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.

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.

Volti 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.

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 "stealth patent."

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.)

3.  Which elements of the "common culture" of science and technology make science and technology subversive?