I have always thought about technology as a tool that we develop and improve and customize and adapt to use to help us do whatever it is we want to do faster and easier and better. In other words, we shape and control technology.
However, recently I’ve come to realize that, rather than simply us controlling technology, technology actually shapes and controls us.
Consider the example of clocks. Over time, we have developed and improved and customized and adapted clocks to meet our needs. We have huge clocks in watchtowers and churches that tell time for masses of people. We have wall clocks that tell time for organizations, and grandfather clocks that tell time for households, and watches and alarm clocks that tell time for us personally. And we customize all these clocks and watches to be more functional or more decorative to suit our needs and personalities. Clearly, it must be true that we shape and control clocks and watches.
On the other hand, consider how the penetration of clocks and watches in society has changed our behavior and thoughts. Before the widespread availability of clocks, together with access to adequate modes of communication and transportation, we weren’t able to precisely synchronize our actions on time. People from different locations could agree to meet at a certain location during a broad span of time – say at sunrise, before noon, around noon, afternoon, or at sunset – but we couldn’t be much more precise than that.
However, once clocks, together with access to modes of communication and transportation, became widely adopted, we could now be much more precise in our scheduling of events. We could agree to meet, say, at the local café at 10:00 am. That is, we now had the ability to synchronize our actions precisely. What’s more, we expected other people to use those same technologies, and thus have the ability to be as precise about time as we were.
And once we could synchronize our actions precisely, we started scheduling more and different actions for particular times. We became a people who regularly scheduled activities for precise times, rather than simply being a people who undertook activities at approximate times. We could say, then, that clocks (and communication and transportation technologies) changed the way we lived our lives – from approximate time spans to specifically scheduled periods. At the same time, once we could synchronize our actions precisely, we, as a society, started to develop attitudes and expectations (that is, cultural norms) about the importance of being on time and the extent to which people were esteemed for being punctual or stigmatized for being late.
As goes the case for clocks, so goes the case for all other technologies. That is, while we do shape technologies to meet our needs, it is perhaps more important to understand that, to a greater or lesser extent, technologies shape us – the way we live, what we do, and what we think. That kind of changes the picture, doesn’t it?