Technology: From Substance to Abstraction and What This Means for Our Understanding of it

Technology: From Substance to Abstraction and What This Means for Our Understanding of it

Per-Arne Persson (Swedish National Defence College, Sweden)
DOI: 10.4018/jskd.2012040102


The question “What do we really mean by technology?” has initiated a rich discussion among researchers and students, as well as consultants and lecturers, on a website during and after the summer of 2011. Complementary or alternative perspectives on topics like knowledge were discussed. Some discussants pointed at the meaning of knowledge and what is required of this ‘matter’ to understand technology. This article discusses factors that contribute to the difficulties in understanding technology, explaining by providing examples the movement from the concrete to abstractions when people try to design, classify, and understand technology in their environments. What has been ongoing during the last century is a process of understanding and controlling a radically changed world where terms like globalization and modernity express some of its key aspects. This process illustrates Beniger’s (1986) claim that humans apply symbolic control systems which then control by their meaning. Each new technology increases the need for control and for improved control technology. The naming of artifacts/technologies is part of the control efforts. The use of metaphors is common and useful, but also adds to the abstraction.
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It seems as if some fragments from recognized research, such as social (and sociotechnical) theory and the philosophy of knowledge may be suitable here. When I reflect on the term technology, Elayne Coakes initially seems to cover the whole span of the term (LinkedIn, 2012). There is a close relation between technology and human interaction and action vs. the environment, social or not, realizing that some animals also demonstrate a capability to design and use tools. It allows the self an expanded “think and act space”, i.e., more power and autonomy related to ideas and intentions, but may also restrict and blinker perceptions. Changed autonomy and power relations are commonplace but not always recognized in development and engineering efforts. For me ‘technology’ covers tool, thinking and action.

The discussion about the character of technology and what it is, over the last months, illustrates some of the difficulties involved when trying to answer this seemingly straight question. The questions that, for me, form the base for this article are:

Why is it problematic to understand technology?

How can we make technology intelligible?

I have been working with technology in its various shapes and aspects as an officer in Sweden, but primarily as a researcher, explicitly in the design and use of computer supported and traditional office and communication technology, workplace technology, which is often called information technology (IT, or ICT). The reason behind the use of this term being less than clear but as a category it is usually taken for granted. In fact, the term IT illustrates the deliberate naming of machinery that makes it look like something special, or something more than it is. The term is metaphorical rather than physically concrete. “Information” is more often than not an abstraction, i.e., content and meaning rather than form and thing. For some time it has been recognized as a metaphor but few people seem to consider this (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) in their discussions of the concept.

The paper deals with similar topics as the other papers in this edition, but relies on current social theory and its applications (Giddens, 1991; Walsham, 2001), and reflects on knowledge perspectives, and the use and role of technology in modern society and some consequences. I will refer also to some personal experiences.

Technology is linked to structuring and restructuring. Structuration theory (Giddens, 1991) as discussed by Wanda Orlikowski (2001), including the ideas of interpretive flexibility, design mode vs. use mode make me assume that the kind of knowledge - the Greek saw three kinds, or even five - or “technological frame of reference” (sometimes individual, occasionally cultural, i.e., shared among a group), actually may make the interpretation of technology (social reconstruction) quite unpredictable. The computer has a wide interpretation area (system of meanings) with many possible outcomes. It is intentionally designed for flexibility (like cell phones) in comparison to motorcycles that are more and more specialized, and less flexible. But even a static technology/tool can add flexibility within a larger system context.

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