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How tools shape us – and we shape tools

IT tools became such an integral part of our work that we don’t even notice them anymore.

You just log into your computer and select your ‘workplace of choice’ – picking from a myriad of programs or apps, depending on what you are doing at the moment. Dashboards for managers, editors for coders, photo editing software for designers, etc.

There is just no way to do our work otherwise.

But the new paradigm comes with new issues. One such issue is called “Technological determinism” – which does sound like a mouthful, but the premise is very simple.

“When working with a tool, we are doing only what the tool allows us to do”. Embodying the old saying of ‘when you have a hammer, all problems look like nails’.

It sounds obvious, but the impact on our day-to-day lives is quite profound. Especially considering that instead of a hammer, most of our problems are now being solved on the computer – with just a different program depending on what we need. And to become better at using the tools and do the best job possible, it’s worth considering how the tools we are using are affecting us. 

For example, if you are using a word processor that highlights or corrects your writing with the press of a button, your texts are more likely going to mimic the recommendations of the processor, maybe even keeping the word structure the processor allows.

Or, another one: if you’ll be basing your decision on a result of dashboard watching specific KPIs – even a good dashboard with the right KPIs – you might be inclined to focus on points-metrics that the dashboard highlights rather than different points or contexts.

With that in mind, even when we want to create a program or a process perfectly from the ground up, to suit our needs, the result might still be affected in some way depending on what tool, what framework, what best practice we’ll decide to use.

What else is there

If the process we’re making is only to support the core business, and we don’t need something revolutionary or super outside the box, we will probably be happy with the results of any  ‘good enough’ tool, and focus our effort elsewhere. For that process, the ‘default’ might be completely okay, but if we’d do the same with a critical process that is supposed to give us the advantage or is core of what we do, it can limit us in certain ways. What if we want the best and most creative solution, and go beyond the ‘default’? 

Simply ‘following the procedure’ or tools would only get us as far as anyone else using it. Most of the time, the tool simply allows us to do some things better and not others. To show some things and not others, allow one function but not next – with the difference sometimes seeming fairly arbitrary.

At that point, we’ll most likely end up preferring what the tool or process allows us. Missing opportunities that are just outside of reach, because they are simply not convenient. Missing the eponymous thinking outside the box-creativity, etc.

With that in mind, the tools might sound suddenly quite limiting. But we can’t just throw our laptops out of the window. As mentioned earlier – it’s often the only way to do the work these days.

The more complex work we do, the better tools and systems we need to manage to stay productive and competitive – since if we won’t use them, somebody else will – and although creativity is great, it’s not the only thing that matters.

How to reach beyond

This is the part of the article where I’m supposed to neatly outline a simple solution on how to approach and handle this issue.

But honestly, I can’t think of one.

One way to go might be having a good and flexible tool or process, but depending on the area or which current priority, that might not be possible every time.

Another way could be having skilled people, able to spot the boundaries and opportunities might be another solution, but such people won’t always be available.

At most, if you, reader, are working in the building of technologies or processes, you can use this knowledge to think a little bit more about how the process you’re making guides users to what would make the process and workers’ lives better.

In the end, there is a very limited amount of specific steps we can do, other than just being conscious of the fact that the tools shape us in the same way we do them.