Sunday, 15 August 2010

Also on the Problems of Defining ‘Technology’

- those who have already begun their heavenward journey the law does not compel to go down into the darkness beneath the earth; they pass their time journeying happily together in the brightness of day, and together, when the time comes, they receive their wings, because of their love - plato - phaedrus -

Last week I talked a little about the problems of defining what a technology actually is.  I care because the first chapter of my PhD is a phenomenology of technological interactions posing as an extended definition of that term.  The thesis as a whole considers the resistances we see to reading on screens, particularly in the popular press - including: ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?,’ Kindles don’t feel right, iPads don’t smell like a good book does, technology isn’t natural, and every variety of ‘you can’t read it in the bath/in bed/on the beach’ type arguments - and I want to get to the heart of where these resistances stem from.  Why does materiality matter so much?  If technology is so ‘unnatural’ then why is it also so damn natural?  None of these questions can be answered without defining just what a technology is.  My own definition isn’t quite ready to face the world; it keeps collapsing under the scrutiny of drafts on an almost daily basis, but the kernel of the idea is becoming harder, shinier, more resilient to the constant chipping away that seems to always come with a new idea (like Jacques Ellul in his The Technological Society, I started with seven criteria for technology, but have now whittled it down to four.  Ellul’s position is very different to mine, he mourns the technological society, the deployment of ‘technique’ in our every thought, the machinic separation of worker from work, and therefore from responsibility.  I come from a different angle, though whether it’s more or less deterministic I’m not sure: technology is a not a modern thing, or a pre-modern thing, it’s a prehistoric thing; a dance can be a technology, a knife can be a technology, a computer only can be a technology; technology is the experience of approaching equipment in a certain way; technological/technical thought is our way of apprehending the world.  The only thing modern technology has to differentiate itself is the complexity of the artefacts around which technological interactions cluster, but do we really live in a more technological time?  Are skilful interactions (surely the defining mark of the technological…) at the heart of most people’s experience of their world in our society?  Or more so than any other culture, past or present?  Is a culture which sees people everyday hunt/fish/weave/otherwise manufacture, skin and butcher the catch, prepare food, and engage in a rich participatory (rather than passive) cultural milieu really less ‘technologically’ minded than in cultures where we wake, drive to work, input at a computer, drive home, prepare food, and watch television?  The artefacts in the latter are of a higher complexity, but are the interactions really stronger?  Technology need not be pejorative, it is just a way of experiencing an object in order to accomplish a task.  But this is not an argument for this post…).

Anyway I thought I’d put up an adaptation of the introduction to the first chapter as it continues that discussion of the difficulty of defining what a technology actually is:

‘Technology’ is a remarkably loose term; we might agree on the objects under discussion - computer: yes, coriander: no -, but the specifics of why this might be so are vague.  What makes a hammer of the same order of objects as an industrial press?  Does everyone experience this mysterious parity in identical ways, allowing for the consensus - “these are technologies” -, or does ‘technology’ define items across a range of unrecognised or undefined responses?  What sort of impact on our lives might be common to objects defined as ‘technologies?’

So abundant is the use of items that we would identify as technological in all human society, from hand tools and basic weapons to industrial machinery and nuclear bombs, that the question seems redundant at first glance, an elaborate point of clarification perhaps: what is a ‘technology?’  We can at least be certain that humans have technology at their hearts.  We can look at the lives led by any nomadic or settled people, in any human habitat, from Inuit tupiq to Bedouin bayt char, from favelas to penthouses, and the single defining trope of homo sapiens’ existence would be the use of external equipment which extends our ability to ensure our thriving survival.  Recent evidence suggests that basic tool use, what we might see as the first technological interaction, may have been a part of our hominid ancestry for over three million years, but without a doubt it has been a part of Homo sapiens sapiens’ life since its very beginnings, shaping our social structures, eating practices, and basic survivability.

Let’s attempt to identify the assertions implied by a ‘commonsense’ or lay definition of ‘technology’ which might encompass the entire spectrum of human equipment use, from hammers to computers: technologies are the implements onto which we offload tasks in order to reduce our expense of time or effort, and humans have proved themselves uniquely suited to their invention and use; our interactions with such items are ‘technological’ or ‘technical;’ ‘a’ technology is an instance of an artefact with which we interact to achieve a goal, e.g. a car, a hammer, a computer.

This, I would take to be a fair starting point as a comprehensive contemporary lay definition of technology.  When Heidegger asked the ‘Question Concerning Technology’ - what is at its essence?; how does it affect Being? -, he too began with a common sense definition, more refined than that above:

We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is.  Everyone knows the two statements that answer our question.  One says: Technology is a means to an end.  The other says: Technology is a human activity…[This] definition of technology is indeed so uncannily correct that it even holds for modern technology, of which, in other respects, we maintain with some justification that it is, in contrast to the older handicraft technology, something completely different and therefore new.  Even the power plant with its turbines and generators is a man-made means to an end established by man…[T]his much remains correct: Modern technology…is a means to an end” (Heidegger, Basic Writings, pp312-313)

Aside from introducing the matter of complexity in technology (which he rules out, rightly I believe, as significant to the ‘standard’ definition in any case), Heidegger gets to the same point from common sense here: technology enables, technology is a human activity.

With our lay definition in place it is important to ask why I believe we need to abandon (as Heidegger and many others, including Ellul and other so-called ‘technique’ philosophers, Foucault (‘Technologies of the Self’), etc. have done) the definitions of ‘technology’ that we already have which use these assertions as their base.  It is because they are not specific enough to deal with our complex interactions with items which extend our abilities.  Some things are blithely referred to as technological, a supercomputer or particle collider say, when we, as amateurs, encounter them in much the same way we would encounter a worn-down inscription on a monument - we are dimly aware that there is a meaning attached to the object, that there is information others may have gleaned, but to us it is inaccessible, corrupted, and so smoothly excluding as to be ignored as an inert facet of the world.  This doesn’t seem to describe our interactions with a hammer or a knife, and yet these too are certainly technologies, the technologies on which all of our current interactions are founded.  A nuanced definition of technology should be able to account for our experience of the knife and of the collider, to account for initiate and expert use, and to recognise that these encounters are not of the same order.  A technology is not just an artefact, it includes the encounter which surrounds the equipment deployed.


Anonymous said...

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