New Tools Will Transform Your Life

Last night I was reading a book to my two-year old daughter. I noticed that I was pointing to the words on the page and reading them aloud, while my daughter ignored my hand and started pointing to things she identified and naming them. I felt silly, to say the least. But I also thought that this would be a good story to illustrate what I tried to explain in my post on technology. Technology shapes the way we see the world, which in turn shapes us.

Instead of diving into more technicalities, I’ll share with you another example. The best and most interesting book that I’ve read on the power of a technology to change our self is in Walter Ong’s Book Orality and Literacy. In this book, Ong explains the tremendous power of the written word and how radically a literate society is from one in which no writing exists. The most powerful passage that I encountered to this point was when Ong describes A. R. Luria’s work with illiterate cultures. Ong summarizes Luria’s work and notes that “it takes only a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes.”[1] And again, from Luria’s study:

Subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, three belonging to one category and the fourth to another, and were asked to group together those that were similar or could be placed in one group or designated by one word. One series consisted of drawings of the objects hammer, saw, log, hatchet. Illiterate subjects consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations – ‘situational thinking’ – without adverting at all to the classification ‘tool’ as applying to all but the log. If you are a workman with tools and see a log, you think of applying the tool to it, not of keeping the tool away from what it was made for – in some weird intellectual game. A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: ‘They’re all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces. If one of these has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet. It doesn’t do as good a job as a saw’ (1976, p. 56). Told that the hammer, saw, and hatchet are all tools, he discounts the categorical class and persists in situational thinking: ‘Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood – otherwise we can’t build anything’ (ibid.).[2]

The society we live in today is not illiterate, naturally. And we are more or less all taught to categorize and express our ideas in the same way, particularly if we speak the same language. I wonder, however, if a similar concept can be applied to the adoption and creation of new tools. If we are creating new tools or products for people to use, what are the ways in which we want our user to see the world and how do they differ from they way they currently see the world?

In other words: the biggest mistake we can make when launching a new product is to assume that people already understand the implications of using it, or that we already understand the profound ways in which we are changing our users’ behavior. In essence, that is why products fail: because we fail to transform our users’ view in a way that opens up new horizons for them to explore and achieve their goals.


[1] Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong p. 50; Amazon.com: Orality and Literacy: 30th Anniversary Edition (New Accents) (9780415538381): Ong, Walter J., Hartley, John: Books

[2] Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong p. 51; Amazon.com: Orality and Literacy: 30th Anniversary Edition (New Accents) (9780415538381): Ong, Walter J., Hartley, John: Books

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