IT/IS a Tool

Moving from a metaphor of space, Stanford’s The Center for Internet and Society (CIS) recently explores the idea of moving toward metaphor tool, that is information technology as a tool instead of (cyber)space, in a series of articles. The first article examine the possibility of switching metaphor, entitled Tool Without a Handle,

Conceiving of the Internet (and related communications technologies) as tools recognizes their essential nature:  something used by physical, embodied beings, exercising will and intention.  … Human beings turn on their connected devices, manipulate them to create, distribute, or access data using any number of services or software.  The purposes for doing so may be artistic, financial, social, or commercial but regardless those purposes aim at producing items, achieving tasks or results.

The fact that human beings do so in a fashion that involves shared resources, or that social tasks are quite common on the agenda, does not change the fact these goals are achieved by use of a tool.  The tool does change our experience, including our experience of physical space – which is no longer the barrier to information or commerce it once was.  But by focusing on the fact that living, breathing human beings ultimately control the Internet’s various endpoints – both as consumers and producers –the way we think about the Internet is changed, and changed for the better.

The metaphor of “cyberspace,” in contrast, connotes an Internet which is “a place you go.”  And given the electronic and digital nature of the landscape, the only way to get “there” is as a disembodied being.  “Cyberspace” is a metaphor for a virtual world, one occupied only by minds.  In this metaphor, physical interactions with technology, including even the basic functions of typing and clicking, are ignored to highlight a “consensual hallucination” – data bits intersecting with remote servers at the speed of light.

Using a metaphor of tool, therefore, enables us to see the practical, meaningful and purposeful dimension of IT, which is also the theme of second article; the author remarks,

Thinking of online services as “tools” invites ideas that ask “what is the purpose” of this tool, and that ask how the tool can be better designed to address both user interests and service provider goals.  From there, uses of the tool that further its purpose can be distinguished from uses that do not.

CIS extends the theme in the more recent article toward education and policies, or Tools for Civic Purpose, it concludes on the note,

“Tools” call for solutions that change how the service works, while thinking of services as “spaces” calls for solutions applicable to spaces:  weeding, policing, monitoring, borders, and the like.

The way to address this is not to consider the technology a space unto itself, but to bring to bear the customary frameworks of international relations, state sovereignty, and cross-border commerce.  These discussions are – as they should- taking place around the world.  And, it seems likely that more and more of these discussions will use the tool metaphor to illuminate meaning.

The metaphor of space has been exhausted, for sure, and it is nice to see CIS’ efforts to push tool metaphor. We need to understand our practices, before refining the equipment, which requires the same practices in order to engage with it. Time to take out Heidegger’s (digital) hammer out.


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