The Universal Tool?
Whether you’re using a smart phone, a tablet, or a flat screen monitor, when it’s dormant they all look alike. If you stretch your mind just a little, you’ll realize they look like the granite slab in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Maybe you can even hear the sounds.
Coincidence? Not if you believe in Arthur C. Clarke’s prescience. Not if you’re aware that all our tools are turning into apps. It’s the convergence of everything into computers.
Many see this as a trend of convenience, the multiplying of computer power to achieve all our needs. We can be sure the software and hardware providers see the value for their businesses.
Individuals and businesses may benefit, but who speaks for humanity? Who will warn us of what we’re losing by taking the path of One Tool Fits All Needs. If we humans are not toolmakers, what are we?
Once the development of tools was synonymous with specialization. Now, as our tools become apps they are homogenized, more like each other than something with a special purpose.
One of humanity’s greatest tools was the pencil. Will tomorrow’s double-thumb texters know how to pick one up? Not only is cursive dead, drawing with pencil and paper is anachronistic. Tools are diminished without the resistance of the medium.
Tools are psychologically defined by their affordances: hammers look for nails, knobs twist or push or pull, knives cut, shovels dig, etc. Affordances describe the connection of mind with hand and tool.
By reducing the affordance space to the homogeneity of screen and keys, mind-hand coordination shrinks to a bare minimum. Apps are a poor substitute for tools that evolved over many millennium.
We can make anything with 3D printers, but where is the hand of the maker? We still create objects but the art of sculpture will disappear. Apps make with the mind; hands are becoming superfluous.
No essential human art is reducible and still remains truly human. Creating art with apps is a virtual process. Nothing real is happening. The art of conversation cannot be reduced to faces on a slab.
While the slab is effectively infinite, the apps that fill it are only virtual tools. They are convenient and they may satisfy. But the real world will still be ruled by real tools—like guns and bullets.