We shape the tools that shape us

We build things in order to make us better at what we do, whether that be a saw to cut known materials more quickly or a piece of software to solve a well understood problem. This is well and good, but I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if the tools we created were not the best tools, and now we cannot escape the choices we have already made.

I was recently reading Steven Levy’s A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge in which he shows the invention of the computerized spreadsheet as a watershed moment in the way we think about business. In it he said the following:

As Marshall McLuhan observed, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” The spreadsheet is a tool, and it is also a world view – reality by the numbers.

There are many of these critical watershed moments in our own history, the printing press for written word, the internet for distributing content, even the introduction of the smartphone or mobile apps for how we view content. What if these choices were not made in the way they were and more importantly what if the answers of the past are not the most optimal answers?

Perhaps the mouse was never created, would there be alternatives now? How would we have adapted to computers without something as critical as a mouse? Would we even have picked them up at all?

What if the notion of applications never made it to mobile? What would our phones look like today? How would new ideas emerge on mobile?

If the architecture of Ancient Greece looked abstract and fluid, what effect would that have on our own architecture? Would we think of our current more traditional architecture as futuristic and compelling? Perhaps the worlds buildings would be fluid and abstract as well, and by extension the items we put in them would follow suit. Our sofas could have been bent and our tables curved.

This of course makes no sense! But that’s exactly the point, these concepts make no sense to us. Because we share a historical narrative of what makes sense and doesn’t, its important to remember that this narrative is not absolute, and is merely a suggestion not a rule.