individual or society makes or uses something in a way that extends the range of the human body and mind in a fashion that is new. The shovel we use for digging holes is a kind of extension of the hands and feet. The spade is similar to the cupped hand, only it is stronger, less likely to break, and capable of removing more dirt per scoop than the hand. A microscope, or telescope is a way of seeing that is an extension of the eye.”
Moving on to what felt new to me he talks about McLuhans concept of “amputation”:
“Every extension of mankind, especially technological extensions, have the effect of amputating or modifying some other extension. An example of an amputation would be the loss of archery skills with the development of gunpowder and firearms. The need to be accurate with the new technology of guns made the continued practice of archery obsolete. The extension of a technology like the automobile amputates the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence. These are a few examples, and almost everything we can think of is subject to similar observations.”
He then goes on to describe four questions McLuhan used to explore the implications of a medium, technology or tool:
“The first of these questions or laws is What does it (the medium or technology) extend? In the case of a car it would be the foot, in the case a phone it would be the voice. The second question is What does it make obsolete? Again, one might answer that the car makes walking obsolete, and the phone makes smoke signals and carrier pigeons unnecessary. The third question asks, What is retrieved? The sense of adventure or quest is retrieved with the car, and the sense of community returns with the spread of telephone service. One might consider the rise of the cross-country vacation that accompanied the spread of automobile ownership. The fourth question asks, What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended? An over-extended automobile culture longs for the pedestrian lifestyle, and the over-extension of phone culture engenders a need for solitude.”
Thinking about this for a while I remembered and then looked up a fragment from Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores’s “Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation fo Design”:
“All new technologies develop within the background of a tacit understanding of human nature and human work. The use of technology in turn leads to fundamental changes in what we do, and ultimately what it is to be human. We encounter the deep questions of design when we recognise that in designing tools we are designing ways of being.”

Now, if you accept Winograd and Flores’s argument, which I do, this would seem to place a very heavy responsibility on designers. Designing ways of being is a pretty weighty task. And, yes designers should take pause from time to time to reflect on the consequences of what they do and McLuhans four questions could help here. But, designers generally operate in a context of responsibility without authority or power. As Bruce Sterling points out:
“… traditionally designers have a rather narrow window in the value chain of industrial society. A designer thinks up a chair and draws a picture of a chair–but he doesn’t cut the wood, smelt the metal, design the assembly line. He doesn’t package it, ship it, or promote it; he doesn’t junk it, he doesnt recycle it. All those other realms of activity belong to other older professions, such as capitalist, miners, wood companies, labor unions, ad agencies, and governmental bureaus.”
So, if not designers, who should take responsibility for the consequences of the tools we use. Well, yes, all those involved in the creation and production tools have some responsibilities to bear, but, in the end, it us the people who use the tools. If our tools help shape who we are and what we can do, don’t we have to take responsibility? And isn’t the first step to doing so, to abandon the “Just-A-Tool” fallacy?

By Design is back

I can remember reading Ralph Caplans “By Design” with great excitement when it first came out. Since then I have tried at various times to get hold of it without success. It’s been out of print since 1992. So I was pleased to see that there is a new updated version available now. There is a whole lot of stuff about this at Core77, with extracts and an interview with Caplan. If you are interested in design as a wide ranging humanistic enterprise, read this and then order the book. It is a pleasure.

A Dirty Little Secret

Inequality kills. Michael Marmot and others have been demonstrating this phenomenon for years, but somehow no politician seems prepared to recognise the science.
Now here’s another little snippet for the politicians and policy makers to ignore:
“According to a World Health Organization report published in 2003, life expectancy at birth in Canada is 79.8 years, versus 77.3 in the U.S. (Japans is 81.9.)
‘There isnt a single measure in which the U.S. excels in the health arena’, says Dr. Stephen Bezruchka, a senior lecturer in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington in Seattle. ‘We spend half of the worlds healthcare bill and we are less healthy than all the other rich countries.’
‘Fifty-five years ago, we were one of the healthiest countries in the world’, Bezruchka continues. ‘What changed? We have increased the gap between rich and poor. Nothing determines the health of a population [more] than the gap between rich and poor’.”

Idle innovation

“Perhaps its wishful thinking from a lazy boy like me, but it seems there is a tacit laziness lying behind the drive to innovation. A realization that a bit of hard work up front, developing a better process, can save work in the end. Of all innovators Soros is perhaps the most upfront about this drive, Eno in his polite English manner steps around the issue, letting it lie obvious but never clearly spoken. Laziness becomes economy, but the meaning is the same. And it points us to the nasty little secret of the Protestant work ethic supposedly underlying capitalism (as if that even exists). It is not hard work that drives success, it is reproduction. The industrialist built machines to force the reproduction, and now its all about brands and algorithms (abstract machines if you will).”
William Blaze
(Abe Burmeister aka William Blaze is a nomadic artist, writer and designer living on the frontiers of information)

Sounds like bricolage to me

“The street scene is eclectic. This is another part of its appeal. Consider that eclecticism is also a strong theme within many of todays art forms. Think of DJs in Harlem nightclubs of the 1970s who started the technique known as sampling fenetically mixing snatches of music from different records, on different turntables, for the crowd to dance to. Think of the proliferation of hyphenated music genres like Afro-Celt. Think of Warhol, Rauschenberg and a host of visual artists after them appropriating images from news photos, comic strips, food packages, wherever. Eclectic scavenging for creativity is not new. Picasso borrowed from African art as well as Greco-Roman classical forms; rock and roll pioneers melded blues and R&B; and one could argue that the literary DJ who really pioneered sampling was T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, a poem built largely by stringing together, and playing upon, quotations and allusions from all corners of the worlds literature. Today, however, eclecticism is rampant and spreading to a degree that seems unprecedented. It is a key element of street-level culture and eclectic taste is a social marker that can usually be counted on to distinguish a Creative Class person. Eclecticism in the form of cultural intermixing, when done right, can be a powerful creative stimulus.”
Richard Florida