The thoughtful tool-maker

By Matthew

· 7 min

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

John Culkin on Marshall McLuhan

The technology impulse, and its consequences

Humans are by their very nature tool-makers, and tool-users.

We see a task, and instinctively look for an easier way.

We see a material, or an approach, or a mechanism, and we look for tasks to apply it to.

It’s a force that drives us onwards, towards new productivity and capability.

It’s an instinct that triggers every goal-seeking impulse in our consciousness.

And it often drowns out the quieter voices in our psyche; our other priorities and polarities.

Other whispers of concern…like:

  • What will my life, and the lives of others, be like when we live with this thing?
  • What will it feel like to use it? Will we be fulfilled, and more successful?
  • Is there any way in which by empowering me, this tool will also degrade me?
  • What unintended consequences might it bring into being?

This is a thought as old as the hills. It lives in most mythologies, in stories of the origin of fire, and the practice of magic. Churchill said it of buildings, when deciding how to refurbish the House of Commons. And whilst it turns out that McLuhan didn’t actually say the quote at the top of this article, he certainly meant it.

How tools behave in the wild

If this all sounds a little too philosophical for you, or perhaps even Luddite, I’ll give you some real-world examples, all of which have hurtled towards me in the last two weeks.

The AI Gold Rush

Whilst technology venture investment may not be what it was five years ago, the industry knows a good thing when it sees it, and right now it’s looking squarely at the new wave of AI.

Generative AI feels magical. It’s easy to be excited about…and I am excited about it. It also has the potential to pull the rug on innumerable barriers to productivity. Consequently, everyone has an AI business idea on the boil.

I’ve had three different AI businesses approach me already this year for consulting help or potential partnership, and I see innumerable other new ventures appearing on all sides. Every one of them has significant short-term growth potential.

But of these I’ve only seen one that is really thinking about the real-world benefit to humans, and the human understanding that is required to make the right kind of impact. I am absolutely convinced that it is the one with the greatest potential (of which perhaps more anon.)

Process vs practice

One of the areas of consulting I frequent most regularly is review of organisational process – in particular strategic processes design to oil the wheels of successful collaboration and decision-making

This kind of initiative is almost always a response to a specific, repetitive problem. Such as a departmental conflict. Or a missed opportunity with a client or an external stakeholder. Or a need for greater control or efficiency.

Process can be an extremely effective solution to some of these problems. But it can only take root if you have really considered the practice that goes with it – by which I mean the human interactions, philosophies and habits that will make the new process a force for good. And indeed, the side-effect behaviours that happen around the edges.

And when process is imposed without this human-centred thoughtfulness and intentionality, the loss can frequently outweigh the gain.

The Bonfire of Martech

The last decade of marketing has been dominated by the ascendancy of automation and platform technology. And with good reason – there was a lot of inefficiency, misalignment and old-fashioned practice to go after.

Some of these technologies were simply bad – oversold, under-tested and poorly integrated. But many of them were, and are, extremely ingenious and potentially very useful. And yet many businesses are now questioning these investments, and sun-setting or downgrading whatever they can.

And in many cases, the failure here has not been in the technology, but in the misunderstanding of the human consequences of implementing that technology. How will it change how people feel about their jobs, and the way they interact with each other? How will it change how they spend their time? How will it affect their other skills?

In all of these cases, there is a dramatic under-focus on the question: “what it will feel like when this tool achieves its intended purpose? What will it change, in the world and in us?”

How to be a thoughtful tool-maker (and user)

If there is one idea that I would happily bury, it is the idea that technology is neutral.

It’s an idea I still hear daily. The idea the technologies are essentially irresistible, indiscriminate forces of improvement, that only become damaging because of the malign efforts of ill-intentioned people.

It’s true perhaps that concepts of technology are neutral: the idea of connecting people more easily with other people, or of organising data sets to make them easier to interrogate, or of ordering a set of actions so that they happen in the most efficient order.

But the moment these concepts manifest themselves in a specific tool or application, they have lost their neutrality, and become instruments of change, with effects both intended and unintended hard-coded into their existence.

These consequences will place both the tool maker and the tool users on a collision course with opportunities and collateral damage that they have never considered.

To resist the use of new tools is folly. It’s another form of resignation. But equally to become passive before your tools is to abnegate your agency and your ability to influence the world around you.

If we are to make the tools and technology around us a net positive, we need to be thoughtful in how we consider them, how we design them, and how we use them.

I have written myself three commandments to make me a more thoughtful tool-maker.

Perhaps they will be useful for you.

1. Be both optimist and cynic

One of the greatest dangers of new tools as they rise is that the camps divide, between the boosters and the naysayers. Try, above all, to be neither, and both.

Play with a new tool with enthusiasm and excitement, and try to find its potential. Imagine and explore. But don’t be afraid to listen to the critics, and take some time to explore the potential.

And don’t just think about a tool’s ability to do a job. Think about how it makes you feel. What ecosystem it needs to be successful. Who it might impact.

Unless you can see both light and shade, without shame or pride, you won’t be able to keep a clear sense of perspective on what your chosen tool is capable of.

2. Always set enhanced humanity as a north star

Tools are developed and refined for many purposes, and some of them appear extremely functional.

But every tool will have consequences for the lived experience both of its intended target, if there is one, and its user. Regardless of the goal of the technology, it will have an impact on how you spend your time, and how you interact with others.

The more your goals for human impact are grounded, intentional, and look to enhance a healthy and elevated sense of humanity, the more you can mitigate the negative unintended consequences…and most likely increase the longevity of the tool itself.

3. Be alert for unintended consequences

New tools send ripples of effect into the world from the moment they are first used. These ripples reflect back at you from an infinite number of points of interference – such as existing habits, behaviours and intentions – and return towards you in a chaotic swell. Otherwise put: ‘everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.’

Be prepared for side effects, which might require you not just to tweak and refine your process, but to rethink its intention.

Tools have a way of encoding hubris, of making worse the precise thing they were supposed to be improving.

But a more thoughtful tool maker, or user, can make the world a better place.

Hook Strategy helps organisations to move forwards with shared strategic clarity. If you are an organisation seeking unified thinking, get in touch at or by calling +44 (0)7780 481717.

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