Philosophy of technology

- Sudeep Adhikari, Kathmandu

Jun 3, 2019-

Man’s relationship with tools is ancient. The rudimentary form of human intelligence is most commonly associated with that epoch when Homo sapiens started making tools to ease 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 interrelation with scientific awareness, which humans, as a biological species, can only claim authority on. Obviously, monkeys are not sending rockets to Mars, neither are crows. While ancient civilisations were already adept at using various ingenious methods to make their lives easier and more comfortable, with the help of 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 existed in pre-scientific societies. The proper science of hydraulics, which guides our contemporary water-management technology, consummated 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.

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 prosthetics, thus connecting it organically to our collective consciousness. A bit farther down 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 metaphorical sense, of course), thus 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. This also explains why technology is always in flux, always changing and evolving. In a sense, technology is a constant self-erasure, a deconstructive phenomenon which has to constantly kill itself to remain alive.

After 2008, we 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, all humans are connected psychically with their smart-phone, which needless to say, has and will have numerous cultural repercussions in future.

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

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 the last seven to eight decades.

Technology is entangled with our collective consciousness in a non-linear way, such that our evolution is mutual. We use technology, and technology uses us in return.

The writer is a structural engineer by profession. He writes on philosophy, science, psychology and popular culture.

Published: 04-06-2019 07:00

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