Philosophy of technology


Sudeep Adhikari


Man’s relation with the tools is an ancient one. The rudimentary form of human intelligence is most commonly associated with that epoch when homo-sapiens started making tools to ease up their survival. It is also a common way to relate the intelligence of any non-human species with their ability to use tools, for instance, primates and a few species of birds. As a species, we have a tacit understanding of the term “technology”, which in a loose pedantic way can be defined as the “constellation of methods, techniques and systems to imperatively facilitate our intentions”.

The reason why the term “technology” has an intrinsic anthropomorphic shade is because of its close inter-relation with the scientific awareness, which humans, as a biological species, can only claim their hands on.  Obviously monkeys are not sending rockets to the Mars, neither are the crows. While the ancient civilizations were already adept at using various ingenious methods to make their life easier and more comfortable, by “technology” we are habitually inclined to identify the post-renaissance (scientific) paradigm. For instance, water-management technologies in the form of irrigation canals and dams were existent in pre-scientific societies.  The proper science of hydraulics which guides our contemporary water-management technology came into existence only after the advent of Newtonian mechanics in the 16th century; not to forget the valuable contribution on the development of fluid-mechanics by the ancient Greeks, and by the occasional singular geniuses like Blaise Pascal and Leonardo Da Vinci.

This is reasonable if we note the deluge of innovations antecedent to the scientific revolution brought on by the advent of Newtonian Mechanics. As noted by James Lovelock (A Rough Guide to the Future, 2014), the annual rate of invention if extrapolated backwards, its exponential slope flattens in the 18th century, which confirms the fact that the way we appreciate modern technological paradigm is primarily derived from the scientific renaissance.

So, is technology just the extension of our faculties aided/accelerated by scientific renaissance to meet our desire to transcend space and time? Despite the popular belief, it is certainly more than that.

The way technology has gone into symbiosis with our current milieu is in the form of a cultural unit; which instantly relieves it of its role as a mere prosthetic, thus connecting it organically to our collective consciousness.

The way technology has gone into symbiosis with our current milieu is in the form of a cultural unit; which instantly relieves it of its role as a mere prosthetic, thus connecting it organically to our collective consciousness. On a bit farther extreme of the spectrum, Paul Goodman (New Reformation, 1970) famously stated “Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science”.  The conceptual shift from “technology as a mere scientific appendage” to “technology as a branch of moral philosophy”, therefore, also requires a major shift in our values for a wholesome world-view.

Technology introduces non-linearity in our psycho-cultural matrix in an irreversible way. That is, despite our conscious awareness, once we start using a particular form of technology, it also starts using us (in a metaphoric sense, of course), so putting the pair in an indefinite cycle of mutual metamorphosis. This is best expressed when Marshall McLuhan famously said in a Zen master like fashion “The medium is the message”. The non-linearity is here to stay; your tool are not just facilitates, they also change you irreversibly, and vice versa. This also explains why technology is always in flux, always changing and evolving. In a sense, technology lives a constant self-erasure, a deconstructive phenomenon which has to constantly kill itself to remain alive.

The sage scientist James Lovelock went even further to associate evolution of our technology with our evolution as a species, which now are in a position to control the evolution of biosphere itself, thus rendering it with a more cosmic significance.  Probably soon we will be in the position to geo-engineer the climate and geology of our planet (and others) through our technology, thus affecting the evolution of our species, our culture and our biosphere in an unpredictable way. Paul Mason (Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future, 2015) has argued that industrial capitalism which started at around the end of 18th century has gone through four distinct phases till 2008, each phase driven by  a corresponding technological paradigm. So if we look closely, technology is affecting every large scale system we are inextricably coupled with: from the biosphere, to our culture and our economy.

Neural head

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After 2008, we have most probably entered a new phase of device-driven culture, which is tactile (touch-sensitive technology), and therefore more immersive by its very nature. Post-2008 human is almost a post-human, connected psychically with his smart-phone and laptop, which needless to say, has and will have numerous cultural repercussions in future. Dr. Mary Aiken (The Cyber Effect, 2016) explained how a technology has a tendency to amplify an underlying predisposition, resulting in a certain behavioral escalation. And it is not hard to infer that our current tactile-immersive internet technology has certainly more potential for such effect compared to a 19th century artifact, let’s say, a bicycle.

The earlier form of industrial revolution was boosted by our enhanced understanding of the natural world, thanks to the Newtonian Mechanics. And the recent information revolution was realized owing to our rapid strides in solid-state physics in 20th century, which was made possible by our increased knowledge of atomic under-world, thanks to the Quantum Mechanics. However, there lies a qualitative difference between the corresponding set of technologies that the two paradigms bestowed us with.

Our information technology is currently evolving in an exponential manner, despite the fact that our knowledge of the material universe has saturated in a way in last seven or eight decades. What this establishes is; technology is not just a linear upshot of scientific understanding, but also a cultural whole, equipped with its own rule of dynamics and self-organization. It is entangled with our collective consciousness in a non-linear way, such that our evolution is mutual. Exotic as it may sound, in a rather deeper level, we are also the technology of our technology.

The writer is a structural engineer by profession. Also a poet, he writes regularly on philosophy, religion, science, psychology and pop-culture.

Published on 22 May 2019