Toy → Tool → Environment: The Progression of How We Use Technology

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

9 thoughts on “Toy → Tool → Environment: The Progression of How We Use Technology”

  1. Great thoughts John! This distinction is very helpful. Now that you point it out… I have seen it everywhere! I’m the second-youngest full-time employee at my church and carry the title of “Media/Tech Director” (depending on who you ask). I recently bought an iPad 2 and much to my own surprise, I went through the first two stages in about 2 days. It is a part of my environment now. The majority of my office mates are still questioning if email, flash drives or what the heck is Dropbox is the right way to send media from person to person.

    I probably seem like I have to have the latest gadget all the time just to play with it. But honestly… I really find joy when my use of them just becomes a part of the environment. That is when I have the most fun.

    1. I don’t mean for it to sound as if my office mates are behind the curve completely. Just that I feel so far ahead sometimes. I have a hard time keeping myself in check.

  2. I likes. The evolution of using anything seems to go through this kinds of mental/functional transformations. What’s difficult is to notice when we (from a first person perspective) are moving from one to another, or when an item needs to be moved in our perspectives from one model to another. There’s some room for discussions on each end towards how we assume and later mentally lock perceptions of technologies based on how we managed to “play” with them versus how they were pitched to us as “tools” to get something done.

    In a presentation last week, I opened the discussion talking about layers of (mobile) tech. I think that for many, to see the layers in this view set would be a bit more helpful than what I laid out. I’ve know of this methodology before, but while it factors into my thinking and use, its not always towards to front of my perceptions.

  3. Very interesting and profound perspective! I am a gadget/technology addict. I think I’m like Graham in that I will go through the process of toy to environment in a matter of a couple days.

  4. This is kind of helpful, but I think the model is missing a stage.

    The three stages here are distinguished by their *goals* – I will play with this, I will use this, this is part of who I am. Fair enough, but actually it can take a long time to figure out how to “use” a new technology effectively.

    When a new technology emerges and becomes popular, businesses (and churches) often see it as an environment *first*. You see lots of arguments to the effect that “we must go where the people are”. Lots of money is wasted, lots of projects don’t work, and eventually everything settles down and the technology becomes a tool.

    You see this process with “cyberspace”, blogging, Twitter, virtual worlds – basically everything that gathers some hype around it.

    As it stands, this three-stage model just reinforces the danger of hype – because it encourages you to rush as quickly as possible
    to the “environment” stage, which is exactly the mistake that so many businesses and churches already make.

    So you could improve the model by adding a new stage. I’d call that “place” – the stage where everyone wants to go get into this new thing, because everyone else is doing it, but they don’t yet know what to do when they get there.

    Place-toy-tool-environment?

    1. Tim,
      You’d have to ask Chris for a definitive interpretation, but I’m guessing he’d say that the “Toy” stage also describes what you’re talking about. “Toy” probably includes both “Wow, that’s so cool” (what I wrote about in the post) and “We need to buy this even if we don’t understand it.” (what you fleshed out in your comment). But again, it’s Chris’s model, so it’s up to him :)

  5. I find the model helpful in some ways – particularly looking at a technology as part of our environment. I think this realization can open our eyes to the subtle ways the Enemy may seep in.

    However, overall, I don’t really see much value in looking at these three stages. Partially, because the transistion of each particular technology can be based on so many factors – price/availability, one’s use of previous technologies and the need that the new gadget aims to meet.

    Two examples come to mind…
    1)The microwave: I would argue that as soon as it was priced low enough to be available to the middle class, it immediately became a tool and skipped the toy stage altogether.

    2)The Segway: Before it was released, this was touted to “be the biggest life-changing invention since the computer”. However, I still don’t think this technology has come out of the “toy” stage. I think this is probably because it doesn’t meet any need that wasn’t already met by bicycles or scooters.

    I would compare this model to the stages of infant -> toddler -> preschooler. It’s nice to know some of the general characteristics of each stage, but one must also realize that the transition is going to be very fuzzy and largely based on the individual child. My son didn’t start walking until he was almost a year and a half. He certainly wasm’t an infant at that stage, but you couldn’t technically call him a toddler either.

    Does Chris’s thesis delve more into the “What does it mean” area?

  6. John –
    This is post of yours from a long while ago, and I don’t think I ever saw it! Thanks for the shout-out on the model.

    Just some quick responses if it’s still useful on this old comment thread:

    > Tim Hutching’s descriptions still sound like “toy stage” usage to me. Maybe the difference is how an organization or business behaves in toy stage adoption, when they are dependent on innovation and early-adopter marketing. I don’t entirely understand his “Place” language.

    > Jenny brings up some great examples. I think the microwave did go through toy stage (have you seen ones with instructions for how to make the Thanksgiving Dinner turkey?), but you’re right, they seemed to move pretty quickly to the “assumed” stage. I agree that the Segway remains squarely in the Toy stage… and may never leave it. The toy stage is littered with some inventions that remained a novelty and never took off.

    Anyway… hopefully people are following John’s blog tour on his new book over at ChurchMag right now:

    http://churchm.ag/from-the-garden-to-the-city

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