When Tools Shape You

The weaponized form of McLuhan’s famous phrase the medium is the message is the phrase, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us (due to to McLuhan’s friend John Culkin). I have come to prefer this form of the idea, and my favorite motif for it is Doc Ock, the Marvel super-villain.


Doc Ock’s artificially intelligent arms fuse to his brain stem in a reactor accident. In the movie version, the intelligence in the arms alters his behavior by making lower-level brain functions, such as emotional self-regulation, more powerful and volatile. The character backstory suggests a personality — a blue-collar nerd bullied as a schoolkid — that was already primed for destabilization by the usual sort of super-villain narcissistic wound. The accident alters the balance of power between his higher-level brain functions, and the hardware-extended lower-level brain functions. In the Doc Ock story, first we shape our tools, then our tools shape us captures the adversarial coupling between medium and message-sender.

The weaker form of McLuhan’s idea suggests that media select messages rather than the other way around: paper selects for formal communication, email selects for informal communication, 4chan selects for trolling. The stronger form suggests that when there is a conflict between medium and message, the medium wins. A formal communication intent naturally acquires informal overtones if it ends up as an email, memetic overtones if it ends up as a 4chan message.

Culkin’s form is the strongest. It suggests that the medium reshapes the principal crafting the message. The Doc Ock motif suggests why. There is no such thing as a dumb agent. All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence. Intelligence that can accumulate power, exhibit agency, and contend for control.

The most familiar example of this effect is in organizational behavior, captured in an extension to Alfred Chandler’s famous observation that structure follows strategy. That becomes first structure follows strategy, then strategy follows structure. The explicit form is Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: in a mature organization, agent goals trump principal goals.

A subtler, less familiar example is the philosophical idea that in any master-slave relationship, the slave can self-actualize through labor. In practice, this happens only when the slave has some freedom above absolute wretchedness, with sufficient cognitive surplus to turn learning from labor into political leverage.

In all such examples, the mechanism is the same. A seemingly powerless and dumb agent, by virtue of having privileged access to information and organizational operations, can become the principal by converting growing tacit knowledge of reality into consciously exercised political leverage.

The idea sheds light on why we are instinctively concerned about the Trump administration-in-waiting. While it is plausible, indeed probable, that Trump’s own ideological postures are merely expedient responses to the needs of the moment, the same cannot be said of many of his agents-in-waiting, whether acknowledged or not. They are tools at the moment, being shaped to the will of a victor. Unfortunately, they can easily go from being shaped to doing the shaping.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. How very boring, Venkat, jumping on the “Trump’s win is oh so scaaaary” bandwagon. ;-)

    With a bit of a pivot, we can take all the ideas you present here and explain why Trump is necessary at the moment: the tools of globalism, equality, security, free trade and the other things we care about have taken over from the principals (and the principles).

    Many citizens voted for some creative destruction to see if such a shake-up could disrupt the structure enough to re-empower the mission over the means.

    All acts of creative destruction can go wrong (and will to some extent), and will likely require other new ones at a future date to correct the negative ossification and dysfunction that arises from the first change.

    You of all people should be on board with that! ;-)

    • Nope, I think the “chaos theory of trump” of evolution by shakeup is basically complete bullshit. I tweetstormed my reasons for it a few months ago here. If good things happen, it will be despite his presence. If bad things don’t happen, it will because the right people resisted at the right time.

      If I am wrong in being seriously alarmed by Trump and his peers around the world, then at worst I look foolish in a few years. If I am right, I’ll help preserve the good things continuing and containing the bad things looming. I’ll take that bet any day. I’ve seen this “chaos shakeup” hand-wavy argument go wrong about 10 times more often than it works. It’s pure rationalization by people who can afford to not take the developments seriously because they are personally not particularly vulnerable to the downside.

      The pivot to a critique of globalization doesn’t work. Those tools have acquired a life of their own, sure. But they have helped vastly more people than they have hurt, and raised quality of life, standard of living, dignity etc. way more around the world than they have hurt old economy types. Those who’ve seen the downside do have a case for doing what they’re doing (though not a particularly legitimate one), but they are definitely the minority, not the majority.

      • Let me clarify this. Our choice isn’t between Trump and returning to triumphant globalism, where we all dance in the fields holding hands and singing Kumbaya.

        It is between Trump and something much worse. From a system stability point of view, it is actually best if “the new nationalism” is only modestly effective and just balances things a bit away from the current state of affairs, enough so that things don’t snap and go nuclear (metaphorically or literally).

        There are three reasons why continuing with the current globalism path without any correction is dangerous.

        First, as per the “tools change you” theme of this post, whatever good has come from globalization for, say, many people in India or China, the global elites across the political spectrum have pocketed WAY more benefits by hijacking the very tools of that globalization. The obviousness of this threatens the very democratic and international institutions that enable the system to function.

        Second, an unfortunate downside of globalist expansion and improvement has been the radical increase in the ecological problems (climate change, deforestation, devastated oceans, etc.) that threaten long term properity and stability. This is a hard problem that doesn’t get tackled because the side that screams the most about it is in denial that their own globalist project is the biggest cause.

        Thirdly, the attitude of “screw the losers, lots of people elsewhere have won”, to paraphrase your sentiment crudely for effect, is exactly how we got the rise of Islamic Jihadism. People who feel they have nothing more to lose REALLY want to smash the system. In democratic societies, if enough people are the “losers”, you need to do something about it, or you end up with bigger problems.

        It is good to back up a bit and examine how things are not working, and tackle some hard problems that have been swept under the rug.

        I sincerely believe that we didn’t get the next Hitler and World War 3 this time, but if we don’t take advantage of the current trend to allow adjustments to happen, I think there is a good chance that next time we will.

      • > It’s pure rationalization by people who can afford to not take the developments seriously because they are personally not particularly vulnerable to the downside.

        Amen a million times. The people gleefully laughing about “I want to watch the world burn” are nicely ensconced in a safe bubble.

  2. OK, So if I get what your saying, the Clinton campaign and foundation took money from interested parties. Those persons were treated as tools to finance the election bid. When the financial favors are called in, the access and influence make the Clinton team tools of those donors.
    Now it is cleared up for me, thanks.
    Sure, same could be said for Trump. Check out how much each party spent on the election. Maybe fodder for a future post?

    • People who support through money demand payback in the form of economic enablement. People who support through fighting meme wars and ground-level radicalization… they tend to demand payback in different ways.

      The devil lives in the details — the medium. Deals with different kinds of devils have different kinds of consequences.

  3. Gene Linetsky says

    Tools huh

  4. If you lie your way into office, the lies do take on a life of their own. Conversely, if you get into office by outlining a genuine clear vision, you have buy-in, something Obama had very little of because he (not atypically), in the campaign (though he may have done it in his books), didn’t articulate what people voted for when they voted for him “hope and change” was nothing to organize around except very briefly to promote one goal: election, and it was pitifully easy to ridicule. He didn’t offer broad concepts for activist groups to organize around, and it was trivial for the right to twist and demonize what he was up to.
    There is a clear tendency for a party to be about what it says it is about, because the words do have a life of their own. This is why prevalent fantasies of totalitarian being put in place by secret conspiracies are mostly nonsense (except when public thinking has been so atomized that it cannot push back). It is also why hypocrisy, hated by overly logical people, can be a good thing; it is part of the reason why, I believe, the oligarchic tyranny that was the late USSR was taken aback when somebody started trying to implement the central essence of Communist principles, that it was about providing a good life for the people. But it didn’t last, and Fukuyama’s version of the Iron law of oligarchy prevailed.

  5. Vincent Tallepied says

    Marx came first with this idea : base and superstructure. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Base_and_superstructure.
    This could be McLuhan, Culkin and Chandler’s generalized form.

  6. How is this qualitatively different from SCOT v TD arguments?

    SCOT = Social Construction of Technology
    TD = Technological Determinism

    • There isn’t much difference in one sense, as these are pretty well established ideas, tied to both sides of that argument. If there is a difference, it’s in arguing that those two processes operate not just as mutually determining feedback loops, but tend to shift in emphasis and relationship over time; sometimes, explicit design and experimentation has more primacy, (usually when someone is doing something “stupid”, times are relaxed, or they have a lot of capital backing them up to smooth over the transitions) and other times, it’s all about the technical unconscious (when schedules and immediate pressures preclude reflection, when sunk costs in existing processes or difficulty untangling optimisations tie people to attempting to preserve them, or when someone unimaginative is at the helm when possibilities for significant transitions arise).

      In the latter case, you have structuralist concerns at the fore, the internal “necessity” of the system, social or physical. Technological Determinism has some primacy there, in the sense that behaviour is dominated by the immediacy of practical concerns, but as the definition of those is social, you can sort of read it either way. (See the concept of the Practice Lense) In the former, the model is more like mutual excitation, where people get ideas from a domain that probably does not apply, try things out and make mistakes. This can be driven by obsession, by ideas moving virus-like to infect other domains, by people under stress rejecting the demands made of them by their roles, or the social constraints put on their use of the tools available to them, or just by random people having enough free time and spare mental energy to come up and implement with new technical or social ideas without having to be concerned with the effect on the existing system.

      I’ve always felt that far stronger than it’s connection to any other form of politics, this blog has a dog in the fight on the side of conscious dreaming vs unconscious daily work. You analyse the unconscious loops of technological and social processes as if they were alien, and break open some new connections.

      That relates to my broader thoughts on the election:

      My explanation of Trump is personally that everyone was always talking vaguely about how Clinton was “much worse” than Trump, but without specifically naming their fear. A part of that is probably years of political innuendo, but it seems to me that was tied onto a more fundamental concern, that this was a person willing to engage with a future they did not recognise, without giving them any Obama-esque comfort blanket of change being associated with hope.

      Trump was voted in so that people could miss their train stop, a non-innovation president when creative-destruction was becoming particularly concerning. His primary message was that he would turn back the clock, send people away, break existing connections and bring back old industries. So I expect Trump to continue to sail through all kinds of potential historical turning points without noticing, fudging things and protecting existing interests where a more insightful president would have instead exhorted the people to be brave when they didn’t particularly want to be.

      It’s also possible that we could have some constructive stupidity, where his love of grand gestures meets some unusual but useful technology, and his scattergun ability to direct news sends the media attention to something useful, but most likely, we’ll see a variant of the bush years happening in the background with a little more corruption, while Trump gets stuck into petty minutiae of random supply chain renegotiations and geopolitical gestures, in the mold of a a sporadically interventionist 18th century king.

  7. > All media have at least weak, latent, distributed intelligence.

    Love this meta insight, thanks. I was latently aware of it, but having it called out gives it a name and grounds it, so to speak.

  8. Reminds me of tools-to-theories heuristic synthesized by Gerd Gigerenzer http://library.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/ft/gg/GG_From_Tools_1991.pdf