In the debate over the plusses and minuses of social media, it is common to hear a point that changes the terms completely. I’ve witnessed it in forums dozens of times: “We have to remember that these are just tools. It all depends on how you use them.”

Facebook, texting, Instagram, and the rest are neutral, the argument goes, and people can wield them for good purposes and for bad purposes. To speak of the tools themselves as inherently positive or negative is to miss their varied potential, to ignore the role of users.

A corollary to that move is to say that criticism applied to digital tools can just as easily be applied to pre-digital tools. For instance, if we complain about students texting in class, we should remember that in the old days they did the same thing, passing notes by hand while the teacher turned her back. Why blame the tools for enabling something people have always done? It’s the motivation that matters, not the means.

An overt example of this argument took place last week in the Wall Street Journal in a review of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, an examination by linguist Naomi Baron of how reading on a screen differs from reading a print book. Here is the relevant paragraph from the review:

Least convincingly, Ms. Baron proposes that ‘digital devices inherently provoke distraction’ because you can do other things on them. But a digital device, properly used, is no more inherently distracting than a place where you are reading a physical book but could also do something else—say, a living room, a train carriage or a beach. It is possibly less distracting than some of those.

Take note of that qualifier “properly used.” It serves the purpose of equalizing screen reading and book reading. The reviewer ignores the inherent difference between the tools themselves. He refers to different settings in which reading takes place and thereby skirts the real issue, namely, the differences that obtain in each experience in the same setting.

To be sure, when you’re in a living room, a friend can interrupt you whether you’re reading online or reading a newspaper, but in the former case distractions can also originate in the reading tool itself. The screen you hold in your hand can become other things: a movie, a game, a phone call. The newspaper is only the newspaper.

Differences in the tools make experiences with each one distinct. Screens and books have different potentials, and when you use them for one thing you are aware of other uses—or the lack of other uses. If we were robots who could complete only one operation at a time, there wouldn’t be a difference between reading from a screen or a book. But we happen to be human, so tools are not benign.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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