What is Technology?

What is Technology?

Roy Woodhead (HP Enterprise Services ITO, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/jskd.2012040101


This paper, a personal view rather than an official HP view, questions what counts as technology given that it has played a significant role throughout human history. It uses a non-technological ‘human’ situation as a datum point from which technology is explored in terms of how people become subservient to it. It briefly surveys the literature before differentiating between particular instances of technology, such as an airplane, and the collective effect of all technologies. These are termed a “Technology-Instance” and the “Technology-Collective”. The collective effect of all Technology-Instances produces emergent properties at the Technology-Collective layer, leading technology to create needs in the form of feedback loops that stimulate the development of more technology. Interdependencies between technological needs create choices available to humans and brings in to question whether notions of being free thinkers is constrained. Technology controls people because people do not acknowledge a systemic effect at the Technology-Collective level of abstract. People’s attention focuses on the control of a Technology-Instance but not on the Technology-Collective and the biases that influence people’s ways of characterising options. The author concludes by arguing people can, and need to, control the Technology-Collective.
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3. Different Views Of What Technology Is

I begin by laying out some different definitions of technology and views of technology from the field of Philosophy of Technology.

Kline (1985) explores the word “Technology”. He examined it in terms of usage and defined it as:

  • Usage 1: Hardware (or Artefacts)

  • Usage 2: Sociotechnical System of Manufacture

  • Usage 3: Knowledge, technique, know-how or methodology

  • Usage 4: Sociotechnical System of Use

All these views position humans in an external relationship to technology that gives the impression we select technology as we do with tools.

Ferré (1995) limits his definition to instances where implementations are used, as well as a means to a practical end, a manifestation in the material world, and as an expression of intelligence. He then defines technology as:

“Practical implementations of intelligence”

Again, this presents a view that suggests humans have total control over technology and in terms of creating devices does seem to hold true. However, there are outcomes of applied practical intelligence that suggest the ‘intelligence’ was not as mature as it ought to have been (e.g., Thalidomide disaster).

We can easily see technology involves design, making things, and changing things in order to achieve some outcome that made the whole effort seem worthwhile. We can see how some people limit the consideration of what is technology to artefacts or objects such as a car (Pacey, 2000). Others hold a socio-technical view (Mumford, 2003; Landes, 1969) where technology is seen as combinations of artefacts and people such as bricklayers building houses for people to live in and banks providing mortgages.

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