“Technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad. The key is using it to support your goals and values.”
So reads the book jacket of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. It’s an old cliché: Technology is what we make of it, a neutral tool that can be shaped by the intentions of the user. And yet, as Newport’s book makes clear, for users of digital technology — be it smartphones, social media, or email — it doesn’t feel like that’s the case much of the time. What many of us experience is, in fact, a lack of control over how we use our devices.
There is a growing body of literature recognizing this new condition. We feel like we’re in a state of perpetual distraction, catching ourselves on social media without knowing why and unintentionally jumping from email to Slack to the news—all at the expense of our main tasks. The diagnosis presented is that technology is controlled not by the users, but by its designers. Critics warn us about the ways in which the companies that create digital technology are set on getting us addicted to their products, hijacking our attention — and, while they’re at it, our data — altering our everyday behavior and mental state. This is why our interactions with technology often feel out of our control.
But this alternative narrative fails to account for the fact that technology can also defy the intentions of its designers. Mark Zuckerberg did not mean for Facebook to be used as part of a genocide mission in Myanmar. And the front camera on the iPhone was not designed for taking selfies.
Even though the two approaches are diametrically opposed, they share a common assumption: Technology is a tool shaped by human intentions and goals — be they the intentions of users or designers. According to one of the founding texts in the philosophy of technology, Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology,” this assumption is profoundly mistaken. It is not us that shape technology — it is the technology that shapes us.