The Force that Through the Computer Drives the Flower

Someone recently repeated to me the old saw that “technology is just a tool, not an end in itself.”  I’ve been hearing this blanched adage for over a decade, and my response has always been the same: at first I feel a vague, nameless disappointment; a moment later I find it difficult to argue with its respectable sobriety.  In the third moment it washes out of my mind as a thing I just don’t believe, and I go on about my business until the next time it distracts me with its puritan charm.

But today I suppose I have something to say about it.  This little proverb, coined no doubt in the bowling alley in Pleasantville, has been parroted so often that we just nod in agreement without thinking about it.  This bothers me.  I think when we repeat the superficial logic of “technology is just a tool,” we’re missing the source of energy and inspiration, of creativity and innovation, that has begun to shape our world.  I have no room in my life for this thrill-killing poison.  I demand a new view.  It is not the need of the house that dreams up the hammer.  The hammer dreams of the house.

Strawberry Hot Air Balloon 9 17 05

Image by traveler54 via Flickr

There are parallels to what I’m talking about in the world of the fine arts.  It is commonplace to say that art imitates life, for example, but it is very clear that it is life that imitates art, as Oscar Wilde once pointed out.  We follow the trail of our creativity into utilitarian discovery.  Sometimes we build just to build.  Sometimes we paint just to paint.  But when we’re done, we seem always to find a way to make our efforts perform some admirable duty in our lives.  A few hundred years ago, for example, a woman asked Ben Franklin what good hot-air balloons were.  He was at the time leading an experiment in their use as transportation devices.  He said (a close paraphrase)

“Madame, I will answer your question with another question: What good is a new-born baby?”

The point is just this: When we play with technology–and I mean “play” in the sense of having only a vague idea, or even no idea where it’s all going to end up but we’re captivated by the process–we are satisfying our humanity in a way that, without conscious effort, corresponds with a need that has not yet arisen in consciousness.  In the commercial world, we create things–and then we create their markets.  (Think Pet Rocks.)  Where technology and education are concerned, we tend to think that the former is the means and the latter is the end.  But that’s not how it is at all.  The hammer dreams the house.  The pet rock dreams of a compassionate owner.

Oh, these twining vines!

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One Reply to “The Force that Through the Computer Drives the Flower”

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Love how you see past the dualisms set up by a comment such as, “Technology is a tool, not an end in itself.” As though tools can’t also be ends! And, as though, as you nicely point out, a play-oriented activity, even if it is enacted by means of tools, is an end-in-itself. What is needed, I think, is a more sophisticated definition and conception of technology in general. The word conjures for most people images of wires, computer monitors, etc. But if you ask someone to distinguish between a fork, a car, and a blackberry in terms of technology, they quickly realize that technology isn’t just screens with digital text on them. My hope is that the social meaning and definition of technology might evolve to the point where it has the same or higher status as something like art and religion, though without it being identified with either of those. It should have an honorific status, in other words, because, in my mind, it may be “just” a tool, but it is the very essence of humanity to use tools, not only to get from point A to point B, but to play and to dream. We then can’t say technology is “just” a tool without by implication saying we are “just” humans. That said, there are really are people — perhaps the vast majority of society — who view and use technology as “just” a tool (and these folks, you understand, are technology’s biggest fans and devotees), forget or deny they are doing this, and act as though technology is an end in itself. Your conception of technology is as challenging to this group as it is to the technophobes. While the technophobes are right to seek for ends in themselves, they are wrong to think such ends can’t be found, and aren’t already found, among and by means of technology — just not technology as it is defined and used by the technofundamentalists. The cure for too much tool isn’t destroying the tool but redefining it, or, as the case may be, refocusing on the important ways in which the tool is already an end in itself.

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