THE BLOG
12/28/2012 01:51 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2012

Has Technology Evolved From Tool to User?

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

After seeing an eye-opening presentation by Amber Case, professed "Cyborg Anthropologist" in her piece "We Are All Cyborgs Now," I had my own thoughts about technology and society. I had written a few of my own articles discussing how society has adapted to technology and in the process how we've succumb to its amazing and sometimes addictive nature. In Amber's presentation, she discussed points on how technology has caused human beings evolve in such a way that we adapt to our own tools, and even manage multiple "versions" of ourselves online. But then a thought came to me; has the role of "tool" and "user" traded places in human society, affecting the way we interact with technology itself? Has the need for enablement changed hands from human to machine? And have we gone from "Human Evolution", to "Industrial Revolution" to "Technology Devolution"?

Early cavemen learned through evolution to develop tools; external objects which were meant to be a simple extension of the caveman himself, to perform tasks ranging from cracking open seeds with hammers, to spearing the occasional brontosaurus with a sharp stick and some courage. As time went on, human beings learned new techniques to make these tools more effective and easier to fabricate and use. What started as a rock tied to a stick, became a rock with a sharpened edge tied to a stick, which then (in time) became a sharpened iron head mounted on the end of a long handle -- well, you get the picture. The concept of design and evolution had taken hold in the human brain.

One thing that was always true about tools was that the tool started out as a relatively inanimate object designed and used by humans, which did pretty much nothing without the specific interactions of a user. Tools were nothing more than random objects, save for the times when Ugg really needed a long pole to move a heavy boulder, that a tree branch became a handy lever. Still, the tool was, as a product of evolution, basically a paperweight without some type of input from a human being.

As we advanced into the Industrial Revolution, we began to see the usefulness of having tools that actually interacted with humans. The age of the machine was born. We designed steam engines to provide energy separate from our own, gears to generate complex movement to help manage complicated action, and the almighty lever -- man's first real foray into the "user interface". We now had tools which we could control, or let run relatively independently, with more power, for longer periods of time. We increased our ability to do more things, faster, farther, and seemingly easier, yet at the same time we relinquished some of our control, in lieu of efficiency, or maybe it was just laziness.

Fast forward to today, and look at the tool of today's human being -- technology. Technology is made up of highly-intelligent devices, still designed by humans, which for the first time in the history of human evolution, requires the human to be the tool. Smart devices have turned the evolutionary corner in terms of "who needs who." For the most part, the tool that we call technology uses us. Your smartphone forces you to press a button to turn off an alarm. You tablet requires you to attend to a screen and tap on a keyboard (one that isn't even physically there) in order to communicate with your other human cohorts. Your online identities on Facebook and Twitter demand your constant attention, in order to maintain your standing in the online community. People run around, searching for wi-fi hotspots as their precious laptops hopelessly yearn for a signal. Let's face it -- our devices are slowly forcing us to do their will. The tool has become the user. We spend more time nowadays tending to our devices, than they do serving our needs. We are in the age of the Technology Devolution.

Technology was meant to be a tool, like the caveman's hammer or the steam engine. What has changed, for better or for worse, is the way in which we find ourselves interacting with this tool, one that has changed the role of tool and user.

We are becoming tools to our own devices -- enough so that it motivates scientists to study how technology has changed human beings into servants.

After all... We are all Cyborgs now.

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