Last December, a discussion regarding the differences between tools, technologies, and infrastructures took place on WPA-L, a listserv for writing program administration. Late in the conversation, I offered the following as a first stab at the issue after someone suggested that the term “technology” was introduced in the 20th Century. I’m posting my response here, slightly edited, as a placeholder to return to at some point.

While I understand the desire to tease out the differences between technology, tool, and infrastructure, I don’t believe there is a simple way to do so. Technologies can be tools and tools can be technologies. A glance at the OED, as Rich Haswell suggested, is instructive here. First, we learn that the OED lists its first known usage of the word technology back to 1612 in the context of a discourse or treatise on an art or arts. Second, if we just limit ourselves to entries 4a-c, we learn that technology can encompass a body of knowledge; the application of that knowledge; a process, method, or technique; and specific objects such as a machine or a piece of equipment. The definitions, along with their earliest recorded usages, are:

4.a.: The branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences; the study of this. (1787)

4.b.: The application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively. (1829)

4.c.: The product of such application; technological knowledge or know-how; a technological process, method, or technique. Also: machinery, equipment, etc., developed from the practical application of scientific and technical knowledge; an example of this. (1898)

While literacy is a technology, pens and paper can also be technologies. Writing and rhetoric, too.

So, what is a tool? The OED lists 4 major definitions with a total of 11 distinct meanings. We can, I think, be selective and just look at definitions 1.a and 2.a:

1.a: a mechanical implement for working upon something, as by cutting, striking, rubbing, or other process, in any manual art or industry; usually, one held in and operated directly by the hand (or fixed in position, as in a lathe), but also including certain simple machines, as the lathe; sometimes extended to simple instruments of other kinds (c.888)

2. a: Anything used in the manner of a tool; a thing (concrete or abstract) with which some operation is performed; a means of effecting something; an instrument. (c.1000)

A tool, then, can be something – physical or abstract – which we use to perform an action to make something happen. A pen can be a tool, and so can language. Literacy and writing, too.

Does this mean everything is a technology? No. Our naturally occurring vocal cords are not technologies; however, as we use them to perform actions to make something happen, we could call them tools. That said, I’d invoke Marshall McLuhan here and limit tools to extensions or products of our physical and mental faculties. So, while an idea – the product of our thinking – could be a tool, our vocal cords are not.

For infrastructure, the OED gives us “A collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure, foundation.” As such, infrastructures are made up of technologies and tools as well as other things. For instance, the infrastructure of literacy within a particular context would include one or more languages and scripts as well as the writing materials used in that culture, all of which are both technologies and tools. The infrastructure of literacy would also include the means by which it is learned and taught, as well as the social, political, cultural, and economic forces that support, promote, and reward literacy within its particular context.

Therefore, we can’t say categorically that a pen is a tool and writing is a technology. They’re both. The distinction between technology and tool isn’t determined by what something is but by how it’s being considered and discussed. We think of something as a tool when we consider an object (physical or abstract) as an instrument by which we may effect change. We think of something as a technology when we consider the object as the application of mechanical arts and applied science to make things (including processes – processes are things) and when we think of something as the product of the application of mechanical arts and applied sciences.