What the heck is technology?: Big Idea Series #1
Updated: Jul 26, 2019
I am not really one for poetry, but there is this wonderful line which has stayed with me over the years. ‘Where can we live but days? Ah, solving that question. Brings the priest and the doctor. In their long coats. Running over the fields.’ I get a similar feeling when I think about technology- despite having been ostensibly studying and writing on it in relation to international security for quite a while now.
With my students, the first thing we try to shake-off is the semantics of the whole thing. We play a rather cruel word game, in which they are asked to distinguish which objects and ideas are examples of technologies and which are not. We start simple, but things get murky pretty quickly- some years a strange type of consensus is reached, one year a beaver’s dam was a technology, as a was a university- but a house was not. Other years, we have given up the ghost completely.
Armed with a fresh appreciation of the nonsensical nature of the term in common use, there is then a sense of liberation- as we seek new approaches to get behind this ambiguous noun. But quickly become flabbergasted- the things that sit behind the word are much more complex than the semantics. Questions quickly arise, for example, about the relationship of technology to agency, to history, to power, to meaning- to physical stuff. Very quickly then, we appear to be getting further and further away from being able to provide any form of sensible definition of what we are to be looking at.
We turn inevitably to the philosophy of technology to help us refine our understanding- and here we find some solace. It is clear that the ontology of technology ( it’s isness) is complicated. We can tell this, because many thinkers have sensed it- and have struggled to to pin it down over the centuries.
We are told, that there have been a number a substantive themes in such inquiries, the relationship between technology and nature, the relationship between objects and tools, instrumental and determinist verse co-productive conceptions of technology. Finally, there are more intrinsic versus socio-political philosophies of technology (a distinction I will come back to shortly). Each of course, captures some important aspect - or else provides a useful way of untangling the dimensions through which technologies can be carved up as material, historical and ideological things.
Indeed, there have been numerous elegant approaches and rubrics developed over the years to help us capture the multi-faceted character of technology. Recently for example, I have been reading Feenberg who makes two points rather well. The first, is that technology is a complex social thing- in that it has multifaceted relations with the socio-political and material world. Simply put, technologies can be understood to shape history, be subject to history and also a conduit of other historical forces. At the moment, the provincial corner of the academy I wander around in appears more forgiving of those that prioritise the latter two- but woe betide those who emphasise the former.
A second key point made in Feenberg’s work is that this type of inquiry is worth the candle- these questions are always being asked and answered, in explicit and more implicit ways within our societies. And yet- our collective vision of these issues is obscured in ways which it is difficult to explain or understand. It is not a social problem, it is a malaise. What then is to be done?
And yet, these types of question are absent from the work I am familiar with on the philosophy of technology. Despite, the riches it might offer up. Likewise, certain sacrifices seem to be made in the humanities when technology is dealt with for a range of disciplinary and political reasons. Surely while it may make sense to distinguish the types of questions one can ask in the academy- we must not mistake this for limits of the possible. Simply put, to attempt to answer questions about the character of technology, but to neglect why these questions are asked, who by, in what contexts- and when it actually matters – is a loss to both areas of thought.
In my mind at least, and thinking here in terms of studying the social lives of specific technologies, there is a need to connect the philosophy of technology with this more socio-historical question in empirical research. We go then from asking simply ‘what can be understood about technology’ and ‘how is technology understood in a given time and place’ to ‘what is understood, why, when and with what effects?’. Answering these, as empirical questions, is in itself a significant challenge- which requires integrating empirical data and conceptual insights from a wide range of fields. Such questions, of course, have already driven more critical social science scholars since the 1960’s- meaning there is a substantial body of work to draw, and hopefully stand back, from. And of course, there is now a large number of studies which have in some way of other grappled with this question- across war studies, military history and security studies.
All of this work offers potential insights to those seeking to better understand the security politics around emergent technology. And has most recently been reviewed from an International Relations perspective, for example, here and here. Also check out an event this month here. Likewise, there are a number of STS scholars who have come to specialize in security politics who have enriched discussion- some of whom will be meeting here this summer.
And so what? Why am I thinking all this though. Well it’s simple really isn’t it- and I suppose, ultimately why anyone in my professional position does this sort of thing when trying to keep pace with the brute speed of technology related developments.
It’s because I want to build a machine to do it for me.
Brett Edwards is a Lecturer in Security and Public Policy at the University of Bath
Cover Image: The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby originally completed in 1771