Tools of the Trade

If you’re reading this post at your desk, odds are decent that you’re using a mouse. The inventor of that device, Doug Engelbartdied earlier this month, and, according to an article by businessman Eugene Eric Kim, the world admired Engelbart but never listened to his fundamental message.

“He felt that most of the praise missed the point of what he was trying so desperately to help the world understand,” Kim explained in Zócalo Public Square. “The world’s problems are getting complex faster than our ability to solve them. If we don’t do something to change this, we’re in trouble.”

Engelbart believed that technology could help make the world better and civilizations wiser, but it wouldn’t magically solve anything. “Tools could help us get collectively smarter, but they would not magically do the work for us,” Kim wrote. “Without mastery, tools themselves are pointless. We need to focus our collective energies on constantly learning and improving.”

We expect Peter Drucker would have listened—or perhaps even did listen—to Engelbart. Or maybe Engelbart listened to Drucker.

In any case, Drucker believed in the power of technology to change life—and even people—for the better. “A new tool enables us to do old things in a new way, and this is certainly as true of the computer as it was of any earlier tool,” he noted. “A new tool also enables us to do new things we could not do before. A tool, one of the great biologists of the 19th Century pointed out, is an extension of the human personality. It is purposeful, directed, man-made evolution.”

Image source: Biser Todorov

But in a 1967 essay that appears in Technology, Management, and Society, Drucker also pointed out that tools don’t automatically make things easier and, in fact, make requirements of their own. “Better tools demand a better, more highly skilled and more careful carpenter,” Drucker wrote.

The question was whether we’re collectively equal to that challenge: “As its ultimate impact on man and his society, 20th Century technology, by its very mastery of nature, may thus have brought man face to face again with his oldest and greatest challenge: himself.”

Is technology making us wiser?