Tools Vs. Technology

I gave a talk at USC yesterday on a subject I’m fascinated with right now, and I’d like to share it with you.
Here are my notes, and a crappy recording of the talk itself :)
In the near future, as I become a better blogger, you can look forward to a comprehensive and understandable article on Tools Vs. Technology that I’ll publish here on Upwards Momentum.
Tools Vs. Technology

Defining the terms

The words tool and technology have been derived, like most of english, from earlier languages.

Tool, from old english, is an object used to prepare. Perhaps a spool of thread or a pot would have been a tool.

Technology is derived from greek, and means knowledge of art or skill.

But I’m not here to talk about the origins of words. I’m here to talk about where they’ve come today, what they stand for, and how these concepts, if understood, can be important to our species.

Technology = derived materials (materials + knowledge)

Lasers are a technology. They’re the product of knowledge of techniques in manipulating materials to produce a certain effect. The end product of that is technology.

A laser-pointer that I can hold in my hand, is a tool. You’ll notice that a verb has entered the name of this object. That’s because it has a purpose: it is for pointing at things.

A technology has unlimited applications- lasers could be employed to do just about anything they’re capable of doing. Technology is potential- undirected, unthinking potential.

Tool = Purpose + Technology

We can further break down Purpose and Technology in the Tool formula into 3 parts, which are also the three steps to creating a tool.

(Intimate) Knowledge of a problem + (Intimate) Knowledge of an intended user + Applied technology

The greatest portion of a tool, and the first step to creating one, is understanding a problem. You could use many techniques to do this, like participant observation or surveys or experiments, or you could experience the problem yourself. Have a problem, thoroughly and often, is the best and most common method of identifying and building knowledge of one.
Qualities of Tools, and telling Tool Quality

Tools carry the artifacts of their uses and their users. They bear the mark of that knowledge on their bodies. If a user finds a tool lying on the ground, and it is a good tool, s/he will not have to read a manual or see anyone else using it to use it herself.

Think of instruments that have hand-grips. It’s obvious that hands go there.
Good tools are designed for an intended user, and to solve a specific problem. The perfect tool solves one problem, perfectly and effortlessly, and is perfectly suited for an exact user. The closer we are to this definition, the better the tool is.
Tools are measured based on how easily they function for the user, and how completely they vaporize the user’s problem.
The more fragmented the user becomes(by being more than one person, for example), the harder it is for the user to understand his/her tool, and the more it will solve an approximation of his/her problem, until the tool is impossible for the user to use, or the problem solved is not their problem at all.
The farther away any of these qualities is from perfect, the worse the tool is.
Keep in mind that perfection is an asymptote. It’s good to be close to it, but we never actually touch it. There are many reasons not to be perfect, but there is no good reason not to be good.
Intended User-oriented Design vs. Sociopath-oriented Design
For this example, we will use the social organization as a topic.
Social organization is a technology used by humans to associate at scale.
It becomes a tool when the organization has a purpose. The Philosophy Club at USC is a great example of social organization as a tool. It has a purpose (to connect people who like Philosophy), intended users(those people), and the rules and methods of organizing as its applied technology.
Now to define some terms.
A sociopath is the one specific guy for whom your system will not work, and he will always exist. In America, inevitably when new systems are discussed, SOMEBODY will mention this guy. American systems are designed to be sociopath-proof. That means that once someone profiles this hypothetical sociopath, the designers will redesign the system to ensure that he’s in it, but to prevent him from getting his way. I call this Sociopath-Oriented Design.
When a system is designed to incorporate sociopaths, but prevent them from abusing its weaknesses, for each point that is devoted to blocking the sociopath, the quality of the system also decreases for the intended user.
Systems that are designed so that no one can be outside the system ensure that there will be members who are unfit to be there. If the system is designed so that the unfit are forced to take part in the system without engaging in unwanted behavior, checks will have to be put in place to block his intrinsic behavior.
Intended User-Oriented Design produces systems which are furthered by the intrinsic behaviors or qualities that all members of the intended userbase share. In a system designed for people who want to be more involved, involved behavior will make the system stronger. At the same time, a member who wants to be lazy will be failed by the system, because they are unable to engage in the behavior that will strengthen it. Allowing this person to fall out of the system is scary for most designers. They fear the repercussions of some people not being able to fit in. But they must be allowed to exist outside of your system, so that they can exist within one that rewards their intrinsic behaviors, instead of punishing them like your system would. Let them go, so that they can be somewhere they belong.
In my school of thought, good design is designing a system that works perfectly and beautifully for the intended user, and is allowed to fail when used by the sociopath. Remember: it is not designed for him.
I also believe that everyone deserves to be part of a system that incorporates him/her. This means that we will need many systems that work well for any intended user type. Those who appear to be sociopaths in one system, in another system, are the perfect user. Systems should exist that are designed for them, and reward their intrinsic behavior. One system cannot exist that rewards all behavior, because then it could not incentivize any, all outputs would be equal, and it would be as if the system did not exist at all. Such a system is purely abstract and theoretical, unless the output is 0, and the system is one that does…nothing, in response to everything.
Why Is This Important
When designing tools, we could move toward designing good tools, with the intended user in mind, and hopefully that will enable us to become better humans. Ultimately, it may even enable us to become something more than human.
For early hominids, we figured out at what point they were a different kind of hominid, by looking at what kinds of tools they used.
So on a certain level, what tools we use actually defines what species we are.
As humans, if we start to use different tools, and if different tools are created for our use, we might suddenly transform into a different species.
This is my personal path that I see to helping mankind realize its true potential, and once it does that it will become something more than mankind.  I believe that our path is through tools, and refining them.
Thank you.
Examples of tools and technologies

Termite stick. (Tool used by chimpanzees. They strip a branch, cover it with saliva, and stick it into termite nests to eat the termites.)

Stick with saliva on it. Stick. Stick with twigs. Branch.
Is a branch technology, or a material? Is it technology once I break it off, and it becomes a stick with twigs? Or only once I break the little twigs off of it? Or only once I slather it with saliva? Each of these individual actions is knowledge, each applied to the stick at various points of its existence as a material. Once knowledge has been applied to materials, the entire process is technology. Technology is abstract and infinite.
It is not really important whether the modified stick itself is technology, because technology is about potential. The fact that the stick can be modified- that is technology, aka increased potential.

Nut-cracking rock. (Tool) Sharp rock. (Technology) Rock. (Material)

Printing press. Movable type.

(tool)              (technology)

3D printer. 3D printing.

(tool)         (technology)

Rockets. Propulsion.  Fuel, metal, and plastic.

(tool)     (technology) (materials- where the method of producing each of these is in turn technology)

A silicon semiconductor. A chip. Injection-molding.
Liquid Crystal Displays. (All Technology)

A smartphone (A tool- regardless of quality)
Supporting Concepts

Co-opting tools for another purpose(Hacking): This does not change the nature of the tool. It is still not designed for the case in which you’re using it. The tool is not suddenly multi-purpose simply because you are hacking it.

If you use skis to prop open a door, they do not become door-propping sticks. They’re still skis. They’re just worse at being skis than they would be if you hadn’t done that.
Hacking things actually decreases their quality as tools, since they are farther away from perfect utility and efficiency, and are being used by someone other than the intended user.
For example, if a hacker’s goal is to collect credit card numbers, and he creates a tool (keylogger) that can do so by manipulating PCs, the PC has not become a credit-card-number-collector. It is just a worse PC, because it is doing more poorly at its purpose (empowering the user) than it did before you hacked it.
Increasing the number of applications of a tool: Decreases the quality of the tool proportionately. Remember that a good tool is preceded by its use case, and solves it perfectly.

Not all bikes are equal. A commuter bike solves a different problem than a road bike- it can carry things. Same form, different problem solved, different tools.

Unanswered Questions, aka Philosopher Candy

Are skis a tool outside of their environment? In a future earth in which snow no longer exists, are skis a tool?

If a tool does many things, but none of them very well, is it a good tool?

Let best not be the enemy of better, let perfect not be the enemy of good. But lets make some good tools.

Things to be included in multimedia version of this presentation
Videos of chimpanzees using termite sticks, nut-cracking rocks. Crow using a stick to open a cage and get food.
Topics that I will write on in the future, inspired from this talk:
Cultural offspring (sometimes independent of biological offspring)
Self-correcting mechanisms
Free education

2 responses to this post.

  1. Remember the paradigm shift — educate to be users and designers of tools, not repositories of technology!


  2. Posted by Fargo on May 2, 2012 at 8:22 PM

    insightful. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.


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