The sense in which ‘being human’ is linked to the development and use of tools seems one of these age-old markers of our development: that humanity began looking at the environment, their relationship with it, and how best to work with that effectively and productively.
It’s this idea of human mastery, agency, and ingenuity in the face of physical existence: that, as thinking beings, we looked around us and began seeking ways to better achieve our aims or streamline the practicalities of life. Whether that’s an axe, an arrow, a plough or some form of computing, the principle’s essentially that of understanding context, intention and outcome in order to improve upon our methods.
But, with technology, those questions of agency and intention seem altered in the present day. I’m not sure that in the past anyone was concerned about the psychological risk of axe design, or woke up late at night to compulsively check their tool shed. Which is this sense of how tools have a design, they have workings and demand a certain way of thinking in how we approach them if they’re to be used wisely (see Notes One).
It just seems almost deceptively simple to view modern technology as a natural, unquestionable extension of humanity’s working relationship with tools. As if nothing’s fundamentally different here. Because the foundations of tech are a very specific way of thinking, and embracing that means working along those lines and effectively being shaped and defined by those channels of reasoning.
These are some of the most powerful tools ever wielded by humans. We can directly abuse people on the other side of the world as they sit in the relative safety of their own home. We can collectively respond to advertising and form these instantaneous waves of profit surging toward the company or individual of our choosing. We can spark volatile emotional outrage or despair through media reporting.
The responsibility of that, in terms of personal as much as natural consequences, is almost unfathomable. We’re rapidly shifting the structures, patterns and forms of societies; dismantling long-established traditions and infrastructures and sweeping in with our versions of those functions based on someone’s finest, commercial understanding of how things need to work.
And really there’s not much choice but to go with the flow. Change happens, and you either jump on board or risk getting left behind. Much as individuals, social realities, governments, essential services, and commercial entities are all grappling with the right form for modern life to take and how best to rise to the challenges and opportunities of technology, there’s really no going back.
Obviously though, we’re experimenting with the very fabric of society and human existence. This is a tool with highly effective applications throughout every avenue of life; its impacts ripple through our shared realities in ways we might not yet fully realise. Whether that’s exciting or daunting might depend on our capacity for navigating uncertainty and risk. Also, on our understanding of human and social realities themselves.
Notes and References:
Some of the ideas here were also picked up in a slightly different way back in Intrinsic values on the paths for change?.