Digital Technology: It’s Just a Tool

Let’s not make more of it than it is.


This is the second of my point / counterpoint posts. Read the first post here.


When we think about digital illiteracy, we picture people who lack familiarity or skill with technology, people who lack knowledge or comfort with digital information resources. We think about luddites—some willing, some unwilling.

But there’s a kind of digital illiteracy that exists at the other end of the spectrum: technolust. People who adopt new technologies and digital resources too enthusiastically.

An uncritical acceptance of digital technology fails to understand it in a way as profound as any luddite.

Digital technology provides us with tools. A proper understanding of our tools doesn’t just mean knowing what they can do—it also means knowing what they can’t do, and what we shouldn’t try to make them do.

Understanding our tools means knowing their limitations as well as their strengths.

Consider a carpenter:

A good carpenter knows which tool is best for each job. A good carpenter also knows which tools are useless for any given job. A good carpenter knows what each tool can and can’t do.

A good carpenter knows when to use a nail gun and when to use a hammer. And they make sure to keep both on hand.

There are many things that digital technology does better than its non-digital predecessors. Digital technology allows us to do some things that we’ve never been able to do before.

But there are some things that digital technology can’t do. There remain many things that non-digital technology still does better.

Our various technologies—both digital and non—provide us with myriad tools. It’s our responsibility to know which tools are best for each job. Which tools can be made to work and which are useless for the task at hand.

Some people believe that digital technology will—and even should—completely replace its non-digital predecessors. This belief fails to recognize that there are many things digital technology still can’t do. It fails to acknowledge the tasks non-digital technology still does better.

It’s like telling a carpenter to throw out all their hammers and do everything with a nail gun. It’s just a bad idea.

All tools have uses. All tools have limitations. Digital and non-digital technologies both provide us with tools to do our jobs and live our lives.

Why wouldn’t we want every tool we can have?

Teaching digital literacy doesn’t only mean teaching our patrons how to use new technology and digital resources. It also requires teaching them to be appropriately critical of these tools.

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