We shape our tools, and in exchange our tools shape us. This interaction that exists between our tools and how we use them creates a broader culture of technology that drives us to constantly find better and smarter tools.
Carnegie Mellon University Professor Jessica Hammer describes this as a larger responsibility: “I think we have an obligation to use new techs, the techs of gaming and digital connection, we have to use them to shape our lives, not let them shape us.”
In the early 21st century, our tools are increasingly software, and algorithms, that combined with “big data” help us sort and make sense of our lives. The sophistication and even growing intelligence of this software brings the question of agency to the forefront. How much of our lives are we in control of, how much choice do we really have? Or are we now just by-products of a larger system, a machine if you will, that pushes us blindly forward?
Professor Hammer draws out this tension: “we are also a society that is very focused on accomplishment. What have I done? What have I achieved, what have I made? As opposed to how have I felt? Who have I related to?”
Feelings are an integral part of what it means to be human, and yet nobody would suggest a tool has feelings? Will software have emotion? Do we optimize the tools for humans to use? Or are humans being optimized for use by machines?
We lose sight of why we use the tools in the first place. We forget that it is a human on the other side of the screen that draws us to the device and is driven by social needs. Perhaps we are too distracted by all the bells, whistles, and apps to remember why being kind, considerate, and respectful will get us what we want and need?
When we forget the agency we implicitly have we lash out at the world an inadvertently hurt other humans who are equally struggling to figure out how to use these tools for their benefit. After all, in a collaborative environment, agency is accomplished with a little help from our friends.