Why Technology Isn’t Just Applied Science

Image from the British Library's collection on Flickr

Image from the British Library’s collection on Flickr

Do you love the nuances of a subtle definition, or do technicalities often strike you as trifling details? In case it’s the latter, please bear with this post, as defining what is (and isn’t) meant by technology is important for the early stages of a blog about tech and people!

Anyway, here’s Chambers’ (21st C) attempt as an opening example:

technology noun (technologies) 1 the practical use of scientific knowledge in industry and everyday life. 2 practical sciences as a group. 3 the technical skills and achievements of a particular time in history, of civilization or a group of people.

Chambers’ broad definition is typical of other sources. Is technology the application of science; an activity or practice; a specific branch of knowledge; the study of certain techniques; or something else? Is it one or more – or even all of – the above?

In The Nature of Technology, economist W Brian Arthur describes such definitions as “badly fused together and possibly even contradictory”. He offers a definition that seems thoughtful and precise, as well as representing the word’s common usage.

There are three parts to his definition:

1. Technology is always a “means to fulfill a human purpose”.

As a means, a technology might be a device (like an engine), or a process (filtration), or a method (like an algorithm). It might be complicated (like artificial intelligence) or simple (like a pulley), it could be something you could touch, or something intangible.

2. Technology is an “assemblage of practices and components”.

Some technologies (e.g. biotech or electronics) are also assemblies of other technologies. Later in the book. Arthur writes at some length about the recursive structure of technologies, each comprising assemblies or components which are technologies in their own right.

3. Technology is the “entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture”.

This is the collective meaning of technology, used when we talk about technology as ‘the solution for climate change’, or as the reason for ‘the pace of modern life’, for example. Arthur notes it’s the same idea that technologist Kevin Kelly refers to with his term the technium.

Arthur’s book is well worth reading for more on technology, not so much on the opportunities or risks of new tech, but on what technology actually is. He aims to set out what he thinks is missing: a theory – or “-ology” – of technology.

Let’s end with the common idea that technology is simply the application of science. Arthur thinks it’s more complicated – powered flight emerged with no need for science, and it’s only since the mid 1800s that tech has borrowed scientific knowledge.

Modern technology does use scientific ideas, but so does science rely on technology. The telescope enabled modern astronomy as much as Copernicus, and Watson and Crick (and Franklin) relied on X-ray diffraction methods to discover the structure of DNA.

The reality, Arthur argues, is that science is deeply woven into technology, as technology is into science.

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Falling for It

Image adapted from a woodcut by Bernard Saloman

Image adapted from a woodcut by Bernard Saloman

Who decides whether technological modifications to a person are an enhancement or not? Theologian Ronald Cole-Turner asks this question in his introduction to Transhumanism and Transcendence.

The modification might be medicine that makes you smarter, an implant that gives you a ‘new’ memory, or perhaps a physical prosthetic that allows you to control devices with your brain.

Secular approaches to bioethics, he explains, inevitably end with the subject of the change deciding for themselves whether the modification is an improvement or not.

This leads Cole-Turner towards an interesting question:

What are we to think if, after the technological enhancement, there is a change of mind – literally? Before the modification, the person completely understands and truly believes that the change is an enhancement. After the modification, the person completely understands and believes that it is not an enhancement, not because anything went wrong but because the enhancement worked and the moral core of the person has been changed. In such case, is the change an enhancement?

The thought experiment is a reminder of a much older story:

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The serpent convinces Eve to be disobedient by convincing her of the fruit’s enabling power. Eve quickly realises that though the serpent told the truth, the ‘enhancement’ was a trap:

“The serpent deceived me,” she replied. “That’s why I ate it.”

And according to the Christian story, the consequences are realised by Eve, humanity – and ultimately by God – at incalculable cost.

Technology is Neutral

Martin Heidegger wrote the following introductory lines to establish the scope and approach of his 1954 essay The Question Concerning Technology:

We shall be questioning con­cerning technology, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to it. The relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the essence of technology …

Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology. When we are seeking the essence of “tree,” we have to become aware that That which pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees.
Likewise, the essence of technology is by no means any­ thing technological. Thus we shall never experience our relation­ ship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it.

What struck me most was the next paragraph:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as some­ thing neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we par­ticularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

The concept of neutral technology (it’s what you do with it that counts) is surely as prevalent today as it was when Heidegger wrote – at least among those who develop tech.

Between Technophobia and Technophilia

Talk about the future of technology and you’re likely to hear two categories of response: technophobia (Chambers describes a technophobe as “someone who dislikes or fears, and therefore avoids using, technology”) and technophilia (a technophile is “someone who likes and advocates the use of new technology”).

But what’s the name for views that occupy the middle ground?

Technorealism (which appeared as a term in the 90s but seems to have died away) sought to “expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism”. Technorealists advocated applying tech “in a manner more consistent with basic human values”.

Also occupying the middle ground are the complementary terms Techno-progressivism and Bioconservatism. Both terms are frequently used – and were perhaps coined – by the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, a think-tank with close transhumanist links.

Techno-progressivism describes an optimistic stance towards technology, recognising a key role for it in effecting positive change. Bioconservatism is a more wary position on tech (though less so than Technophobia), conscious of its threat to existing social patterns.

Through interviews with the UK’s public, Ipsos MORI have identified six segments (which are simply descriptive, rather than ideological) that illustrate how the UK population respond to science, and by extension, to technology. MORI describe the segments as:

  • Confident Engagers – positive attitude towards, and few concerns about, science
  • Distrustful Engagers – enthusiastic about science, but distrustful of scientists and regulators
  • Late Adopters – did not enjoy science at school, but have become more interested as adults
  • The Concerned – have stronger views on the limitations of science
  • The Indifferent – not especially worries about science, but tend to think it’s not for them
  • Disengaged Sceptics – find science overwhelming and do not feel well informed

This chart illustrates how the UK’s population is distributed across the six segments in 2011 and 2014. While the number of Confident Engagers and The Indifferent have fallen, the Disengaged Septics and Late Adopters have risen:

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

MORI also report links between the segments and religion. On average, 13% were likely to attend a religious service at least a week, but this figure rose to 21% for members of The Concerned. 33% of Muslims belonged to The Concerned segment, but Muslims only accounted for 10% of that segment’s membership.

Michael Sleasman of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, a research centre at a Christian university, outlines three (lengthily-named) responses to technology he has observed among Christians: technological sentimentalism, technological messianism and technological responsibilists.

Technological sentimentalism sees technology as a threat and urges a return to a less technological past. Technological messianism views technology as a saviour, the solution to all our problems. Technological responsibilists adopt a consciously critical approach, which Sleasman illustrates with a quotation from Stephen Monsma:

[Technology is a] distinct human cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends or purposes.

This post is simply sketching out the semantic terrain… More on what the middle ground of techno-progressivism and technological responsibilism look like in future posts.

Generation Y, Faith & Science

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

Data from Ipsos MORI, March 2014, Public Attitudes to Science 2014

Here’s some interesting data from Ipsos MORI’s Public Attitudes to Science 2014 study. Since 1988, when people are asked whether “we depend too much on science and not enough on faith”, there has been an overall decline in three generations, but a small rise in one.

Generation Y (or Millennials), which MORI define as those born after 1980, were more likely to agree in 2014 than they were in 2011, lifting them just above the baby boomers. MORI plan to evaluate this trend to see whether it continues its upwards slant.