Sunday, November 13, 2011

Some Questions Concerning Technology

After you work with computers for a while, you stop asking what acronyms stand for if you know what's good for you. The answer is always long and pointless. SQL is hardly a Structured Query Language. GNU is not exactly Not Unix. And Microsoft comes up with a new three-letter acronym (TLA) every week. Luckily, most companies have turned their IT departments into just Technology departments, so we have only one letter to worry about. Though it may be a pursuit both long and pointless, I've been thinking about what technology really is.

There are two standard ways of understanding technology. One is that it's the essentially human activity. Monkeys use sticks and bees build nests, but humans take tool-making to an unprecedented degree due to their clever brains, opposable thumbs, and upright posture. Various intellectual revolutions have taken humans farther and farther from their natural state.

Another way of understanding technology is as applied science. Wikipedia says technology is "the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function." While science can be pursued for its own sake and without a clear view of its potential application, technology is the use of knowledge for specified ends.

There are a few problems with these definitions. For example, if technology is just part of what we are, then why do people often rail against technology, as happened in the industrial revolution, or after Hiroshima, or in today's world of hyper-connectedness? If you say technology is "natural" or "human", then it's hard to explain why some technology is good and some technology is bad.

Similarly, if technology is just problem-solving, then why does it have so many unforeseen effects? It often seems that new technologies create as many problems as they solve. In The Social Network, Sean Parker says they can't monetize Facebook because they don't even know what it is yet. Technologies as simple as email have changed they way we live--they don't just scratch an itch.

In a characteristically gerund-filled essay, The Question Concerning Technology (1954), Martin Heidegger tries to overcome these obstacles and get at the essence of technology. First, he distinguishes between the production of technological artifacts and the way of relating to things that makes their production possible. It is only when humans treat things (e.g., the sun, information, and even other humans) as means to an end that we can create technological solutions. For example, when a river is understood as a means to an end, it can be dammed to produce power. It can be understood in other ways, (e.g., a thing of beauty, a shape, a manifestation of God, etc.), but such thinking doesn't help solve problems and is thus not technological. Heidegger argues that technology, or technological means-ends thinking, is what makes modern science possible, not the other way around.

Neither science nor technology are necessarily bad things, but it's easy to take means-ends thinking as the only appropriate way of relating to the world around us. Today, as Heidegger points out, it's hard to take seriously Aristotle's four causes (material, teleological, formal, and efficient), since we are so used to thinking in terms of efficient or means-ends causality. On this model, we think we can predict the future with exactitude (given enough information, all things being equal, etc.), and even God becomes merely a watchmaker who set off the chain of causes that is the universe.

So if technology isn't a set of gadgets or the things people do to make those gadgets, if it's a way thinking that often occludes other ways of thinking, what then? It's worth noting that this definition solves the problems with the other conceptions of technology defined above, since technology is not just something humans do--it's one of many relationships we can have with other people and things. We might be able to judge the new possibilities technology makes possible, but not technology as such.

Most importantly, Heidegger's understanding of technology as means-ends thinking points to the need for other ways of thinking--aesthetic, cultural, social, ecological, religious, political, ethical, philosophical, kinesthetic, you name it. I'm often turned off by tech news, because it reinforces the culture of buying the latest disposable gadget instead of the development of truly important solutions. Rather than fleeing from technology as some Luddites do, we need to imbue technology with the real world technologists often ignore. I like my smartphone, but it's a far cry from the future envisioned by the prognosticators of the 1950's.

-Heidegger's essay in a more-or-less readable format
-Herbert Marcuse's essay on the political ramifications of ubiquitous means-ends thinking


  1. Great post, Zach. You do a great job of bringing out the tension in Heidegger's essay, and I like the way you talk about his criticism of technology as reductive of the four sorts of causes to a single mode of causality. I always saw the great tension in this essay (and I think it's Heidegger's best piece of philosophy) as between technology as a natural or normal way of humans to relate to the world and contemporary conceptions of technology as super-human or post-human. In other words, as soon as we begin to theorize technology as something outside of us--either as something that might save us or as something that might destroy us--we have already lost an intelligent and responsible relation to technology. Technology is always a techne--a practice of relating to the world. Its appearing as otherworldly is a sign of our of own weltlos...

    Anyways, all that is probably too complex. You put it straighter.

  2. Having spent time developing software at a company that was in a decidedly non-technical industry, and working as an IT consultant, I have seen both the terror and the blinding adoration that technology evokes in people.

    Even though my job depends on "technology", I have found that I almost always much prefer a simpler, non-technical solution to problems if it is at all possible. A favorite saying of mine is "Technology won't fix mistakes, it will only cause them to happen faster."

    I believe that society has taken a much more (I struggle with the words here) "scientific" approach to everything. It is sterile, focused on, as you mentioned, a means-ends approach to everything. We seem to have lost the idea that there is more to life than reducing everything down to its simplest forms, teasing out numbers and data to determine the optimal, most efficient methods of doing everything in our lives.

    "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
    - Albert Einstein

  3. It obviously takes skill to bring technology to bear on useful problem domains, since you have to know the technology and the problem domain. But it is disheartening that this happens so infrequently that people who do it, like Steve Jobs, are considered geniuses. Does it really take genius to combine good design (or anything else) with technology?

    I wonder if it just takes a shift in the ways technology companies are run. Take Google Docs for instance. They basically just took MS Word and put it on the cloud. They could have revolutionized the way we work collaboratively. Are we too scared to think big? Is it too risky in today's market? It seems like the time is ripe...


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