To be a Technologist is to be Human

If you go to the Wikipedia entry for “Technologist” today, you’ll find it unwritten. Nobody, thus far, has attempted to explain what a “technologist” is on the Internet’s canonical encyclopedia. As a result, the page can only point the reader to a list of highly specific and mechanical job titles, peddling entries on “cardiovascular technologist” and “architectural technologist” rather than providing a unified overview of what these jobs have in common.

What it means to be a “technologist” is similarly ill-defined in the general popular conception. “Technologist” implies little other than a narrow sense of “technical”: knowing how to construct and/or program a machine. Not only this, the frequent implication is that machines are all a technologist cares about, that technologists are nerdy men who think only in code and prefer not to be bothered with the human constraints and messiness of the world. In turn, the perceived coldness of the machine is projected onto its maker; many of us distance ourselves from our identities as technologists, for fear of identifying with a dehumanizing persona.

The irony here is that to be technological is to be profoundly human. Humanity controls its fate by using tools and materials to survive and to self-realize. The human species developed by gradually accumulating complex, adaptive technologies passed on through cultural transmission, giving us essential tools. Not only does human life and survival depend on our technologies; so do many elements of human culture. A society’s available technologies shape the way people live. A nomadic foraging society’s tools permit very different cultures, customs and habits compared to a society reliant on electricity, automobiles and postal infrastructure. To quote Marx, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

Indeed, philosophers of technology have argued that technology is the essential human activity. Ernst Kapp said that human existence is always and everywhere bound up in a relationship to tools. Dessauer posited that man’s act of technical creation is “the greatest earthly experience of mortals.”  To him, creating technology almost constituted a religious experience.

We must address two points of dissonance. Who, indeed, is a technologist, if not the narrow conceptions present in the public imagination? And if technology comes from a deeply human place, why is that not the popular conception, and should that be changed?

The technologist identity is available to all

The modern world is repeatedly subject to layers of technological change unfurling, enveloping and transforming various areas of life, like ever-quickening waves of metamorphosis. More people participate in and witness technological advancement—this essentially human practice— than ever before.

In fact, more people are technologists than ever before, insofar as a “technologist” can be defined as someone inventing, implementing or repurposing technology. In particular, the personal computer has allowed anyone to live in the unbounded wilderness of the internet as they please. Anyone can build highly specific corners of cyberspace and quickly invent digital tools, changing their own and others’ technological realities. “Technologist” is a common identity that many different people occupy, and anyone can occupy. Yet the public perceptions of a “technologist” still constitute a very narrow image.

The identity of “technologist” needs a reboot. Our own and others’ conceptions of who we are as technologists influence what we expect of ourselves. Here is a stab at the definition Wikipedia is missing.

A technologist makes reason out of the messiness of the world, leverages their understanding to envision a different reality, and builds a pathway to make their vision happen. All three of these endeavors—to try to understand the world, to imagine something different, and to build something that fulfills that vision—are deeply human.

We are a species possessing a fundamental drive to understand and organize the world, and our ability to grasp abstract concepts is part of what sets us apart from other animals. Humans are continually distilling and organizing reality into representations and models—to varying degrees of accuracy and implicitness—that we can understand and navigate. Our intelligence involves making models of all aspects of our realities: models of the climate, models of each other’s minds, models of fluid dynamics.

But the technologist does not stop there; after simplifying the messy soup of the world, they also envision a different version of reality and act to make that change, aided by their knowledge. This process of imagining things differently and acting on it to modify the world in a methodical, informed way is a particular trait of the human animal. We act to change our world on a scale and with a systematicity and permanence that has allowed us an unprecedented level of mastery over our environment.

From radical visionaries to hobbyist tinkerers, all technologists do this, just at different magnitudes of scope and ambition.

It seems impossible to delineate who is a technologist and who is not based on a job title. “Technologist” is more of a continuum, involving varying degrees and forms of technological participation and literacy. A kid building a tree-house is a technologist. The countless people who have contributed knowledge, ideas and labor towards the Internet are all technologists. Any random person walking down the street is likely more of a technologist than they realize, as are you.

Technical creation is an activity that is essential to humanity, available to all, and done by many.

Our technology should enable our humanity

Historically, there is nothing about technology that implies industry, but often when we refer to technology, people think of the technology industry. And while technology is fundamentally human, in practice the modern industry of technology seems to do things people see as inhumane or that make us “less human”. People frequently raise concerns about the amount of time modern humans spend with eyes fixed on a screen, and the Amish population has doubled since 2000, making it the fastest-growing faith group in North America. It is also the case that technologies that seem to make life efficient and easy for users, like machine learning or social media, often quietly rely on painstaking, undervalued, and/or distressing human labor under conditions that many would term inhumane. There is a reason for the backlash against “big tech”; people have a sense that somehow, the world that these companies represent is not the best world for humanity.

The ideas that technologists are inhuman or that our technologies always make us inhuman are clearly false. Our technologies simply make certain paths of action easier and exacerbate our will; they don’t inevitably make us less human. (Indeed, as we have argued, technology is an indispensable aspect of what makes us human.)

Instead, we should think about which parts of our humanity they enable — and that is completely up to us.

Should we become more empathetic, more equal, or more selfish? More creative, more free, or more distracted?

What does it mean to build or empower technologies that require other humans to engage in difficult, dangerous factory labor?

We can determine what kind of human our technologies can help us become, and build technologies that enable that. In fact, we should directly tie the success of our technologies to how much they enable our humanity (as in, our positive human characteristics), and use this criteria to evaluate past, present and future technologies.

One indicator for increased humanity is access to rights and freedoms, which various technologies have helped to enable over the years: aviation has enabled freedom, sanitation systems have enabled health, electricity has enabled most of modern life. The internet has made knowledge more equal and given countless voices a platform. And, of course, we must thank the invention of the plow, of paper, and of penicillin. Let's ensure that the technologies of our lifetimes will be remembered, like these, as enriching humanity.

Our compulsion to create technologies is itself a very human propensity, and we can do so motivated by a wish to better humanity. If we remember this, we can remember that we do not have to—and should not—accept the state of our technology, or our technology industry.

We can even apply the technologist’s process to technology itself, answering and acting on the questions: how best do we make reason out of and model the madness that is technology? What alternative technological landscape can we imagine? And how do we impress our will upon technology and act upon our vision?

As a general public, we can collectively hold technologists to a higher ethical standard, as their work has important human consequences for us all. We must begin to think of them as doing deeply human work, intervening in our present realities and forging our futures. Choosing how best to model the world, impressing their will on it, and us. We must insist that they understand their role as augmenting and modifying humanity, and are responsible for the implications. Collective societal expectations are powerful; if we don’t, they won’t.

If our tools don’t better our collective humanity, we need new tools.

As people building technology, it is critical that we see ourselves as Technologists, and investigate what this identity entails. Each of us should individually reflect upon, what kind of human do I want to become? How will I keep humankind top of mind, and do my part to ensure that technology augments humanity rather than burdening it?

We are an unprecedentedly self-augmenting species, with a fundamental drive to organize, imagine, construct and exercise our will in the world. And we can measure our technological success on the basis of how much they increase our humanity. What we need is a vision for that humanity, and to enact this vision. What do we, humans, want to become?

Saffron Huang is a curious cat who has lots of questions about technology, and even more questions about humans. She can be found with her nose in a book, fiddling with neural networks, or at @saffronhuang.

Maran Nelson is a technologist from Texas with three sisters, two nephews, and an art obsession. She thinks a lot about psychology, economics, and the importance of the irrational. Sometimes @marannelson.