A few weeks ago I had the rare pleasure of meeting an fellow as interesting as Chris Ridgeway. Chris currently works in church fundraising, but he did his master’s thesis on media ecology under Scot McKnight, and he has some great ideas about technology and culture.
One of the most interesting things he mentioned to me was his theorythat our use of technology goes through three basic stages:
- Toy – Our first reaction to a new tool is usually to stare in awe and mumble something like, “Whoooooah…” Remember when you first saw Google and just start typing random things to see what would come up? Remember when you saw FaceTime and video-called people because you wanted to try it out?
- Tool – Over time we begin to see the usefulness of a system, and we start using it for more for its function than its ability to interest us. In other words, we stop playing with it and starting using it. Still, when we use something in the “tool” stage, it feels like a special, distinct way of doing something.
- Environment – Eventually, we stop noticing the device as something out-of-the-ordinary and begin to see it as a normal part of our everyday environment. No one thinks of tables or chairs as technology, even though one day long ago they were new interesting tools.
Emails vs. Sending and Texts vs. Telling
Let’s take email for example. When most of us first encountered email, it seemed like something from the future, and we said things like, “Cool, you have e-mail?” Even the dash indicated that was a foreign concept to us.
Over time, we all got pretty good at email and began to see it not just as a “toy,” but as a useful and even essential “tool” even for someone who isn’t super tech savvy like my mom. But if you listen to someone like my mom carefully, you’ll hear them says things like, “I’m gonna go do email.” Email is no longer a toy to them, but they still see it as a unique tool which needs to be treated differently than something more familiar like a phone. Contrast that with someone who no longer talks about “email” itself and simply says, “Could you send that to me?” The fact that they use only a verb (send) without mentioning the specific technology means that the technology has moved from being a “tool” to being just part of their “environment” as natural and common as a chair, table, or light.
What about texting? For many adults, mobile phone text messaging is still a “tool.” You can hear it when they say, “Can you send me a text with the details” or “Can you text me the details?” Contrast this with a teen who might say, “Susie told me she’s gonna be 10 minutes late.” The teen omits any reference to the specific means of communication (call, text, email, etc.) and simply uses a verb (told), because all of those are part of her ordinary life, and they don’t warrant a distinction. For her, texting is an environmental technology.
What does it mean?
I think this is a helpful way for us to open up discussion about how we view the technology we and the people around us use.
When a technology becomes a part of our environment, we are usually more effective in using it and yet less aware of how it might shape our thinking and actions. When we still see technology as a toy or a tool, we probably are not yet able to unlock its full potential. At the same time, we might find ourselves in conflict with a younger person who grew up with the technology and uses it different since it’s a perfectly natural part of his environment.
I’d love to hear if you find this distinction helpful and where you’ve seen it.