Is There A "Tools" Fallacy?

Just last week, one reader made the observation that, in the case of “instant communications,” people were the ones who decided the use of tools in the fashion I decried, and that it wasn’t the question of the tools, but that the problem lay with people, “as usual.” I have to say that, while I’ve always been a supporter of “not blaming the tools,” something about this view bothered me, and I think the issue boils down to a question.

Are there “tools” or institutions that influence people toward “bad” or “uncivil” or “unethical” or even “unproductive” behavior, by their superficial attractiveness or other attributes?

Moreover, do we tend to minimize the negative impacts of these tools because their other attributes overshadow in our minds –or emotions — their true costs to both individuals and society?

I’d certainly submit that this may well be the case with modern communications technology. Psychologists have already determined that computer/games/cellphone type equipment is highly addictive to certain personalities, and, as I noted earlier, instant communications seem to foster a rather wide range of behaviors that are either impolite, unethical, counter-productive, or just plain illegal. Obviously, the technology, as that reader noted, is not at fault, but, nonetheless, with the wide-spread use of that technology, we’re seeing problems we didn’t see before, or at least not on the wide-scale scope and severity as at present.

Another tool that has engendered incivility and an extremely high number of fatalities is the automobile. Because of its convenience, its utility, and its versatility, we don’t want to do without them, and certainly there’s nothing inherently “evil” about cars, except perhaps in the eyes of greenhouse extremists. Yet… what is there about a car that provokes human behavior that ranges from merely stupid to downright lethal? Vehicle deaths in the United States are something like three times homicides, and for the last 60 years have totaled two and half times the wartime combat deaths of U.S. service members. What persuades theoretically rational adults to drive a car when they’re so intoxicated or high that they can barely walk, or to cruise the highways at speeds more suited to the Indianapolis 500? Why do normally sane individuals become maniacs when cut off by another vehicle in rush-hour or other traffic? Why, when studies show that cellphone use, and especially texting, while driving impairs drivers more than drinking, do so many people persist in combining these lethal behaviors? Certainly, the car didn’t beg them to do it.

Firearms are another case in point. Like it or not, they’re implicated in nearly 30,000 deaths a year, roughly 47% being suicides and 48% being homicides. While guns don’t pull their own triggers, a prevalence of firearms does result in higher death rates. This may be simply because they’re more effective than other weapons, but that effectiveness combines with human nature to result in a rather high body count… particularly in the U.S.

Another area is electronic music. While seldom fatal, the ability of amplified music to penetrate thick walls and sealed vehicles is resulting in increasing hearing losses among listeners, usually younger people. And, of course, hearing losses must be compensated for by higher volume levels… causing greater hearing loss… and none of them ever seem to consider turning down the volume.

Likewise, the institution of ubiquitous fast food and other forms of “instant nourishment” has resulted in an epidemic of obesity in the United States. Again… the food didn’t drag people into McDonald’s or whatever instant cuisine establishment might be an individual’s choice, but the prevalence of such establishments clearly biases people toward eating habits that mitigate against good health.

So… while such tools and institutions do not in themselves require unfortunate results, does their presence and ease of utilization result in an influence that is biased toward less than optimal human behavior? If so, can and should we ignore that influence by arguing that such less than optimal human behaviors are solely personal decisions?

No… it’s not the tools, not exactly, but… I have to wonder whether the tools are somehow stronger than some people’s common sense and willpower…or whether an awful lot of people are “intelligence impaired.”

8 thoughts on “Is There A "Tools" Fallacy?”

  1. Tell says:

    I recently had a conversation about technology and humanity. We have created many tools, some are as wonderful as they can be deadly. Many of these tools were meant to "help" us, or make life more convenient for us. It isn't wrong to use tools, and it is not the tools fault if they are improperly used, but we cannot take the tool out of the equation.

    It is nice driving around inside my warm car, especially since we had a boon of snow last night in Cedar. I did spend about an hour outside with a shovel making sure my family and I could get out and nobody would slip on ice. But on the road there were many… crazies out there. People on cellphones, eating/drinking and driving, going too fast, or otherwise distracted. It was a dangerous adventure to reach everyone's destinations. I was almost hit several times by distracted drivers or others going to fast for conditions.

    I think it is the convenience which traps many of us. We are used to getting what we want, getting our way so fast, that patience and smelling roses are qualities seldom expressed. And it is this entitlement which further drags us down to become dependent upon our tools for "more, and faster," results or gratification. When one of our tools fails us, we tend to blame it, call it names, find a way to fix it or pitch it. How many of us know people who would be devastated at the loss of their cell phones? If they couldn't have a cigarette for the day? If Starbucks was closed?

    The tools can be blamed only so far as we become attached to the ease and comfort they bring to us. It is still ultimately our fault for their misuse and the damage done, but we could alter the tools, or be more responsible.

    We have, well had, an increased number of people moving to Cedar City from Las Vegas and California, places where snow isn't an obstacle. I live on a hill where I can watch much of the city, and during our first snow, I sat at the window watching it fall. It was beautiful, save for the many, seemingly endless sirens. We become comfortable with our tools and rely on them to solve problems, but they are tools, we must learn to control ourselves, our impulses, and use tools properly.

  2. Iron Sparrow says:

    I like the comparison of cars and instant communications. Perhaps, as with cars, we should require training and licensing before allowing the use of instant communications. Then, when the tool is abused, the license can be revoked.

  3. Tell says:

    I agree. It's more of slap on the wrist if someone disobeys the rules and regulations of the road. Something as deadly as a vehicle should have more drastic consequences. If they are drastic enough, perhaps we could fund better public transportation.

  4. Nickers says:

    Ah, I hate to throw a wrench in here, but what the heck, I will anyways.

    While certainly not the end-all conclusion, there is certainly a strikingly powerful correlation between 'tool use' and marketing. Gosh, I aught to know given my years of experience in the field and that I am a psychology major.

    Let me explain. Way back when advertising was little understood and the 'build it and they will come' beliefs were still fostered, one lone psychologist was kicked out of his organization for being seen as 'unethical'. Said psychologist then turned his attention to the private sector and focused on what is now known as market research. Basically he dug through trashcans to prove to Campbell's Soup Co. that a certain class of people perceived by the company to not buy their products, did in fact buy a great deal of the company's soup. The company switched marketing tactics and sales soars. The psychologist's notoriety soared.

    This individual psychologist was pivotal for shaping the way marketing was performed. Some have even attributed the term 'sex sells' to this man because of his methods. Those methods involve a great deal of understanding human nature, and more to the point, classic conditioning.

    My point, if you have followed so far, is that the way in which we use the tools (for good or ill) is often determined by the marketing that sold them in the first pace. Pay attention to the commercials on television, the displays in stores, and the packaging of the products to confirm for yourself.

    I do not, however, place the blame on the industries that produce the goods, nor the industry that markets the goods to the consumer. The blame rests solely on the end user for their objective interrogation of the information provided. Basically, if you are conditioned (brainwashed) to use a 'tool' a certain way, you have only yourself to blame.

  5. christopher says:

    Perhaps you are right, Nickers. On the other hand, how many products would make it to R&D, let alone the marketplace, if the producers didn't know ahead of time that they could be effectively marketed?

  6. Nickers says:


    My point exactly. It isn't some random creativity that goes into marketing; it's knowledge of human nature and how best to manipulate it.

    Consider how much absolutely useless junk or inferior products are sold each year. Heck, look at Wal-Mart's business model. (Although, I'll concede the model they use has become less effective in light of current marketing tactics by other companies designed to erode the market share of Wal-mart).

  7. Nathan Beal says:

    A delightfully quick read that discusses some of these themes is Brandon Sanderson's Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians. It is markets as a young teens novel, but there is plenty of information in there that makes any well-read adult laugh. Getting back to why this is relevant, One of the characters states that stairs are a higher form of technology than an elevator, since stairs allow the user to not only get from one floor of the building to another but also to exercise at the same time. Likewise, a sword is more advanced technology than a gun, since it allows the user to increase his overall fighting ability, with or without the sword, vs. the gun which does nothing to render the user less vulnerable when it is no longer in his possession.

    It is interesting to note that in my own field, furniture maker, the modern tools that were meant to increase efficiency have merely led to woodworkers that are not as skilled, are far lazier, and work at the same speed as their counterpart 300 years ago. Not only that but the cost of entry into the field is higher due to the cost of the machinery, and overhead costs are higher due to the cost of running the machines.

  8. christopher says:


    Gottcha. There are a variety of causes and conditions producing the form and function of contemporary technology. I think the notion of "single causes" and "single effects" coupled with a fixation on an unattainable level of certainty are underlying a lot of the problems we see as the end result of these mental and material processes.

    The frustrating thing is that it effects even low technology. I am currently looking for a workable bookshelf, and am finding even minimal requirements cannot be met. All that is readily available is overpriced particle board, which significantly reduces the life span of most paper. It is – however – remarkably easy to find decent, tasteful wood shelving units far too small for books, but just perfect for DVDs etc.

Comments are closed.