CT551--Week 1--Lecture notes


The Nature of Technology

There are a great many ways to define technology, and we will see several before we are done. But first, consider its image.

Think "Home Improvement"--guy stuff, rude, crude, noisy, fast, messy, hazardous, uncivilized, difficult to understand.

Is there any justice to this? Does it have anything to do with why many people are so distrustful of "technology"? Or is it more a matter of unintended consequences (e.g., global warming) and unexpected disasters (e.g., Chernobyl, Katrina flooding, etc.)?

And is the image--either way--a fair one? What IS technology?

Do we get a better handle on "technology" if we try to imagine it as the latest and greatest--computers, biotechnology, nanotechnology, space technology? Many people do in fact have a tendency to define the term in such a way, as if a steam engine or a water wheel were not real "technology." "Sure," some folks say. "They used to be technology, but not any more." 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? Volti notes that the classic definition emphasizes the "Mechanical Arts," but 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? Is there hubris in the notion that we CAN do things better than our predecessors did, or that we can control the landscape with roads and dams and ward off nature's fury with levees?

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. (Though they may help us bring the world more in line with our wishes; wishing won't give us a hot shower, but a water heater will.)


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; are computers really applicable to every educational problem, useful for every subject in the curriculum? In June 2005, Maclean's ran an article on how computers may actually be "dumbing down" kids in school. In various forms, the idea continues to percolate through the educational community. What is your experience?

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, it's development owed a lot to this challenge factor. In Ch. 3, Volti notes that even the most practical of inventions may have an origin that seems more closely connected to play than to "productive" work. Call technology a toy, then, and we're back to guy stuff.

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." If you grant that the problem was real, 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?


Weinberg's essay ("Can Technology Replace Social Engineering?") resonates nicely here. Weinberg is discussing applying technological fixes to social problems, which, he says, are more complex than are technological problems. Unless one removes the social causes of such problems, technological fixes are bound to fail. At best, they can be no more than temporary stop-gaps. At worst, they make things worse. Note that he does not seem to think of banning a technology as a "technological fix," but surely that must fit the notion too.

Is temporary stop-gap perhaps enough? Can a technological fix buy time while we seek and develop a more fundamental solution? Perhaps, but we have an unfortunate tendency to stop seeking once we've found the technological solution, and then to get upset when the problem returns to haunt us.

For a recent-history example, consider the events of September 11, 2001. After the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center towers and damaged the Pentagon, the immediate reaction was to blame technology and to seek technological fixes.

What technology was to blame? The airliners? They were certainly tools. The Internet? Well, email did help the terrorists communicate, though they had other ways as well.

What fixes? Increased surveillance of Internet and telephone traffic, increased airport security measures, increased police powers, decreased personal freedoms, face scanners, better luggage scanners, ...

It's hard to say it's worked. Think it ever will? Well, the underlying social problems are still there. They have a lot to do with global inequities and the perceived intrusiveness of wealthy cultures such as our own. If such problems remain, there will be more attacks.

In this connection, it is worth discussing global warming. It is due to the enormous release of carbon dioxide by human activities, including land-clearing for agriculture, the burning of coal, oil, and gas for electricity generation, and the use of petroleum for home heating and transportation. The fixes we are looking at include shifting energy production to such alternatives as wind and sun, making cars more efficient, and making cars that run on electricity. Is there a corresponding social fix? Some people do argue that reducing human use of energy--conservation--can also help. Some people argue that the root problem is really the sheer number of people on Earth, or the number that want an energy-intensive (high) standard of living. Social fixes might involve encouraging people to move closer to work, use more mass transit, go to bed earlier, use canned goods instead of frozen, and have fewer (if any) children. Why aren't we relying on such approaches instead?


Edgerton's "The Shock of the Old" returns us to the idea that older technologies remain "technologies" and may on a global scale have considerable importance. Invention (new ideas) and innovation (new uses) get most of the attention, but older ideas and uses continue and may even--as the B-52 did at the dawn of the space age--play crucial roles in developing the new.

Focusing on technologies-in-use leads to a very different view of technology than focusing on invention and innovation. What technologies are most important? Newest? Most expensive? Most used? Most beneficial to the greatest numbers of people? Perhaps steam engines and corrugated iron are actually more significant than computers.

Volti gives us two definitions of technology: It is anything that helps us do things we could not otherwise do, or lets us do them cheaper, faster, easier, and it is the use of knowledge and organization to produce objects and techniques for the attainment of specific goals. Both definitions are, in Edgerton's sense, "use-centered."


Question for Discussion

1. "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?

2. What is your favorite old technology? Is it widely used, locally or globally? Why is it still in use, when newer and presumably better technologies are available?

3. Is there hubris in the notion that we can do things better than our predecessors did?