SC210--Week 3--Lecture notes
Volti, Ch. 4, Scientific Knowledge and Technological Advance
Are science and technology different things? We tend to link the two in our minds, but technology (know how) existed before science (know what, know why). Think of Kepler and the beer kegs. Trial and error works. In addition, technology can pose problems for scientists to try to understand; it can also produce techniques and tools scientists can use in the search for understanding (telescopes, microscopes, etc.).
So what advantage do we gain from the scientific approach?
Science differs from technology in that science is aimed at discovering knowledge for its own sake; technology is aimed at using knowledge. Science asks, "Is it true?" Technology asks, "Will it work?" There is some crossover, and the two do feed each other.
Science says the world is knowable; technology says it will always be possible to do something better. Science converges on a single understanding, while technology finds many possible solutions to a single problem.
The two are alike (they share a "common culture") in that they both:
A very interesting question is why studies such as the Hindsight Study (pp. 59-61) find so little link between science and technology. What do you think? Is there no link at all? Or does the short time-horizon Volti notes explain it? Click here to see a bit about where Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) came from (the Beyond Discovery parent site here is a treasure trove of information on the roots of many other technologies). The technology is not old, but its roots go back a century! The shift from research to application often happens years later and in a different place, which annoys funding sources that want to see results here and now.
- Are based on the gathering of knowledge
- Advance through cumulative development
- Share a rational orientation and hence a propensity to challenge traditional intellectual authorities
- Are dedicated to communication of organized knowledge
- Are imbued by a sense of optimism and progress
Volti, Ch. 5, The Diffusion of Technology
Technology does not
develop in isolation, says Volti in Ch. 5. It profits from, and even requires,
cross-fertilization, the blending of separate traditions. This is well
demonstrated by what happened when travelers brought China's technologies to
Europe. Gunpowder, used for signal rockets and fireworks, quickly enabled cannon
and muskets. The compass, paper, printing, the stirrup, and much more quickly
found new uses, but Europe did not simply take what it received. It extended it,
and much of the secret of European success in dominating the world may lie in
its historic willingness to borrow and extend the ideas of others. Some other
nations, such as China (which in the fifteenth century
destroyed a fleet
of ships sent out to explore the world, perhaps for fear of new ideas), were
less welcoming of new ideas.
The United States has inherited the
European attitude and pursued it with enthusiasm. The nation's growth has
depended on the arrival of millions of immigrants, many of whom have brought
knowledge with them. The story of Samuel Slater, who learned about textile mills
in England and brought that knowledge to Rhode Island, is but one example. From
railroads to the space age (the American space program was built by Nazi
Germany's rocket engineers after World War II), the story is the same. And we
have not been above outright copying, as when canal builders ordered drawings
and samples of wheelbarrows from England to copy and--of course!--improve.
We criticize other countries, such as Japan, for doing the same thing with
respect to our own inventions. But by looking at how things have developed in
Japan, scholars have been able to identify a pattern:
This pattern seems to be essential, for you cannot even copy a technology unless
you have workers with appropriate skills, industrial capacity, and a knowledge
base. If you have those, copying can then push the skills and industry further,
to the point where refinement and adaptation become possible. One result of this
pattern is that technology rapidly becomes "appropriate" technology, in that it
is suited to local needs, materials, and conditions. Simply transplanting
technology as is (as in building highways in countries without cars, which
American foreign aid has done!) does not have the same result.
- First, borrow and/or imitate the item or technology.
- Second, refine or adapt the item or technology to local needs (as, in
the US, in adding pilot wheels to locomotives to keep them on the tracks
when the tracks must curve more sharply than in Europe).
- Third, use the knowledge and skills gained in the earlier steps to
invent new items and technologies.
notes that developed countries (such as the US) tend to have technologies
tailored to save on labor rather than capital. Developing countries tend to have
much more labor available than capital, and that labor has little education or
technical skill. Their technologies rely on labor. A good example is China's
approach in the 1950s to building dams. Where the US would have used bulldozers
and trucks, China deployed a horde of peasant workers with baskets and shovels.
The method wasn't as fast, but it worked.
The tendency of aid agencies
is to ignore this difference and to give modern technology. The developing
nation's leaders and elite love this, for it helps to build a nice shiny modern
image, but since the nation lacks the skills to maintain or extend the
technology, it tends to degrade rapidly. Not surprisingly, some aid workers and
client nations have looked for technologies that do not depend on slowly
building infrastructure and capability. One such is information technology,
which depends mostly on individual knowledge, gained by going to school in
America or Europe, or even from easily available books. Hardware can be bought.
Programs can be written locally, and this is one of the facts that has driven
the rise of outsourcing that has cost the US many jobs, especially in
information technology areas.
Businesses adopt new technologies in many
of the same ways as nations. Among the factors that affect adoption are:
Nations may add the potential for education to enable shortcutting, as with
information technology. Examples could be developed with agriculture (a farmer
or nation choosing to plant new crop varieties, perhaps even genetically
engineered ones), a company shifting from Windows to Linux or from Explorer to
Firefox, a business adopting e-commerce, or a school offering courses on-line.
- A technology's relative advantage over existing technology.
- Its compatibility with existing values.
- The ease with which it can be understood and used.
- The extent of the expected gain or positive results.
Do efforts to restrict the spread of technology work? China was able to
keep new ideas out for centuries, but eventually Europeans were able to
introduce their ideas. Japan actually accepted Portuguese gun (matchlock)
knowledge and improved on it, but chose to repress the knowledge because it gave
too much power in war to peasants. In due time, that policy also failed. The US
tried to keep the knowledge of the nuclear bomb to itself, but even though the
Soviets had some help from spies, it has been noted with reason that once they
knew such bombs were possible, it was only a matter of time before they made one
(they had the necessary scientific and technical skills).
In the US, the
patent system was originally developed to promote innovation by requiring that
inventors reveal the details of their inventions. They were rewarded with a
temporary monopoly on use of the invention, but once the monopoly period
expired, the knowledge was to be available to all. As with copyrights, the
period of patent protection has grown. Is it a stimulus to technological advance
or a hindrance? People have argued both ways, but one thing is clear: it can be
used as a hindrance. Consider the
Questions for Discussion
1. In what other segments of our society can we see the "common culture" shared by science and technology? Government? Religion? Education?
2. Can the "copying pattern" described by Volti be applied in
education? (Think of teaching art, or laboratory science.)
Which elements of the "common culture" of science and technology make science
and technology subversive?