Sleeping Cyborg

Jonathan David Page talks about whatever he happens to be thinking about. Sometimes other people join in.

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Tool Values Followup

by on 19 February 2014
in , ,
with some comments, maybe.

Before I continue, I’d like to credit the inestimable Ishan Raval as the “Mr. Salviati” from my previous post. During further discussion via email directly afterwards he asked:

If you think tools indeed aren’t value-neutral, then how can you justify that the loop could be broken on our end? Implicit in your making that claim is that people, through sheer will, can alter or disentangle themselves from the inherent value of a tool. Or that though tools aren’t value-neutral, the value isn’t inherent to the tool. Where do you stand?

My response at the time was:

There are, the way I see it, three ways in which tools aren’t value-neutral. The first is what the tool allows you to do, which is inescapable outside of not using the tool. The second is what the tool encourages you to do, a constant which can be worked around. The third is what you are expected to do with the tool, which isn’t intrinsic to the tool. I think the biggest problem (usage in preference to interacting with people) with smartphones lies in the third category (and it’s shared by flip-phones, for people who text constantly), and the second-biggest problem (usage in preference to constructive thought or activity) lies in the second category.

I didn’t really cover the first one, because it’s kind of boring. You can’t cut bread with a chainsaw and you can’t cut down trees with a bread knife. This is known and accepted. All you can do is recognize what the tool is This is actually often much easier said than done, so in the general case, it actually isn’t boring at all, and I hope to follow up on this at a later date. and decide whether you wish to use it or not. For some people, this means that they’re simply not going to use a smartphone.

The second one is the most interesting case, in my opinion. Every tool you use is conducive to specific habits which emphasize certain values, and you are likely to fall into those habits if you use the tool uncritically. However, if you disagree with the values emphasized by those habits, you have the option to develop other ones, See below for current thoughts on this. but only once you recognize what is happening.

The third is extrinsic but still worth considering. It’s the most fluid of all, since it doesn’t exist in a concrete form. In the case of smartphones, it’s a symptom of the fact that social norms haven’t quite caught up with the development of technology yet, so there’s still a lot of contradictory assumptions which have collected around the devices. For example, you are expected to prefer human interaction to device interaction, but you are also expected to promptly respond to messages, and you are expected to pay attention to notifications, but you are expected to not do so at dinner, except when you are… as a society, we want to select a set of assumptions and values which we consider important, and phase out the ones which don’t work that way. The question is one of whether we the consumers do that, or whether it is done for us by someone else. Not consciously deciding is a decision to let someone else do it.

In retrospect, it is important to note that while you have the option to develop other habits, it is difficult to do. In the time between this post and the last, I have become a Twitter junkie, to the point where I will need to take a week off from having a phone at some point in the near future to break the habit. While I still do not think that developing other habits is impossible, I was far too flippant about it in my original screed. If you do not want the habits engendered by a tool, and do not need its functionality, do not use the tool. I considered including a long and drawn-out explanation of why I must have a smartphone, but on reflection, decided that nobody cares.

This isn’t an injunction against smartphones—they have their uses—just a reminder to be critical of how you interact with technology. Until next time, ladies and gentlemen.

Creative Commons License Tool Values Followup by Jonathan David Page is licensed under a CC-by-sa 4.0 International License .