The Technium

The Gift of Stuff


[Translations: Japanese]

The word “technology” suggests stuff. Things made of atoms. Hard stuff. Steam locomotives, iron works, telephones, computers, chemicals, and silicon chips. When this ocean of stuff first appeared centuries ago we saw it as a material revolution. Yet all the changes it brought to us were really due to its new ability to wield energy on command. The hard stuff got its magic from being able to hold, or transmit, or display energy in either small amounts on cue (signals), or in large, unfathomable bursts on demand (calories). It was animate stuff, a new material in the world that we called technology. Its strong animus made it alien, scary. Since then, this stuff has been the bogeyman we love and hate.

Steamengine

As we refined this stuff, it lost some of its mass. We began to see through technology’s disguise as hard and cold and began to see it primarily as action. Today technology suggests software, genetic engineering, virtual realities, bandwidth, surveillance agents, and artificial intelligence. You wouldn’t hurt your toe if you dropped any of this. Technology became a force. A verb not a noun. A vital something that throws us forward, or pushes against us. Not just against us, but also against the biological world we perceive as our natural mode. It proved so strong in its action, so animal like in its presence that we now perceive technology as a super alien power, the thing to blame when things go wrong.

In reality technology is both stuff and force and more. Technology is, in fact, anything we create. Writing, painting, music are all technologies. Libraries are technologies, as are double-entry bookkeeping, civil law, calendars and clocks, institutions, all of science, as well as the plow, clothes, sanitation systems, medical tests, personal names, and the safety pin. What is not technology then? Anything that doesn’t come from our minds. Anything born of our minds is technology.

That is probably going too far for many people. How can a Shakespeare sonnet, or a Bach fugue be cast in the same mold as a nuclear bomb or a Walkman? Easy. If a thousand lines of letters is a technology (the code for an HTLM page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must be as well. We can’t separate out the technology in the Lord of the Rings movie. The literary rendering of the original novel is as technological in the strict sense as the digital rendering of its fantastical creatures and places. Both are works of the human imagination. Both affect audiences powerfully.

Technology is a type of thinking. A technology is a thought expressed. One could view the elaborate system of law running Western societies as a variety of software. It’s a complex set of code that runs on paper instead of in a computer, which slowly calculates fairness and order (ideally). Both law and software code are manifestations of human thought and thus both are technologies. When the technology critic Wendell Berry asks: “How could the steam-engine make men better?” he seems to have a good point. There appears to be nothing the two – man and machine – share. But the answer to his question is “compared to what?”  Are there any manifestations of human thought anywhere than can make men better?

Gandhi

There probably are. While a Star-Wars’ laser and Ghandi’s act of civil disobedience are both works of human imagination, and thus both technological, there is a difference between the two. Not all thoughts are equal. Some thoughts are better thoughts. More importantly some thoughts by themselves are silly, or misguided, but as part of something larger make sense, or are even needed to get to a better thought. Thoughts have different values, in context.

I believe the same is true of technology.

An answer to which Wendell Berry might agree to is that the technology of law makes men better. A system of laws keeps men responsible, urges them to fairness, restrains undesirable impulses, breeds trust, and so on. Yet, there are good laws and bad ones, and some systems of law (technologies of law) are better than others. The proper response to a bad law is not no law; it’s a better law. The proper response to a bad idea is not to stop thinking; it’s a better idea. The proper response to a bad technology is not to stop technology; it’s better technology.

The logical next question is, how do we improve (create) a method for evaluating the worth of specific technologies? How will technology help us to be better people? Indeed, how do we make better technology? If by technology we mean what Wendell suggests – cold hard yucky stuff, like steam-engines, chemicals, and hardware – then I’m not sure this question will get us far because this stuff is not big enough. Wendell has a very small idea of technology; a too small idea. By my calculation the total summation of technology equals civilization. Civilization is technology. Technology is the aggregate accumulative work of human imagination and invention.

By this calculus Wendell’s question becomes, “How can civilization/technology help to make people better?” Or, “What is the gift to us that technology delivers?”

The advancement gifted by technology is often hard to see. Every thought can be subverted. Every technology can be abused. With every solution a technology brings, it also brings new problems. The more powerful the thought and technology, the more disruptive it is. If all that technology brings is an even wash of good and bad – then the gift is a meager one. However what technology ultimately offers is far greater that some more bad and some more good. In the sum it offers increased possibilities and choices. And this is why we gravitate to it so.

In general, a technology presents humans another way of thinking about something. Each invention brings another view of life, another choice, an alternative state of being. Each additional tool, material, or media we invent offers humanity another way to express our hearts and souls, and another way to test the truth. As more possible ways to express the human condition are devised it enlarges the pool of people who can find their unique place.

We value diversity for its own good. Diversity – possible species, possible races, possible view points – is an end it itself that we crave. It is what we want (among other things) for our children – to have choices. More than anything else, this is what the technium brings us: choices. More than anything else, it is technology (the human imagination made real) which creates choices.

While in general new technologies don’t eliminate old ones, occasionally a particular technology will diminish previous choices. Sometimes, too, a technology will not yield as many options as it promised. Our challenge is to substitute these as fast as possible. The remedy for a limiting technology is a liberating technology.

The gifts of technology are possibilities, opportunities, diversity of ideas. Without technology we have very little of those. Our collective job is to replace technologies that constrain real choice, with those that open it up. The telephone, for instance, is a technology that continually widens opportunities and possibilities, while closing off very little. DDT is a technology that unlocks some important possibilities but restricts too many others. Genetic engineering opens up vast terrains of choices, but its potential to constrict many others is both vast and uncertain.

To return to Wendell Berry’s question: How can technology make a person better? Only in this way: by providing them with chances. A chance to excel at the unique mixture of talents they were born with, a chance to encounter new ideas and new minds, a chance to be different than their parents, a chance to create something their own.

I will be the first to add that by themselves – without anything around them – these possibilities are insufficient for human happiness, let alone betterment. Choice works best when it has values to guide it. But if one has spiritual values, Wendell seems to say, do you even need technology to be happy? Or, in other words, is technology necessary at all for human betterment? The same question can be applied to the enlarged versions of technology I prefer: Is civilization necessary for human betterment? Because I think the technium and civilization are the same. I say yes. The technium is necessary for human betterment. A special subset of humans will find that the constrained set of choices found in, say, a monastery cell, the tiny opportunities in a hermit’s cave, or in the deliberately restricted choices of a wandering guru are the path to betterment. But most humans, most times in history, see the accumulating pile of possibilities in a rich civilization as something that makes them better people. That’s why we make civilization/technology. That’s why we have cities and libraries. They produce choices.

Choices without values yield little, this is true; but values without choices are equally dry.

The gift of technology is possibility — possibilities in ever increasing mountains of diversity. Like biological life itself (despite its many hourly horrors), and like diversity itself, I find greater possibility to be an unequivocal good.




Comments
  • rick

    Some anthropologists say that all technology can be divided into two parts: artifact and behavior. Thus a spoken language is not technology because it is all behavior with no artifact. Likewise, if an alien culture leaves some useful tools with a culture that doesn’t know how to use them, there is no technology transfer, because the artifact is present but the behavior is not.

    So that definition is a little bit more restrictive, and IMHO more useful.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Rick,

      You say: “Some anthropologists say that all technology can be divided into two parts: artifact and behavior. ”

      I’d like to hear more examples before I can agree or not. Is the alphabet an artifact? Is music? What about laws?

  • Marci McKim

    When collecting user requirements to be used in designing a new system, my first question is, “How can we make it easier for you to do your job?” Most users are delighted to provide ideas and help think the design into being. Long before they see any tangible benefit, technology gives these people a lift. They anticipate the benefit and know they’ve made a contribution to it.

    Technology is all about automation; making people’s lives easier. Uncle Grog truly valued his wheel, Auntie Choog her sewing needle. The Roman Empire had indoor plumbing, but with no communications technology, the British Isles had to wait a couple of centuries.

    It would be disingenuous to forget the technology of war, which allows modern people to kill others by remote control.

    Nowadays, technology spreads geometrically, as more people are thinking about it. If people are to save the planet from the oven, it will be due to technology – the same phenomenon that contributes to the problem.

    Technology in and of itself has no morality, it is a tool. A tool has no volition, therefore it can have no morality. A hammer can build a house or kill a child. The intention of the person wielding the tool creates the morality of the situation. Isaiah’s exhortation to “beat your swords into plowshares” (and vice-versa!) is about technology, the primitive multi-tool!

    The finest use of technology today is to expose the largest number of people to the largest numbers of ideas, unprecedented on this planet. That you and I can read Pravda, China Daily, and other nations’ newspapers is a gift. Any literate person with internet access can do the same, and see the world through someone else’s eyes for a moment.

  • Peggy MacTavish

    Working upfront and personal in technology development for over a decade now makes it difficult for me to see the bigger more artistic effect technology development is having on society. What bothers me most is the paradoxical reaction and lack of reaction taken by society surrounding technology development. Technological advancement is constantly being “reported” as somehow in condratiction with natural process or evolution. As humans we are part of natural progression, so how can what we create, (encompassing all technology development from Shakespeare to computer chips) be anything but natural progression?

  • Kevin Kelly

    Marci’s comment:

    The finest use of technology today is to expose the largest number of people to the largest numbers of ideas, unprecedented on this planet.

    …is one I really like.

  • http://geekytech.blogspot.com John Walter

    I was particularly interested in your discussion of how can we decide which technologies are Good and which are Bad.

    I think you are correct that one thing that Technology can give us is more choice.

    I recently listened to a lecture by Marc Fournier, here’s his blog address – http://tachyphrenia.blogspot.com/ , in which he spoke about how ALL humans have three core psychological needs, and when these needs are met, it allows people to live a happy life, maximizes their chance of a fruitful, positive existance.

    The three needs that Marc spoke about were:

    1) Choicefulness, perhaps otherwise described as autonomy, the ability to make choices as to our actions and how we spend our time.
    2) Capable, be ABLE to do the things we want to do, whether that be to have a specific skill or set of skills and/or the freedom to perform the selected actions.
    3) Connectedness, having rich, personal connections to other human beings.

    Perhaps when we evaluate a technology we could ask whether it not only provides us with greater choice, but does it provide for one or more of any of these psychological needs… If we look at some of the most popular technologies we can see that they do, in fact help humans meet these needs…

    The Automobile – helps us be more autonomous, give us greater feeling of free choice of where to BE and make us more capable to get there.

    The Telephone – increases our ability to stay connected to other individuals, eliminates physical distance as a barrier to communication.

    Mobile Phones – Improves upon a regular phone in that we now have increased choicefulness, we can be wherever we want and STILL stay connected, even more connected to others.

    Anyhow, I won’t ramble on any further, cheers!

    John.

  • http://www.gogerty.com nick gogerty

    some of the most important technology has been legal. Property rights (technology) not poorly implemented is estimated to mean $9.3 trillion in dead assets world wide. A huge opportunity for value creation, by proper allocation of an “information” technology, namely simple registration procedures. http://info.worldbank.org/etools/bSPAN/presentationView.asp?EID=323&PID=647

    I am working on a wiki based solution to help the problem

  • Pekka Muukkonen

    I find it difficult to see the usefulness of labeling technology (/technium) as “Anything born of our minds”. This overgeneralization reminds me of the use of the concept “culture”. “Anything born of our minds” is culture – is it not? And more often the works of Shakespeare or paintings of van Gogh are regarded as gems of culture and not of technology – and for a good reason (if we take for example the dictionary definition: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively…). So what’s the difference between technology and culture? Or is there any distinct characteristics? Is technology “material culture” or what’s the relationship between these two human products?

    In my opinion the remark about “enhancing possibilities” is a good one. I think technology enhances possibilities to produce different kinds of cultural artefacts and manifest our creative being. The relationship is of course a dialectical one… As Churchill crystallized the idea:”

    “first we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”.

    Winston Churchill

    24th November 1951

    What comes to the Marci’s comment about the hammer: I believe that a hammer can be usedto build a house – or kill a baby. Hammer in itself does not do anything (this is just a remark on the subject of agency). At least I have not come across any magic hammers that could build houses – nor have I seen any hammers flying around on a killing spree. The only kind of hammer I’ve seen the kind that lies in its place until picked up and put to work as an extension to human intention… The question is what kinds of affordances an object arouses. Hammer is a very versatile tool providing a quite large set of affordances whereas for example a pistol or Mace are “good” for only a limited range of uses.