Category Archives: Definitions

Patterns of Use

Ashen CrossDid you give something up for Lent this year? This is that time of year when many Christians choose to give up something in order to sharpen their attention in preparation for Easter. I’ve observed this tradition haphazardly in the past, but this year I decided to experiment with giving up something that I have lately been feeling a little to addicted to: Facebook.

I’ve been spending way too much time on Facebook lately. Google’s Chrome web browser shows you a list of your most-visited web sites when you open a new tab, and Facebook has been at the top of that list for some time now. Like many people, I tend to check Facebook several times a day, whenever I’m feeling bored or have a little time to kill. I enjoy being able to keep up on the lives of my friends, many of whom are scattered far away from my little corner of the world. I love reading their pithy comments, seeing pictures of their kids, reading what they found interesting, and laughing along with them at the never-ending stream of funny pictures that quickly spread through the social network.

But I’ve noticed over the years that the way I use Facebook has changed a few times. When I first joined in 2007, I mostly used it to reconnect with old college and high school friends. I would run across someone I used to know, friend them, and then exchange a few private messages to find out how their life turned out.

That worked well for a while, but then I had to figure out what to post on my own profile. Early posts were scans of old photos and bad attempts at being witty, but I soon settled into posting what I was making for dinner that night, and providing the corresponding recipe as a note. My profile quickly became a sort of cookbook, and some of my friends started to reciprocate.

I eventually ran out of recipes, however, and as I became friends with more and more people from various peripheral areas of my life, I began to pay attention to how my posts would make me look to these people who were really more like acquaintances or work colleagues than personal friends. In our social lives, we tend to project slightly different versions of ourselves to different groups, wearing costumes and projecting personalities that allow us to fit better into those contexts. The same is true on Facebook, which is why they’ve been trying to make it easier to group your friends and post some things to one group, but not to others. But it’s still way too easy to make a mistake and post something you’d rather not share with that prospective employer or those highly-conservative relatives.

Since Facebook’s grouping features have been fairly difficult to use so far (this is one area that Google+ really did much better), I chose instead to restrict my posts to only those things that I felt comfortable sharing with everyone. Now I tend to share only news articles that I found particularly interesting (and not too controversial), and links to my own blog posts.

When I reflect on all of this, I see something interesting. Through my usage, I’ve made Facebook into three different kinds of tools: a global directory for reconnection; a social recipe exchange; and a mechanism for shameless self-promotion. When I look at what my friends tend to post, I see even more distinct kinds of use: asking for advice; recruiting volunteers; communicating with students; organizing events and reunions; and providing space for dialog about a current issues (though that last one rarely seems to go well).

Notice that all of these patterns of use go beyond the shallow forms of sharing and socializing that critics of Facebook assume is the only possible use of the service. While it is true that Facebook might encourage its customers to use the service in a particular sort of way, it does not completely determine how any particular person might use it. The distinction is important. It is the difference between thinking of technologies as unstoppable forces that have one-way impacts on culture, and thinking of them as having a certain degree of “interpretive flexibility.” If that flexibility exists, humans are surprisingly good at taking advantage of it, bending the technology towards their own values, desires, and intentions.

Admittedly, some artifacts have very few possible patterns of use: atomic weapons and birth control pills are interesting examples. Although their underlying techniques might be used for multiple purposes, these finished artifacts almost dictate their own usage, and carry with them a particular set of values. Atomic weapons can be used to deter or attack, but they cannot reasonably be used for demolition or tunneling like dynamite can. And lest we not forget, dynamite is also a really effective tool for fishing!

So how do you use Facebook? Have you found ways to use it that go beyond sharing and socializing?

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Technological Domestication

When the iPad was first introduced, I read every review of it I could find, but one of them has stuck with me more than the others. The reviewer likened the iPad to a new puppy, something that filled your life with love and joy, but also annoyed you as it chewed up your favorite slippers, shredded your pillow, and peed all over your new carpet. The reviewer was anxious for the iPad to transition into that good old dog who sat by your side, provided unwavering companionship, and behaved the way you wanted it to.

What I loved most about that review was how it perfectly captured one of my favorite concepts from media and technology studies: domestication. Metaphorically speaking, new technologies are similar to untrained puppies; they create chaos and upheaval in their owners’ lives when first introduced, but their owners typically respond by domesticating them: reshaping their behaviors, and sometimes even their physical attributes (e.g. neutering), so that they better fit the existing social order. A house with a dog is never the same as a house without one, but a well-domesticated dog bends as much to its owners as its owners bend to it.

Domestication theory, like it sounds, posits that technological adoption is an active process where designers, producers, marketers, and consumers struggle to work out what a new device or system actually is, and what it is good for. As opposed to the more traditional view where technologies enter the consumer space and are assumed to have one-way “impacts” on culture, domestication researchers stress the ways in which people wrestle with and often reshape technologies as they fit them into their everyday lives.

For example, consider the introduction of a television into a household. I’m just old enough that I remember the first time my parents brought home a large (maybe 15″) color television. Before that, we had a very small black-and-white television that we sometimes watched, but this new color set was the first real TV we ever had. Although the artifact itself carried with it some suggestions for how it should be used, it did not completely determine how we fit it into our lives. It had the look of a piece of furniture, so it could have fit well into our main living area, but my parents were the sort that wanted to relegate the TV to a separate, designated room. This placement sent the message to us boys that watching TV was something out of the ordinary, something to be done occasionally and purposefully.

My parents also carefully regulated what we watched on that television, and when we watched it. My brother and I desperately loved The Six Million Dollar Man, but we also quickly learned that we had to remain on our best behavior to watch it, as it aired just after our normal bed time. Sadly, we missed many of the episodes due to our inability to resist fighting with one another, so I never did find out what happend when Steve Austin met the Sasquatch. Watching TV on a sunny day was also verboten; my mother was particular in her desire that we go outside and play whenever we had the chance to do so. Perhaps she just wanted to watch her own shows in peace….

Like all good parents, mine were also concerned about regulating the way in which we watched television: sitting too close to the set would reap condemnations and warnings that we’d soon go blind, which I’m guessing was a popular urban myth at the time. Sitting upside down on the couch, which seemed perfectly fun to us, was also never tolerated. If we were going to watch TV, we need to watch it, not play around. All of this communicated that watching TV was serious business, and not something you did aimlessly while you played with other things.

My point is that while the physical artifact and the programming streamed through it suggested or even encouraged particular patterns of use, they did not entirely determine how that device was incorporated into my family’s home. My parents domesticated that television: our house was never the same after it was introduced, but the physical placement of the device, and the way in which our use of it was regulated, reshaped our understanding of what it was, and what it was good for.

So where was the TV in your childhood house, and what rules did your parents establish (or not establish) regarding its use? How are you actively domesticating new technologies that are entering your life today? Are your domestication efforts proving successful, or are your new devices metaphorically chewing your coffee table legs to bits?

Affordances and Vulnerabilities

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to be completely “owned” by a device, like a mobile phone for instance, while other people seem to be able to integrate that same device into their lives in a much healthier way? I have friends who constantly check their phones, even when I am trying to have a conversation with them, and other friends who carry a phone but are happy to ignore text messages and even calls when they are having in-person meetings. This also doesn’t seem to be strictly a product of age. Amongst my nieces, nephews, and students, I see the same phenomenon: some are seemingly addicted to their phones, while others are able to treat it as a useful tool that has an appropriate time and place.

In Sherry Turkle’s latest book, which I reviewed in an earlier post, she introduces a pair of concepts that I have found to be very useful in thinking about this phenomenon: technological affordances, and human vulnerabilities.

Book cover for Design of Everyday ThingsThe term ‘affordances’ actually comes from Donald Norman, the cognitive psychologist who wrote the classic book The Design of Everyday Things (a must-read for anyone involved in designing user interfaces). In that book, he defined affordances as “those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used” (9). Affordances give us clues as to how a device should be used: a flat metal plate on a door suggests pushing, while a vertical handle suggests pulling; a button suggests pushing, while a short rod sticking out a right angle suggests flipping.

The brilliance of Norman’s book is how he demonstrates these concepts on the completely mundane and often unnoticed things we use every day: doors, faucets, lights, stoves, teapots, etc. Once you read the book, you’ll never be able to look at these items in the same way again. You’ll also start to notice just how badly designed many of these things are. If a door needs a sign that says “push,” it’s a failure of design, not the users.

This same concept of affordances also works with more complicated devices. Just as the design of a door suggests a type of interaction, the design of a mobile phone (and its corresponding service) or a social networking site can also suggest one or more patterns of use. Designers “inscribe” these patterns into the physical artifacts, and systems behind them, through explicit design choices. Marketers then reinforce those by demonstrating particular patterns of use in their ads. Of course, users don’t have to follow these suggestions, and historical case studies are rife with examples of how consumers have adopted new technologies in ways that were contrary to those suggested by the manufacturer (for example, see the book How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology).

Turkle’s second and related concept is that of human vulnerabilities. Each one of us has particular needs, wants, or addictions that make us vulnerable in particular ways. For example, some people have deep seated insecurities that tend to make them vulnerable to anyone or anything that promises to make them feel more accepted and loved. Others struggle with an overwhelming need for interpersonal connection, and are thus vulnerable to anything that promises to satisfy that. Still others have a deep fear of chaos and are thus vulnerable to anything that allows them to exert control and order over their situation.

When the affordances of a device or system align well with a given person’s vulnerabilities, the results will often be unhealthy for that person. For example, someone with a high need for social interaction but a deep-seated fear of intimacy might find Facebook so alluring that it becomes almost addictive. A person with a fear of chaos and a high need for control will eagerly embrace a mobile smartphone and obsessively check email or the web.

The important point to note here is that this combination of affordances and vulnerabilities is personal and particular. There probably are some vulnerabilities that are truly universal to all humans, but most are not. Some people can walk into a casino, have a bit of fun gambling, and walk out without issue, while others will walk into that same casino and quickly fall into an addiction response. Similarly, some people can carry a mobile phone or use Facebook as helpful tools, while others fall into a pattern of use that enslaves them to the device or service. If affordances align with vulnerabilities, there’s a high likelihood that the relationship will be unhealthy, but if not, it may be perfectly fine.

I like these concepts because they offer a more nuanced way of investigating and critiquing new technologies. Too often we see shocking news articles about “on call” teens that imply this will be the fate of all teens who use a mobile phone. Or we hear a technological critic assert that “Facebook is making us shallow and narcissistic,” assuming that everyone is using it in the same way, and with the same results. These kind of universal statements don’t represent the particular and variable relationships that people have with these systems. They also don’t really help potential users (nor their parents) assess whether they will be able to adopt a new device or system in a healthy way or not.

In order to make that assessment, we need to uncover two things: the affordances (suggested, probable, and possible patterns of use) of the devices or systems in question; and our own particular vulnerabilities. The former is achieved by analyzing and deconstructing the design of the new device or system, and the latter is achieved only by reflection, introspection, and a large dose of self-knowledge and honesty. Both of these are hard to do, and the latter can often be painful, but if we truly desire a more healthy relationship with our technologies, we must endure.

Nature and Wilderness

File:Dhonitokyoahead.jpgOver the last couple of weeks, I’ve dipped in and out of a book that my wife was assigned when she was a graduate student at Regent College. The book is Letters from Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race by Romano Guardini, and given the subtitle you’d think I would have been excited to read it, but for one reason or another I had put it off until just recently.

In a way, I’m glad I did. If I had read it ten years ago, I think I would have been captured by it, pulled in by Guardini’s poetic writing and Romantic themes, lulled into a sense of agreement without critical reflection. Take for example this passage about a sailboat he observes:

Take a vessel sailing on Lake Como. Though it is of considerable weight, the masses of wood and linen, along with the force of the wind, combine so perfectly that is has become light. When it sails before the wind, my heart laughs to see how something of this sort has become so light and bright of itself by reason of its perfect form…. It is full of mind and spirit, this perfectly fashioned movement in which we master the force of nature. Certainly we pay for it already with a certain remoteness. We are no longer plunged into the sphere of wind and water as birds and fishes are…. We have both withdrawn from nature and mastered it. Our relation to it is now cooler and more alien…. Yet do you not see how natural the work remains? The lines and proportions of the ship are still in profound harmony with the pressure of the wind and waves and the vital human measure. Those who control the ship are still closely related to the wind and waves. They are breast to breast with their force. Eye and hand and whole body brace against them. We have here real culture—elevation above nature, yet decisive nearness to it…. We master nature by the power of mind and spirit, but we ourselves remain natural (11-12).

Putting aside for the moment the rather confusing claim that we can “master nature” yet “remain natural,” let me ask this: what sort of image does this passage evoke for you? For me, it’s a genteel pleasure-sailor serenely piloting his sailboat across a placid lake on a calm sunny day. I’ve been sailing myself on such a day, and I have to say that I had that same feeling of the boat being in “profound harmony” with the wind and waves. It’s easy to have that feeling when the weather is cooperative.

But let’s consider for a moment another kind of image. One of a frightened fisherman, drenched by rain and windswept waves, desperately trying to keep his boat afloat in the gale-force winds that came sooner than expected. No longer is the boat in “profound harmony” with the wind and waves—in fact, the sails that make up the boat’s “perfect form” have now become a dangerous liability. Without another means of propulsion and control, the best a sailor can do is drop the sails, try to keep the boat from rolling, and hope that the swell doesn’t carry the boat into the rocks.

The distinction here arises from how one understands the word ‘nature’ and our relationship to it. Romantics love to refer to nature, pointing out how technology alienates us from it, and urging us to get back to it. But the kind of nature these authors mean is what Leo Marx has referred to as “pastoral nature,” a tamed and domesticated version of the other, more raw kind of nature, which he calls “wilderness.”

Wilderness, as the name implies, is wild, a place generally untouched by humans. Wilderness is the sort of nature that you experience when you go backpacking in a remote part of the mountains, where you are the one who doesn’t belong, not the bear or mountain lion.  Wilderness is also not particularly friendly to humans; it is in a literal sense “inhospitable.” I often joke that wilderness actively tries to kill you, but that is anthropomorphic. It might be better to say that wilderness is a place where survival must be constantly won in the face of threatening conditions.

Pastoral nature, on the other hand, is the kind of bucolic nature that we typically associate with landscape paintings, well-tended farmland, or walks on a well-maintained trail. Pastoral nature has been domesticated, altered to be more hospitable to humans. It has been refashioned to serve our needs. Regardless of how “naturally beautiful” it may seem, pastoral nature is a product of human action. We might even call it an artifact.

When we talk about technology “in harmony with” nature, we need to be careful to explain what kind of nature we’re thinking of. Not everyone has the luxury of staying within pastoral nature. Think of a fisherman from an island in the north Atlantic. To perform his work, he must face a wilderness of ocean where storms can arise suddenly with devastating results. Does it really make sense to argue that a sailboat is somehow morally superior to a motor boat in that kind of context? I think not. Instead, I think it makes more sense to recognize that a moral judgement about a technology must be made within a particular context of use. Only then can we judge whether that particular pattern of use is “in harmony” with the kind of relationships, both with each other and with the environment, into which Jesus calls us to live.

Supplements and Substitutes

About a month ago, a family riding their ATVs came upon a woman in a van in the remote wilderness of northern Nevada. The woman had been stranded there for seven weeks, rationing her food and drinking muddy water; she was very near death. Her husband had set off on foot to find help a few days after their van had gotten stuck in the mud, and as of this writing, he still has not been found.

Porsche Design P'9611 GPS Navigation SystemThis story is tragic enough, but what is even more heartbreaking is how the couple got stranded in the first place. According to news reports, the couple was not from the area, but were instead attempting to take a scenic route to Las Vegas. Unfamiliar with the local terrain, they had followed the advice of their GPS navigation system, and taken a road that even in good weather would have been unpredictably treacherous. A few miles in, their van became mired in mud and they were unable to turn around.

This story, and others like it, have been causing me to ponder why we seem to put so much faith in these kinds of technological systems. I don’t presume to know the full details of this couple’s ordeal—the reports in the press have so far been too vague—but I wonder why they trusted the advice of their GPS navigation system in such a remote and potentially dangerous area? Why did they continue down what was clearly not a main road when they were unfamiliar with the area, and it was getting close to dark?

As I have been thinking about this, a new distinction has been forming in my mind, a distinction between treating a new artifact or system as a supplement to existing skills, or as a substitute for them. GPS navigation systems are often marketed as if they can completely substitute for more rudimentary navigation and route-choosing skills. But when approached in this way, users might be tempted to wander off into potentially dangerous territory, thinking that their devices will always safely guide them to their destinations. But what happens when the information is out of date, or simply misleading? What happens when the system malfunctions?

When we approach a GPS navigation system as a supplement to existing, hard-won skills, the devices can indeed be quite helpful. My friends have told me stories about how their devices have guided them successfully through unfamiliar cities, but each of them would also override the system’s advice if it started to take them in what seemed like the wrong direction, or through what looked like a dangerous area. Their existing navigational and evaluative skills are still in charge, and the GPS navigation system is acting only as a supplement to them.

This is not to say, however, that we should never let a technology become a complete substitute for existing skills, but we do need to be aware of the costs that come along with letting that happen. Although my furnace and thermostat are a substitute for the skills of building and maintaining an open-hearth fire, I certainly do not think that is a bad thing. There are costs to this substitution—I would have no idea how to fix it if it broke, and thus would need to hire an expert to repair it, and it creates a reliance on fossil fuels, as well as the loss of what Borgmann calls a “focal” thing—but those costs do not outweigh the benefits it provides. In the end, it is a trade-off that I am willing to make.

The trouble, I think, comes when we do not even consider the costs, or put so much faith in the system’s reliability that we think those costs will never occur. We too often accept the claims of marketers without critical evaluation, and fail to consider carefully the trade-offs we are making. Some of those trade-offs are desirable or even necessary, but others are perhaps not. Only through reflection and discussion can we determine which is which.

Is this distinction between supplements and substitutes helpful to you? Can you think of other examples where you have substituted a technology for more rudimentary skills, and do you think that has been a net benefit for you? What other kinds of technologies need to be approached as supplements rather than substitutes?

Technology and Culture, Part I

I started this blog with my definition of the word ‘technology’, and it’s now time for me to define what I mean by ‘culture’ and how I think the two interact. Someday I’ll get to ‘Christian spirituality’, but one step at a time!

Without a doubt, the concept of culture is complicated. It’s a bit like the concept of money–it surrounds us, we rely on it nearly every day, but when pressed to define it precisely or comprehensively, most of us would have a hard time doing so. Both money and culture are concepts that seem to point towards real, tangible things in the world, but when we press into them and start to examine them more closely, they begin to disappear, slipping through our analytical fingers like dissipating smoke.

Since a full theoretical exploration of culture and its relation to technology will take several posts, I want to start by reviewing an article that helped me think more clearly about all this. It’s entitled “Redefining the Social Link: From Baboons to Humans“, written by the French sociologist (and provocateur) Bruno Latour and the primate anthropologist Shirley Strum. It’s a fairly succinct article that introduces the reader to Latour’s very interesting way of thinking about technology and culture, which I have found to be particularly enlightening.

He begins by setting up a bit of a straw-man to represent the more traditional sociological approach, one that he refers to as the “ostensive model.” This model assumes that society is something that is “out there,” apart from the individual actors that participate within it. Sociologists can learn some information about the society from the participants, but these poor “dupes” can never see what the objective sociologist is able to see–the overall social structures that constrain and guide the actions of the participants.

(For those new to sociological language, ‘actor’ is a term used to describe any social participant. This allows one not only to speak about human and primate societies using the same language, but also to allow non-human actors—that is, machines—to have some degree of agency in the society. See actor-network theory, which I will describe in a later post.)

Latour then suggests a different approach, one he terms the “performative model.” This model comes from blending the sociological work of Garfinkel with that of Latour’s own anthropological study of scientific practice (see Science in Action). Instead of assuming that society exists somehow apart from actors, encompassing and controlling them, the performative model sees society as the product of the actors’ own attempts to define it. That is to say, society is constantly re-created every time one actor convinces another actor that society is the way that first actor says it is.

The authors illustrate this first by talking about baboon societies. Contrary to initial scientific opinions, baboons do construct somewhat complex social orders, and the establishment of dominance seems to be at the heart of them. But this still leaves an open question: how do the baboons know who is dominant and who is not? They seem to be constantly testing each other, as humans often do, to see who is allied to whom, who is the leader of whom, and what strategies are most effective for making others do what they want them to do.

The authors then make the following, rather startling conclusion: the primate researcher and the baboons are trying to answer the same question! They are both attempting to define the social order by participating, interacting, and observing the results. With each interaction, they are attempting to articulate some aspect of the social order, and if they are successful in convincing others of their claims, the social order (both for the baboons and for the scientists) is recreated as they say it is.

Baboon societies, however, are limited in scale and tend to be somewhat fragile and fleeting compared to human societies. This, the authors argue, is because baboons have few resources besides their bodies with which to convince others of their definitions of the social order. A male baboon might be able to assert dominance over his local area, but cannot extend that dominance to places he does not frequent. Baboons within a given society are also constantly testing one another, vying to establish a new dominance and thus a new social order.

So what does this have to do with human societies and technology? Well, as opposed to baboons, we humans have developed many types of symbolic and material resources with which we can extend a particular social order across both space and time. These resources are the ideologies, techniques, institutions, and material artifacts that we interact with most every day. They are not only the products of technological practice, but also the things we commonly lump together under the word ‘culture’.

This is not to say, however, that these technologies have a deterministic affect on those who choose to adopt them. A stereo set is a symbolic and material resource that the producers and marketers might use to assert a particular aspect of the social order, but the adopters of that artifact may in turn use it in a different way, ascribing to it a new meaning in order to assert a different kind of social order. Both groups are trying to convince others that the world is the way they say it is, using the various resources at their disposal to extend that definition over space and time.

In short, technology and culture are really two sides of the same coin. When we look at it one way, we see technological practitioners producing knowledge, techniques, artifacts, and systems that change the way we relate to one another. When we look at it the other way, we see social groups forming shared values, traditions, institutions, and material practices that define and reinforce the group. But we’re really talking about the same thing: attempts by actors to convince others that the world is as they say it is.

Do Re Mi

Last weekend I attended an engaging conference on technology, culture, and faith down at Laity Lodge in Texas. The primary speakers were Albert Borgmann and Eugene Peterson, but there were also several others who presented their research, or participated in panel discussions grouped around different perspectives (practitioners, pastors, and theologians). It was thoroughly enjoyable, but what struck me as particularly strange was that none of these presenters ever defined what they actually meant by the words ‘technology’ and ‘culture’, much less articulate their understanding of how the two interact.

This was even more surprising given that Borgmann’s definition of ‘technology’ is quite different from the way most people use the word in everyday speech. In his classic philosophical inquiry into technology, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann defines technology as “the characteristic way in which we today take up with the world” (Borgmann 1984, 35). For Borgmann, the word ‘technology’ does not refer to human-built things in general (artifacts), nor does it refer to the general practice of designing and building those artifacts (craft or engineering). For him, the word refers to a particular way of relating to the world, a way that is dominated by what he calls the “device paradigm” (40ff). This paradigm seeks to commodify all things, even those things which we once thought of as sacred, so they can be delivered via devices, about which we have little to no understanding.

One of his classic examples is the distinction between playing music yourself via an instrument like a violin, and playing music via a stereo set. In the former case, the music is something made through participation, and the product is unique and located in both place and time. In the latter case, the music has been commodified into a recording that can be mass-produced, bought and sold, recreated at any time and in any place at the whim of an owner who no longer needs to know anything about how to play an instrument, nor how the stereo set actually works. This example is provocative and appealing, but as I will argue in a later post, somewhat problematic when we consider a historical case that challenges where the distinction between these two cases actually lies.

I say all of this not because I want to critique the conference itself; after all, most of the people there knew the conference revolved around Borgmann’s work, had read him before, and probably knew how he was using the word. But there were some who were new to this conversation and were somewhat confused as to what he really meant. Eugene Peterson then confused these people even more by talking about “pre-technological societies,” a phrase that makes sense only if you use Borgmann’s definition of the term.

After talking with some of these folks, I realized that if we are going to have this discussion in such a way that the rest of the church, and especially technological practitioners, can follow along, we need to define our key terms up front. Only then can we think and communicate clearly about what technology is, how it relates to culture and Christian spirituality, and how we can reshape that relation into something more aligned with the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus.

So as Julie Andrews once taught us, “let’s start at the beginning / a very good place to start.” When we sing we begin with “do-re-mi”, and when we talk about this subject, we must be begin with that slippery word ‘tech-nol-o-gy’! (yes, this is a bad joke, but anyone who knows my sense of humor should expect it!)

Alan Kay, the computer pioneer who developed object-oriented programming, once quipped that for most people, technology is “everything invented after you were born.” That is, most people use the term to refer only to the “stuff” of technological production, and usually restrict its scope to fairly recent innovations (often those involving electronics). Most people readily call an iPhone a piece of technology, but many will hesitate to apply that same term to paper, pencils, ink, or even manual typewriters.
But this colloquial definition clearly won’t do. It’s too subjective and far too limited. It doesn’t capture the rich array of techniques and artifacts that make up our human-built world. It doesn’t acknowledge the creative act of making things that every artisan and engineer tacitly understands. Ultimately, it leads us towards the unhelpful conclusion that everything that existed when we were born is ‘good’ or even ‘natural’, and everything that came later is ‘bad’ or at the very least suspect.

To form a better definition, we need to start with a little etymology. Although the literal meaning of the word bears only a faint resemblance to our anemic use of the word in practice, it does point to a deeper foundational meaning that can provide us with some insights. Those of you who remember your Language Arts classes probably recognize that it has a rather common suffix: ‘-ology’. ‘Biology’ is the study of life (bios), ‘theology’ is the study of God (theos), so it would follow that ‘technology’ in its literal sense means the study of something. But what?

The root of the word ‘technology’ is the Greek word technê, which is commonly translated into English as ‘art’ or ‘craft’. In its most literal sense, the word ‘technology’ simply means “the study of art or craft.” The artist who draws, paints, sculpts or plays a musical instrument employs technê, as does the carpenter, blacksmith, craftsperson, architect, and engineer. In English, we typically use the word ‘artist’ to refer to someone who makes decorative things, and ‘artisan’ for someone who makes practical things, but the line between these in practice is always blurry and permeable. The arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrated just how misleading this distinction can be, and inspired industrial design of recent times (a la Braun, Breville, Dualit, and Apple Computer) continues to blur the lines.

The word ‘technology’ first entered English in the seventeenth century, and it was used at that time in its literal sense: a systematic study of one of the arts (Nye 2007, 11). A book on glassmaking, for example, would be called a “technology of glassmaking.” Even as the English-speaking world began to industrialize in the eighteenth century, those developing the new steam engines were most commonly referred to as “mechanics” who practiced the “mechanical arts” and not “technologists” who built “technology.” It wasn’t until after World War I that English speakers began to borrow the German word technik (translated as ‘technics’) to refer to the entire compendium of the mechanical arts as well as their resulting products and social influences (see for example, Mumford’s 1934 book Technics and Civilization). In the subsequent decades, this capacious understanding of technics was poured into the English word ‘technology’ and ‘technics’ fell out of fashion.

This was all well and good, but in the latter part of the twentieth century, Americans in particular began to narrow the term’s meaning to apply only to electronic and then digital devices. To “work in technology” came to be a simple pseudonym for working with computers or other forms of electronics, and with the adoption of the Internet and World Wide Web in the 1990s, it narrowed even further, primarily referring to electronic media, communications, and social networking.

If we are to think more clearly about technology, culture, and Christian spirituality, we must recapture two elements that are revealed in this rather brief etymology: first, technology is fundamentally linked to human creativity; and second, technology encompasses not only human-built artifacts, but also the techniques, practices, and the cultural contexts that surround those artifacts.

Because this word is so slippery, historians of technology often avoid overusing the word itself, and instead rely on more specific terms. When we talk about the ‘stuff’ of technology, we tend to use the word ‘artifacts’ (in opposition to ‘naturafacts’ which exist apart from human intervention). When we talk about technology as knowledge, we use the term ‘technique’. When we talk about technology as a form of practice, we use terms like ‘artisanal’ or ‘engineering’. And when we talk about technology embedded in culture, we use terms such as ‘sociotechnical systems’ and ‘actor networks’.

In my thinking, the term ‘technology’ encompasses all of these more specific meanings, and points towards our basic human impulse for creativity, a desire that arises from being made in the image of our Creator. Technology is also fundamentally a part of what we call ‘culture’, and is in fact one of the key mechanisms we use to continually reestablish and propagate that culture across space and time…but that is a topic for another post.

References:

  • Albert Borgmann. 1984. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. University of Chicago Press.
  • David Nye. 2007. Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. MIT Press.