technology

On Technology

This text started with the title “Technological meditations”. The text is not so much written to be a result as it is written as a stimuli for a process where my goal was to get a deeper understanding of the technological phenomenon.


Technology plays an important role in how we perceive ourselves as human beings,
how we perceive nature and how we organise our lives. Technology is an integrated
part in most areas of our lives, and several disciplines are interested in technology, but
on different levels. Engineering, science, economics and many more disciplines are
working with and trying to understand technology. How a bridge could be improved,
a new natural phenomenon could be harnessed or how we can diffuse new software
more often to larger audiences are interesting questions, but not for our investigation.
This paper will look at technology from a philosophical perspective, first by trying to
define the nature of technology itself and then by viewing different ways in which
technology, and its close relation to science, is influencing society.

We are living in technological times, and technology is dominating an ever-increasing
number of areas of human existence. Medical technology has prolonged our life
expectancy. Transportation technology, such as trains, road systems of highways and
aeroplanes have increased the distance of how far we can travel and shortened the
time we use on these. More global trading ensures that we can get raw material,
products and services from all over the world, and with computer technology we can
communicate with people on the other side of the planet in real time according to the
narrative of progress (Ihde 1993, 60-61).

On the other hand, humanity today poses several threats to the planet and also to our
existence. Some of these are results of technological exploitation of the planet’s
natural resources. The use of non-renewable energy sources such as oil, gas and coal
have increased the emission of carbon dioxide and there is an agreement that this has
caused or speed up the greenhouse effect. This environmental problem is what
philosopher of science Don Ihde categorises as the Big Problem: this refers to the
effect on the earth as being an inhabited globe, and also including large industrial
accidents such as Chernobyl, the Valdez oil spill and the ongoing problem in
Fukushima (Ihde 1993, 87-88).

Not all issues raised by technology have an environmental aspect however; other
problems also arise from the introduction of new technology. An example is the
increasing number of communication technology devices and aggregation of digital
traces. Surveillance technology has been made possible to a much larger extent than
earlier. The European Union is now tracking traffic generated by individuals in the
digital sphere, but also commercial agents are using the new technology to track their
customers and employees. This raises questions as to how technology should be used,
and where ethical and moral limits should be set.

The idea for this article while reading Evgeny Morozov’s book The Net Delusion. In
this book, Morozov points out the limitations of the Internet in promoting democracy.
What he calls a delusion is the expectations placed in information technology to solve
big problems. He quotes several members of the American public sphere, including
Wall Street Journal’s Yochi Dreazen, National Public Radio’s Daniell Schorr and
Nicholas Kristof from New York Times, all of whom are pointing to social media as
the main instigators or the Middle East uprisings (Morozov 2011, 2). This zeitgeist he
diagnoses as what he coins “cyber-utopianism” and “Internet centrism” (Morozov

2011, xvii). The issue, which Morozov introduces, is a persistent belief in the
superiority of information technology and its technological fixes; that technology has
some built-in values, which will automatically foster freedom, wealth and democracy.

Morozov argues for a more realistic view on information technology, one that rather
focuses on the dilemmas information technology create rather than on the built-in
solutions. He does not deny that social media such as Twitter, Facebook or various
blogs can contribute to free speech, more social engagement and, ultimately,
democratic government, but he identifies and asks questions about an established
axiom where this is the inevitable result of technological progress rather than an
hypothesis among others. He asks the reader, and the Western media and politicians,
to look behind the technology and to see that there are also other factors relevant for
promoting democracy; social media is just one element among many. He ridicules
what he considers to be the mainstream perception with an old ontological quote: “If a
tree falls in the forest and everyone tweets about it, it may not be the tweets that
moved it” (Morozov 2011, 16).

I want to take advantage of this topic, but to broaden its scope, as I see its academic
and philosophical undertones. I want to have a closer look at some ideas of
technology, its limitations and its effect on the society. In order to do this I will
start by looking on different definition of technology.

What is technology?

First I want to discuss the concept of technology. This is not an easy task as the
concept has many areas which can be excluded or included depending on which
definition we choose to use. Definitions are not neutral, and in the search for an
understanding of technology what we consider to be technological implicates what we
consider to be technology, how it comes about and our critique of it.

To decide what should be counted for as a technology leaves us in a similar
predicament as Karl Popper experienced as he tried to demarcate what should be
regarded as a science and what should not. That physics is to be considered as a
science and an aeroplane a piece of technology is not a controversial statement; but
what about social administration, or computational algorithms? Should they count as
technologies as well? Let us start by looking to the lexical and etymological
understanding of the word.

A search in the Cambridge dictionary on technology gives us the following definition:
“(the study and knowledge of) the practical, especially industrial, use of scientific
discoveries” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2011). A search in Oxford dictionaries
gives us a similar result: “the application of scientific knowledge for practical
purposes, especially in industry.” (Oxford Dictionaries 2011)

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger gives an etymological account of the
word technology and some of its early philosophical use in his essay The Question
Concerning Technology. He writes that the word technology stems from Greek and
means something that belongs to techne; Technikon. He also points out two things
worth observing with this word: that it is not only describing the activities or skills of
the craftsman, but also that of the mind and the fine arts. It belongs to bringing-forth; to poisis. This is a broader sense of the word technology than it being an application
of scientific knowledge.

These two different understandings leave us with a leap of definition. I want to
understand the lexical definition as a view on modern technology. This is a definition
we will spend some time trying to understand; we can also see that there is a link
between science and technology in this definition. So probably more correct usage for
the contemporary associations connected to technology would be to use “high
technology”, or “high-tech” for short. This, as we can see, varies from Heidegger’s
etymological understanding of the word, which has a broader notion.

It is important that we keep a distinction here between what I would like to coin as
micro and macro technology. The micro technology is, for example, a pen, a
computer or an algorithm. Macro technology, on the other hand, is the totality of all
technology. When we speak about a technological artefact, we are within the field of
micro technology. On the other hand, when we speak about technology as an ideology
and a way of observing the world, I will understand this as macro technology. We
will return to the totality of technology later. Let us first have a closer look at the
individual technological objects.

Technology must fulfill a human purpose; it is an assemblage of practices and
components. It is often used to refer to the entire collection of devices and practices,
which are available to culture (Arthur 2009, 28)

How do we understand technology?

A philosophical theory asserts that we first see technology when it breaks down. This
concept leads us to Heidegger: a hammer is often used to illustrate this concept of
breakdown. I prefer, however, to present the computer example presented by
Winograd and Florence as well as Ihde. When one is using a computer to write an
essay, for example, the underlying structure is not visible. The text document
emulates a paper with standardised paper format and font set, but if the program
crashes the abstracted structure will be revealed to the user. In other words, it will be
brought to our attention (Winograd and Florence 1986, 33; Ihde 1993, 40). This
example is used to illustrate that our experience with the text editor is made up from
our praxes using the technology rather than our knowledge of the hammer.

We will look closer at the latter. If we were to use the other perspective and interpret
it in a praxis-oriented way, we will see at the flow which is created when writing,
being abstracted from its technological nature is the goal. Since we choose to use the
other perspective such a disruption of flow is what we want, as we wish to expose the
underlying structure of sub-technologies. As we will see later in this article see, this
makes up an important part of technologies in a “technology as nature” perspective.

The nature of technology

Just as a broken kettle, a heavy snowfall or a Null Pointer Exception withdraw us
from the flow of our tasks they also make us aware of the underlying structure of
technology. We look at the technology whether it is a kitchen appliance, a road with
traffic chaos or a now terminated computer program, and we can see the underlying

structure. This is one of the traits of technology as object according to W. Brian
Arthur. In his book The Nature of Technology (2009) he pursues an understanding of
technology in the micro scope. One of the traits he points out is that all technologies
are made up of many sub-technologies.

These sub-technologies are apparent inside the computer, which is made up of many
modules, which on the lowest level is determined by the physical attributes of the
material of which the components are made. Not only does a technological artefact
consist of many underlying sub-technologies, it partakes also as a sub-system in itself.
A computer could partake as sub-technology of a computer network, or in an
organisation’s production apparatus. A third trait is that technology is also executing
one or more functions, and these are determined by the context in which they take
place. A toy can be meant for children, but ending up being circuit-bended as an
instrument in a concert.

In their execution, technology takes part in a complex of interactive processes,
constantly relying on and calling each other. In our kettle, a button completes an
electric circuit, which gets broken when a sensor detects that the water is boiling. All
these parts which make up the totality is also technology. A similar notion of
fragmentation of sub-technologies and its complexities can be found in an argument
for a free capitalistic market economy.

The economist Leonard Read has already in his text I, Pencil (1958) shown the
complexity behind the production of one apparently simple object. His essay states
that the creation of a pencil is far from as mundane as it may be expected, and that in
fact nobody could alone be able to produce a pencil of corresponding quality with one
that can be bought. Reads article presents a key argument in the capitalist debate as a
defence of Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand. This text is very much linked to
technology as the production process Read references consists of the extraction of
several raw materials and how these are refined into smaller subsystems such as the
rubber, the metal ring, the graphite and the wooden exterior. To return to the
explanations of Andrew, the pencil takes advantage of the phenomenon that graphite
transfers coloured particles when scratched across a surface. Based on the natural phenomenon clusters.

Technological domains

“[Different] families of phenomena – the chemical ones, electrical ones,
quantum ones – are mined into and harnessed, they give rise to
groupings of technologies that work naturally together.”
(Arthur 2009, 69)

A method of grouping technology together is to place them in appropriate categories
according to which natural phenomena which they utilise. For example, within the
field of electronics, the electron is the phenomena being harnessed. Each of these
technological domains has different “rules” formed into a “grammar”. This
“grammar” determines the allowable combination within each domain; this could be
how elements interact, and how they combine various structures. These grammars

ultimately arise from the natural phenomenon harnessed to utilise this domain, they
are not necessary strictly separated and combined with each other, but organised as
clusters of technologies which share commonality and which have the ability to work
together (Arthur 2009, 70). Each domain holds a repository of elements, which is
standing ready and can be used (Arthur 2009, 79).

The field of electronics, for example, is based upon the nature of the electrons and
computers are based upon our understanding of logic and structures expanded from
bits. At the same time domains are dependent on other domains, as the logical
operation in a computer is dependent on the physical material the sub-technologies are
built. This has to do with the nature of the domain, but is independent of what tasks
that can be executed across the respective fields. Arithmetic operations were also
performed before the introduction of computers. Abacus and various mechanical
calculation devices were used to do these tasks. With the introduction of
computational operations, mathematical problems are solved in a more efficient way,
but they can still be undertaken outside the technological domain. There are, however,
some limitations.

This can be illustrated with Dreyfus’ view on the limitations of the tasks possible for a
computer to do. In his books What Computers Can’t Do and What Computers Still
Can’t Do, he gives an account of the limitations in the domain of computing. The
field of artificial intelligence (AI) can solve complex mathematical equations, sort
through a huge number of data in seconds, and in 1997 the IBM super computer Deep
Blue won a chess game against the then current world champion Garry Kasparov.
These are examples of tasks that computers are generally good at, but in other areas it
is hard to introduce the computer. This is apparent when it comes to doing
commonsensical tasks and operating on processes that do not follow an explicit
pattern of operations. Just as Morozov asked about the legitimacy of the causal
relation between more Internet access and the rise of a liberal democracy, Dreyfus
identifies the limitation inherit in digital technology when it comes to emulating
human intellectual faculties. From the following quote, written by two experts on
artificial intelligence, Allen Newell and Herbert Simon, Dreyfus identifies a set of
assumptions about the similarities between the human brain and computers.

“It can be seen that this approach makes no assumption that the
‘hardware’ of computers and brains are similar, beyond the assumptions
that both are general purpose symbol-manipulating devices, and that the
computer can be programmed to execute elementary information
processes functionally quite like those executed by the brain”
(Cited in Dreyfus 1994, 155, from Computer Simulation of Human
Thinking)

From this quote Dreyfus identifies four assumptions which he later refuses; a
biological, a physiological, an epistemological and a digital (Dreyfus 1994, 155).
There are four fundamental axioms of our human existence; that the brain works
through on and off switches, that the brain functions as a device on bits of information
according to rules, that knowledge can be formalised, and that the world must be
analysable as a set of situation-free determinate objects. This leads to an expectation
that computers can do thinking similar to the way humans do.

We have now looked at technology in a micro perspective, but technology does not
exist alone. It exists in a relation with humans, but how does this relation affect
humans? Ihde points out that there are no human cultures that are pre-technological.
Cultures have embedded technology into their lifeworlds through all of human history
(Ihde 1993, 49). Since the early periods when technology was found and applied,
humans have modified technology to interact with the world and to gratify our needs.
Technology is also a defining paradigm for naming the epochs of human development
up until the modern age.

Ihde mentions three further traits for technology: first it has to be some kind of
material substance; secondly, it must enter some human praxis in which humans make
use of these components; and finally there has to be a relation between the
technologies and the humans who use, design, make, or modify the technologies in
question (Ihde 1993, 47).

The relationship between science and technology

What we have chosen to understand as macro technology, or Technology with a
capital T, is a characterisation of the metaphysical tradition of science, and calculative
reason. This technology in total includes a view, which seeks to frame the world (Ihde
2004, 102). This appears with high technology that has a close relationship to modern
science.

The knowledge-producing discourse dominating our contemporary society is often
referred to as “techno scientific”. Both Ihde and Arthur mention what could be viewed
as a symbiotic relationship between science and technology (Ihde 1993, 74; Arthur
2009, 64). The instruments used in temporary science are strongly technological, and
the understanding of how to take advantage of the natural resources are in many areas
influenced by, if not impossible without, science. The relationship between science
and technology is one of causality; novel phenomena provide new technologies,
which in turn help discover new phenomena (Arthur 2009, 66). For example, the
thermometer detects and standardises the concept of temperature; it would be
impossible to repeat a scientific experiment of Baconian standards without having
instruments to ensure that the subsequent experiments are conducted in an identical
fashion.

As we saw with the technological domains, the “grammar” is decided by the
harnessing of the natural phenomena which is what the domain is built upon. Here
science holds a key function as it exposes the predicted nature of certain elements
under different conditions, and this is the way in which technology can work upon the
natural phenomena.

Science and its discipline of physics is described by Heidegger: “[a] coherence of
forces calculable in advance, it orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of
asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way.” (Heidegger)
The equipment and methodology of science tries to verify or falsify a hypothesis set
in a strict and controlled environment. To find a predictable pattern in which
something occurs tells us something about nature, or in Heideggerian terms, it
discloses something. This is the foundation of modern science. To reveal the potential of the natural phenomena, and by focusing on this perspective we can overlook other
ways in which nature can be perceived.

Heidegger also thinks that the current unfolding of technology threatens revealing.
By this, he means there is the threat of the possibility that all revealing will be
consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the
unconcealment of standing-reserve. Heidegger also mentions that humans are changed
by this process. As man is serving the challenging-forth, or the search and
development, in which man enframes the world. Enframing here could be understand
as a rack or framwork, into which the world is categorised. By doing this he may
think he disclosures the world, while he is in fact is concealing it through his pursuit
to enframe.

“The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the
Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines
turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets
going the electric current for which the longdistance power station and
its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of
the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of
electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our
command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as
was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of
years. Rather, the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the
river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence
of the power station.” (Heidegger).

Heidegger is sceptical to this view in which nature is being turned into Bestand, or in
English ‘standing-reserve’. In the quote mentioned above he explains the difference
between an old wooden bridge crossing the Rhine is different from a dam producing
electricity. In a “technology as nature view” they are both executing a human purpose,
but in different ways. From a Heideggerian view, however, the dam is a way of
turning the Rhine into a standing reserve; a resource that can be exploited when
needed. This is not a neutral action or something free from ideology. This view of
nature is strongly influenced by values, but in the disguise of rationality.

The social effects of technology

Technology is also an important perspective in the Marxist understanding of historical
development; it makes up the base in Marxist analysis of society. In this theory,
means of production is the base, and the determing force for the superstructure which
contains ideology, culture, religion and other ‘soft’ aspects.

Herbert Marcus is associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Science, also
known as the Frankfurt school. In his famous book, One Dimensional Man, he comes
with a critique of contemporary society, and how an essential critical theory, such as
how the ideas of liberal democracy were upon its inception, has first prevailed and
then imposed a restrictive way of living on human beings. He believes that the
technological and scientific process has turned into an instrument of domination:

“A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic, unfreedom prevails
in advance industrial civilization, a token of technical progress.
Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of
individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful
performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more
effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free
competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the
curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede
the international organization of resources. “
(Opening of One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse 1964, 3)

Marcuse’s one dimensional man lives in the one dimensional society and thinks one-
dimensional thoughts. This, Marcuse believes, is a result of how the contemporary
society is working. He thinks that technology is far from neutral and is used to enslave
people. He sees the modern high technology society as one which is having an
apparent rational appearance, but which ultimately is far from this. The technological
rational reason comes with a set of expectations of how a society should be governed,
how we should live our lives, and what progress is to be made. According to Ihde,
Marcuse saw the rise of Technology as a technocratic ideology, and that the neutrality
is not at all neutral; it brought with it a form of domination (Ihde 1993, 34).
According to Marcuse freedom is something which comes in negation. To be
economically free is to be free from economical oppression; to be politically free is to
be free from political oppression. In modern society, people are forced to have a job
to be able to live and a perpetual circle of work and consumption defines existence.
This, he thinks, is an inherent value in society: “Theoretical and practical Reason,
academic and social behaviourism meet on common ground: that of an advance
society which makes scientific and technical progress into an instrument of
domination.” (Marcuse 1964, 18)

Throughout this paper we have had a closer look at technology, both as a nature in
itself and related to the society. First we looked at the lexical and etymological
definitions of technology, and then we divided between two domains of technology
which we coined micro and macro perspectives. We have also seen that technologies
are integrated in modules and at different levels, and that these become apparent as a
technological device breaks down, these devices can also be grouped into different
domains on behalf of which natural phenomena they harness in their execution. We
have also seen that technology does not promote a value neutral worldview, but that it
is laden with values concerning our experience and relation to nature. This is what
Martin Heidegger coined ‘bestand’ or standing reserve.

Modern technology has a close relation to science, in a relationship that can be called
reciprocal. Science is in need of technological instruments to develop, and new
domains of technology is established as new natural phenomena are discovered.

From Hubert Dreyfus have we seen that Artificial Intelligence has limitations in how
computers can emulate human intellectual faculties, but that they are good at dealing
with operations which can be reduced to numbers. As noted, computers are good
devices for this purpose, but not good for working at more implicit sides of

knowledge, such as common sense. In the beginning of this text, I introduced a
critique from Evgeny Morozov of Western policy makers where he pointed towards
the misleading assumption that technology itself could fix problems. This is not just a
naïve assumption, but also potentially harmful. I do not mean to say that technology is
either bad or good in itself, but we have seen that possibilities are created with new
technologies.

Herbert Marcuse argued that technology in fact promotes values, the technological
rational view is laden of values of how life should be lived, and how progress is to be
pursued. Modern technological society has a system for upholding its own existence,
and to dominate the humans living in it.

 

Sources:

Arthur, W. Brian (2009). The nature of technology – What it is and how it evolves.
London: Penguin books

Dreyfus, Hubert L. (1994). What computers still can’t do – A Critique of Artificial
Reason. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology. Retrieved April 11, 2011,
from http://www.wright.edu/cola/Dept/PHL/Class/P.Internet/PITexts/QCT.html

Ihde, Don (1993). Philosophy of Technology – An introduction. New York: Paragon
House

Ihde, Don (2004). Philosophy of Technology. In World and Worldhood. Ed: P. Kemp.
London: Springer Retrieved April 10, 2011, from
http://www.springerlink.com/content/h711479032312757/

Marcuse, Herbert (1964). One-Dimensional Man – Studies of the ideology of advance
industrial society. London: Routledge Classics

Morozov, Evgeny (2011). The Net Delusion – How not to liberate the world. London:
Penguin books

Read, Leonard E (1958). I, Pencil. Retrieved March 20, 2011 from
http://www.fee.org/library/books/i-pencil-2/

Technology. (2011). Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Retrieved April
13, 2011, from
http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0848700#m_en_gb0848700

Technology. (2011). Cambridge Dictionaries Online. Cambridge University Press.
Retrieved April 13, 2011, from
http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/technology

Winograd,Terry and Fernando Flores (1986) Understanding computers and cognition
– a new foundation for design. Norwood, N.J. : Ablex Publishing

 

The picture is by Tony Brierton, and is shared under a Creative Commons license. The picture is found on his Flickr-page.

 

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