Definition of technology: Why it matters?!

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Technology is a difficult concept to define. But, it is that definition which gives us the context for creative and reflective exploration. For our purposes, I’ll be using the definition of technology from “Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology” [1].

“Technology comprises the entire system of people and organizations, knowledge, processes, and devices that go into creating and operating technological artifacts, as well as the artifacts themselves.”
— Source Adapted from Mitcham, 1994 [1]

This definition pushes technology from just artifacts (computers, software, aircraft, microwave ovens), to include knowledge, processes and infrastructures that are necessary to create, operate and maintain these creations. In very general terms, Carl Mitcham defines technology as “the making and using of artifacts. He also identifies four types of technology that we can use as a framework to further explore technological and human interactions [2]:

  • Technology as object: these include tangible products and artifacts, which we readily associate with technology.
  • Technology as knowledge: these are the skills involved in making and using these artifacts.
  • Technology as activity: these include knowledge and actions in which we design, produce, manufacture, use and maintain these artifacts.
  • Technology as volition: this is the will, the motivation and intentions that produces products, processes and systems. These are shaped by and in turn shapes culture, society, environment and politics.

I may be taking these out of context, as each of these technology types require a more in-depth look. However, analyzing technology through these dimensions is essential because:

  1. As humans, we tend to take technology at face value, without question — even if the GPS directions lead to a swamp. Perhaps, we could blame our brains, as brains work efficiently, utilizing pattern matching and emotions for decision making, i.e. taking the easier path, and then rationalizing the justification.
  2. Technology is about efficiency and performance. However, technology is also inherently flexible and unpredictable, allowing us to shape and mold it, especially early at its design stage.

By questioning technology, we step outside of its box, and objectively start exploring and reinterpreting its effects and intentions. We can also question our own intentions and values, and reshape technology according to our insights. As each of these dimensions can exists independently of each other in differing social contexts, the analysis can give us perspectives on how they may interact together as well as separately, helping us to discover the ecosystem’s dynamic complexities. It allows us to question ecological, political and cultural ramifications of our pursuits. Finally, it can highlight differing perspectives and options in our design and implementation.

Let’s switch context and talk about toilets. Though they have been around for 2800 years, it was only the 1800s when the impact of poor sanitary conditions on public health was realized. This started the movement for centralized sewer collection and treatment systems which require land, energy and water. We also can’t leave the toilet paper out of this discussion, as aside from cutting down the trees for paper production, processing requires water, uses chlorine-based bleach for whiteness, and requires transportation of heavy and bulky materials, impacting the environment further. Though the toilets of the West haven’t changed much in the past 100+ years, those who have had the opportunity to visit Japan often comment about their hi-tech toilets. The Japanese culture of cleanliness and courtesy certainly shaped their toilet technology. As humanity, we are going through a paradigm shift in our attitudes towards consumerism and environmental impact. With that, how would we reinvent the toilet? That is the goal and challenge the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has put forth for us.

In summary, by questioning our creations, we move away from simply ‘does it work?‘ to ‘is it useful and good? how do I know, and what can I do to make it better?.

Resources:

[1] “Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More About Technology” by National Academy of Engineering
[2] Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy by Carl Mitcham

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