Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tools Are Just Tools

I spend a fairly considerable amount of time on social media. It’s how I keep up with family and friends, most of whom live too far away for any other kind of regular contact. It’s how I stay abreast of current affairs (most forms of social media are lousy sources of news, but they’re great places for headlines, giving me insight into which stories I do and don’t want to dig deeper into). It’s how I network and advertise my own works and activities. It’s how I share ideas and jokes and all of the other stuff that we share with each other on a regular basis. It’s how I stay in touch. To a greater or lesser extent, much of that is probably true for you as well. That is the modern reality, and it can be a very useful reality.

It can also, however, be a very frustrating reality. The same platforms that we use for communicating, sharing, and learning can also be used for shaming, intimidating, and harassing. If you spend as much time on social media as I do, you’re guaranteed to come across plenty of negative. You’ll probably see more negative than you want to deal with, and it’s not uncommon to decide that the whole experience is not worthwhile. Many people wash their hands of the whole thing and declare social media, as a whole, to be what’s wrong with the modern world. If only it were that simple.

It’s not, of course. It hardly ever is. There is not just one thing wrong with the modern world and, even if there was, that one thing would not be summed up within social media. Social media barely even registers as a symptom. It just isn’t that important. It’s a tool, sure, and a tool with great reach and application, but a tool is nothing without the hand that uses it. If you take the most dangerous tool ever designed and set it on a shelf in the back of a storage room, it will do nothing more sinister than collecting dust and settling into itself with inevitable entropy. Whether shaped stone or advanced computer code, tools are just tools, and rarely ever have any intrinsic value - whether positive or negative - within themselves. The value of a tool comes from its use, not from its existence.

Different people will use different tools in different ways. When it comes to the tools of social media, I have accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, all of which I use to promote my work with Frequently Interrupted. How I use each tool differs across the different platforms, and how I use the social media platforms as a whole will be different from how other people use them, even other people who are using them for roughly the same purposes. I have no doubt that other people are better at using these tools than I am, and I am probably better at using them than some other people, but none of us are actually wrong in how we use them. If they serve our purpose, we have used them correctly. That we might be able to use them better is an entirely different matter from whether or not we are using them correctly.

My kids post all kinds of videos and memes that make no sense to me. Quite a bit of what I post is boring to them. Neither of us is wrong. We’re using the same tools for different purposes. If our purpose is met, the tools were used correctly. The rest is just detail, and the details change from person to person.

There was a story last year about a photographer who took pictures of people with their devices (tablets, smartphones, etc.), and then digitally removed the devices from the resulting images. This was supposed to show how obsessed we have become with these modern gadgets, and how ridiculous we look in that obsession. I saw a ridiculous obsession in this art project, but it wasn’t the one the artist was driving at. Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at a table with a digital tablet in hand, reading whatever is on the screen. Now take that same image and replace the tablet with a book. What else changed? Nothing. You would be sitting in the same posture, performing the same apparent activity, whether it was with a book or a tablet. The only difference would be in the judgment coming from the observers. Now imagine yourself as the observer. Was their really a point to that judgment? Did your judgment say more about the person judged or about the person judging?

We certainly can be obsessed with our modern gadgets, and we certainly can be ridiculous in that obsession, but this isn’t new, and it isn’t really about the tools in question. One generation ignores people from behind a newspaper while another does the same from behind an iPad. One is viewed as acceptable behavior while the other signals a complete breakdown in modern society. They’re the same thing, really, but we love to make excuses because that’s easier than admitting that we usually have the same flaws just expressed in different ways.

There is another video making the rounds right now with a young lady apologizing for her generation. I tried to watch it, but I had to stop when the first several things she said all applied just as much to my own generation as to hers. We’re at least twenty years apart in age, and probably about three generations apart the way these things are usually measured, but the same failures that supposedly typify her generation were accused of mine when I was in school. The way we do things is right and good but the way the next group does things is wrong and bad. It’s never in history been that simple, but I doubt there has ever in history been a generation that didn’t think it was.

My tools are not better than your tools, and my use of those tools is not better than your use of them. Tools are just tools, and how you use them often matters more than which tool you’re using. If you use Facebook in an obsessive and unhealthy way then Facebook may be an unhealthy tool for you to use. That doesn’t make Facebook bad, and it doesn’t make social media the root of all evil. Be mindful of the tools that you are using so that your tools don’t use you, but don’t make the mistake of believing that your use is the representative use. We can use different tools for the same job, the same tools for different jobs, or various combinations of those ideas. What matters is that we keep doing our best, and hopefully help each other to do better along the way. Use whatever tools you can to get the job done.

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