Silicon Valley’s Sixty-Year Love Affair with the Word “Tool” | The New Yorker
In the written remarks that Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, submitted in advance of his testimony on Capitol Hill this week, he used the word “tool” eleven times. “As Facebook has grown, people everywhere have gotten a powerful new tool to stay connected to the people they love, make their voices heard, and build communities and businesses,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.” Later, he added, “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy.” In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees on Tuesday, Zuckerberg referred to “these tools,” “those tools, “any tool,” “technical tools,” and—thirteen times—“A.I. tools.” On Wednesday, at a separate hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a congressman from Florida told Zuckerberg, “Work on those tools as soon as possible, please.”
What’s in a tool? The Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that the English word is more than a thousand years old and that, since the mid-sixteenth century, it has been used as the slur that we’re familiar with today.
In Silicon Valley, according to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor at the University of Virginia whose book about Facebook, “Antisocial Media,” is due out in September, “Tools are technologies that generate other technologies.” When I asked an engineer friend who builds “developer tools” for his definition, he noted that a tool is distinct from a product, since a product is “experienced rather than used.” The iTunes Store, he said, is a product: “there are lots of songs you can download, but it’s just a static list.” A Web browser, by contrast, is a tool, because “the last mile of its use is underspecified.”
Yesterday was not Zuckerberg’s first time being called in and interrogated about a Web site that he created. In the fall of 2003, when he was a sophomore at Harvard, a disciplinary body called the Ad Board summoned him to answer questions about Facemash, the Facebook precursor that he had just released. Using I.D. photos of female undergraduates scraped from the university’s online directories, Facemash presented users with pairs of women and asked them to rank who was “hotter.” (“Were we let in for our looks? No,” the site proclaimed. “Will we be judged on them? Yes.”) By 10 P.M. on the day Facemash launched, some four hundred and fifty visitors had cast at least twenty-two thousand votes. Several student groups, including Fuerza Latina and the Harvard Association of Black Women, led an outcry. But Zuckerberg insisted to the Ad Board that he had not intended to “insult” anyone. As the student newspaper, the Crimson, reported, “The programming and algorithms that made the site function were Zuckerberg’s primary interest in creating it.” The point of Facemash was to make a tool. The fact that it got sharpened on the faces of fellow-students was incidental.
The exaltation of tools has a long history in the Bay Area, going back to the late nineteen-sixties, when hippie counterculture intersected with early experiments in personal computing. In particular, the word got its cachet from the “Whole Earth Catalog,” a compendium of product reviews for commune dwellers that appeared several times a year, starting in 1968, and then sporadically after 1972. Its slogan: “Access to tools.” The publisher of the “Catalog,” Stewart Brand—a Stanford-trained biologist turned hippie visionary and entrepreneur—would later call it “the first instance of desktop publishing.” Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, described it as “one of the bibles of my generation.” The “Catalog,” Jobs said, was “Google in paperback form, thirty-five years before Google came along. It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and notions.” Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, quotes Brand as saying that the Apple co-founder was a kindred spirit; in designing products, Jobs “got the notion of tools for human use.” With the rise of personal computing, the term “tools” migrated from communes to software. The generation of tech leaders who grew up taking P.C.s and the World Wide Web for granted nevertheless inherited an admiration for Brand. In 2016, for instance, Facebook’s head of product, Chris Cox, joined him onstage at the Aspen Ideas Festival to give a talk titled “Connecting the Next Billion.”
Tool talk encodes an entire attitude to politics—namely, a rejection of politics in favor of tinkering. In the sixties, Brand and the “Whole Earth Catalog” presented tools as an alternative to activism. Unlike his contemporaries in the antiwar, civil-rights, and women’s movements, Brand was not interested in gender, race, class, or imperialism. The transformations that he sought were personal, not political. In defining the purpose of the “Catalog,” he wrote, “a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” Like Zuckerberg, Brand saw tools as a neutral means to engage any and every user. “Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grassroots direct power—tools and skills,” he later wrote. If people got good enough tools to build the communities they wanted, politics would take care of itself.
#Facebook #Fred_Turner #Stewart_Brand #Tools
This idea became highly influential in the nineties, as the Stanford historian Fred Turner demonstrates in his book “From Counterculture to Cyberculture.” Through Wired magazine, which was founded by Brand’s collaborator Kevin Kelly, the message reached not just Silicon Valley but also Washington. The idea that tools were preferable to politics found a ready audience in a decade of deregulation. The sense that the Web was somehow above or beyond politics justified laws that privatized Internet infrastructure and exempted sites from the kinds of oversight that governed traditional publishers. In other words, Brand’s philosophy helped create the climate in which Facebook, Google, and Twitter could become the vast monopolies that they are today—a climate in which dubious political ads on these platforms, and their casual attitudes toward sharing user data, could pass mostly unnoticed. As Turner put it in a recent interview with Logic magazine (of which I am a co-founder), Brand and Wired persuaded lawmakers that Silicon Valley was the home of the future. “Why regulate the future?” Turner asked. “Who wants to do that?”