SC210--Week 1--Lecture notes

The Nature of Technology

Many people understand "technology" as the latest and greatest--computers, biotechnology, nanotechnology, space technology. They even think of old technology such as steam engines and water wheels as not really "technology." Volti is more inclusive. Technology, he says, is anything that helps us do things we could not otherwise do, or lets us do them cheaper, faster, easier. It covers computers and steam engines, hammers and axes, even fire and sharpened sticks and chipped stones. Some of it is old tech, some is new tech, and some is cutting-edge or even bleeding-edge tech. But it's all technology.

Does this definition refer only to tangible things? What else might it cover? What else "helps us do things we could not otherwise do, or lets us do them cheaper, faster, easier"?

Why do we pursue technology? Is necessity the mother of invention? Or laziness? Or challenge?

Note Volti's discussion of technology as a rational thing. In science and technology, truth is defined by demonstration. Skepticism is essential, and this principle sets these fields against all "received" wisdom or authority. Truth cannot be defined by fiat. Nor can it be defined by wish. That is, science and technology both deal with the world as it is, not the world as we would like it to be.

What is technology? Volti's definition emphasizes tools, techniques, organizations, systems that use "knowledge and organization to produce objects and techniques for the attainment of specific goals." Note that "techniques" can be both intangible and extraordinarily useful. Think of critical thinking and the scientific method, among others.

It is also worth considering the "specific goals" component of the definition in light of "the law of the hammer" (give a six-year-old a hammer, and everything looks like a nail). That is, technology can be over-applied.

And do goals really have that much to do with why we develop technologies? Or do we sometimes develop technology just because we think we can--it's a challenge, like climbing mountains. I have a feeling that even though the Segway scooter may be very useful, its development owed a lot to this challenge factor. In Ch. 3, Volti notes that even the most practical of inventions may be in its origin more closely connected to play than to 'productive' work.

Progress is another important component of technological development, which Volti assures us is an "inherently dynamic and cumulative process." Many question whether technological progress has kept in step with social progress, but they seem to ignore that social matters have progressed greatly in the spread of democracy and human rights and the change in the nature of religion, much over precisely the same period when technology has advanced so rapidly.

Science and technology can result in "disenchantment." People object to being told that cherished beliefs have no foundation in fact and that ghosts, fairies, and the like do not really exist. Is this relevant to the relationship of technology and society? Consider society's reaction to ideas such as evolution, genetic engineering, and cloning. Is the key element of sci-tech controversy religion? Tradition? Fear?

Technology is rational, and rationality, says Volti, can lead to "major moral and ethical transgressions." Is he right? A common example is the Nazi use of technology to solve the "Jewish problem." Given the problem, was there a less evil way to use technology? Did the transgression lie in the technology or in the idea that there was a problem? Do we, perhaps, have to find some way to be rational about human values?

The paper due next week requires that you read the introduction to the Taking Sides book, in which you will find a clue to how to show a red-green colorblind person that there is an actual, demonstrable difference between red and green.  The assignment has much to do with the idea that in science and technology truth is defined by demonstration.  Demonstration, of course, is at the heart of the scientific method--not just in the form of experimentation, but also in the crucial role in that method of communication (which helps others check one's work).

Questions for Discussion

1. What do you think of as "technology"?

2. Rationality, says Volti, can lead to "major moral and ethical transgressions," with a primary example being the Nazi use of technology to solve the "Jewish problem." Yet one can argue that the basic problem lay not in rationality but in the Nazi value system. How might one be "rational" about human values?

3. "How do we know what we know?" is an important philosophical question. Past answers have included "by senses and reason" and "by direct apprehension" (intuition, revelation). Two modern answers are "by Googling it" and "by Wiki-ing it." What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

4. Is "Check it out" a reasonable summation of the scientific aproach? In what ways?