The Technology Conundrum

May 1, 2015

I’ve been writing about technology for just over a decade now. I’ve worked in the field of information technology for twice as long as that now and, most recently, had the distinguished title of “Director of Technology” bestowed upon me by my current employer. What I find most fascinating (and perhaps a bit disturbing) about this is that I still don’t know exactly what “technology” is. 

If you asked me, “What is technology?” I would ponder the question for a bit, perhaps rub by chin in a very scholarly manner as if to coax the answer from the genie bottle inside my head, then perhaps bludgeon you some jargon-laden, vacuous answer.

Truth is, I don’t really know exactly what “technology” is. Of course, I have some vague concept and I could yammer on about computers and cell phones, dishwashers and automobiles, the first time that Og the Caveman created a new and improved club from wood and stone and killed the mastodon at twice the speed of the old model forcing the whole clan to upgrade.

I’m not alone in my murkiness. Most of us sail through the daily bustle of our technology-saturated lives without ever stopping to ponder the technology that surrounds us, let alone devise a working definition of it. And why should we? Shouldn’t that be the work of those who have been anointed “director of technology” anyway?

Computer scientist Alan Kay, who did pioneering work in object-oriented programming and the development of the graphical user interface for computers that we all take for granted today, came up with a simple and elegant definition of technology: “Technology is anything invented after you were born.”

I think this is as good as any definition of technology because it captures the transient nature of technology. To me, a car is just a car. You get in it to go from one place to another. For me, cars have always existed. The cell phone, on the other hand, is a technology. I can remember a world without them. To my daughters, a cell phone is just a cell phone; a device to be used to send no less than 300 text messages per day to friends or, in some cases, to your father when you need him to get in the car and come pick you up from the shopping mall.

In a 1999 column for The Sunday Times about the Internet, novelist Douglas Adams, who wrote the popular sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, suggested the following framework for defining and understanding technology:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

“We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs,” wrote Adams. “But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often ‘crash’ when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things.”

But technology is more than just things (computers, chairs, cars, etc.). In his book The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, author W. Brian Arthur advocates that technology is “an assemblage of practices and components...that are toolboxes of individual technologies and practices.”

According to Arthur, technology evolves and it is the nature of technology to create yet more technologies from “fresh combinations of what already exists.” Or to put it another way, “technology creates itself out of itself.”

And yet every technology is rooted in nature itself, in the harnessing of some natural phenomenon that already exists. The natural phenomenon of combustion is what propels gas-powered cars. Airplanes use combustion and lift to get in the air and stay there. MRIs are possible because of magnetic resonance. An exhaustive list of technologies would, arguably, include everything that exists in the man-made world. The nature of technology is that it is an extension of nature. It comes first from the discovery, understanding, and harnessing of natural phenomena, then continues to evolve through the ongoing fresh combinations of technologies.

“As we learn to use these [new] technologies, we are moving from using nature to intervening directly within nature,” writes Arthur. “And so the story of this century will be about the clash between what technology offers and what we feel comfortable with.”

There has been and will increasingly be many challenges to our comfort level as we rocket through the 21st century and technology continues to exponentially evolve.  We’ll clone humans, engineer food, and manipulate the fundamental building blocks of the universe using quantum engineering. We’ll build increasingly intelligent machines that will one day, probably sooner than we think, be more intelligent than humans. And these are only a few of the things we know about. There are technology possibilities out there that we don’t even know about because we do not fully know and understand the natural world.

Technology has been and will continue to be increasingly linked to human destiny. We are all part of that destiny. In a way, we are all directors of technology.

Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson. Archives of his columns and other postings can be found on his blog at: blog.insidethebox.org