CT551--Week 6--Lecture notes



Where Does Technology Come From?


In Volti's Ch. 3, Sources of Technological Change, his topic is where new inventions, techniques, and technologies come from. The short answer is, "not just scientists." There are complex interrelations between various sectors of society. People--meaning the market, politics, even religion--make choices, and this is especially important when alternatives exist. People also drive the evolution of a technology by refinements and improvements (demand-pull). Engineers can and do play a part. Inventors (scientists, engineers, others) provide the revolutionary breakthroughs which create whole new categories of demand (and the breakthrough may not look terribly significant; the transistor made personal computers possible, but games like "Pong" made people take the first ones home).

As we noted last week, context is also important. An invention such as hybrid corn can fail in the market largely because those who defined "improvement" and "feasibility" ignored what people would do with the product (tortillas). Babbage's VERY early computer failed because given the technology of the time, his device would work but would be too expensive (labor) and too finicky (too demanding of manufacturing precision) to be more than a one-off concept demo. It took electronics to make the vision real. Technological change thus hung fire for over a century and then in a sense "came from" the appearance of an enabling technology rather than from any single person.

Volti notes that cross-fertilization is common.

He also notes the idea of "effective demand" for a technology, a function of need and desire (which are not the same thing) and ability to pay for the technology. I love Volti's account of why photography succeeded--a growing middle class wanted an "upper class" image, which called for portraits on the walls, and photography was cheaper than painters. Need was hardly there, but desire was, and the technology was affordable.

Are there other areas of technology where "effective demand" is important? For instance, as long as whole-body cloning remains very expensive--never mind that some people find it scary--we need not worry about it replacing the normal mode of reproduction. It seems doubtful that there will be any real "need," even if there is a desire. But how about heart transplants? Cloning is not involved, just removing viable organs from the newly dead and matching them to the tissue types of potential recipients. Technology is certainly involved, from the drugs that suppress the immune system so the organ is not rejected to the apparatus used for shipping the organs. It's expensive, too. Is there desire? Need? Can we afford it? These are genuine questions, and they can have real effects on public policy. Consider how the Jehovah's Witnesses have thought of heart transplants. Desire and need have conflicted in the past, but desire has changed. Why? Do you think attitudes will change in similar fashion in regard to other new technologies, such as genetic engineering?

Genetic engineering is another interesting example. Applied to food crops, there may be a real need--it holds immense potential to increase yields and decrease the use of toxic chemicals (pesticides). It is very economical. But currently it faces political obstacles driven by fear (in Europe, the "Mad Cow Disease" or BSE experience has left many very anxious about the application of technology to agriculture--though "Mad Cow" involved very conventional, traditional technology, the use of slaughterhouse waste products in animal feed; it had nothing to do with genetic engineering). Here, desire is the problem.

For a brief history of BSE, click here. For a depressingly huge array of source material, click here.

Volti's remarks on planned vs. unplanned economies are also worth noting. Note how this connects to the problems highlighted by the Hindsight study and its kin (see below). Progress cannot be planned.


In Volti, Ch. 4, Scientific Knowledge and Technological Advance, let us begin by asking whether science and technology are 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.

Need, desire, and affordability appear again when we look at the arguments over open-access publishing (Taking Sides Issue #20). Traditional academic publishers put a great deal of effort (and money) into running their journal-publishing operations. This includes getting submissions peer-reviewed for quality, paying editors, and of course printing and distributing the final package. The result is very expensive journal subscriptions, to the point where many college and university simply cannot afford them. This of course interferes with the "communication" component of the science-technology common culture.

One answer that has been proposed--and is increasingly being put into practice--is open-access publishing, defined as putting peer-reviewed research articles online, free of charge, and without most copyright and licensing restrictions. It can be done instead of standard publishing, in parallel with it, or after a period of time (often 6 months to a year). The result is enhanced access by the public (as well as other academics) and a boost to academic communications. Note that open-access publishing is very much a product of changes in technology (meaning the Internet!).

But the traditional academic publishers object on the grounds that it cuts into their income and thus their ability to survive. Should they be looking more closely at the technology that enables open-access technology and trying to use it instead of objecting? This is a question that can be asked in the context of Google Books (scanning library holdings to make everything available online), recorded music and video (the RIAA and MPAA are infamous for suing illegal file-sharers), and more. It boils down to asking whether any business has a right to continue its operations as it is accustomed to doing? Certainly many businesses would love to shut down innovative competitors (one method is to buy them out), but it doesn't usually work, at least not for long.


Questions for Discussion

1. The idea of "effective demand" -- need, desire, and ability to afford -- as an essential prerequisite for the development of a technology (or an application of a technology, a product) is intriguing. Apply the concept to the development of the iPod. (Click here for a history.) Was there a real need to meet? A real desire? Is "afford" an issue?

2. In what sense are science and technology subversive?

3. In what ways is the "common culture" shared by science and technology also shared by the institution of education?