What is Technology?

As young technologists, our work involves acts of immense power, and society both admires and fears these acts. This is a recent phenomenon. In ancient times, those who made technology were devalued as laborers: they were lowly potters and bronze-smiths, not space billionaires. Plato believed in the inferiority of practical craftsmen compared to philosophers, since they deal with the corrupt material world rather than the pure plane of Being and Ideas.1 But for the last century technology has been eating the world. The newfound status and significance of modern technology requires us all to set aside space for probing the weighty questions that our work elicits, questions about its meaning and influence.

We must start at the beginning: what is technology? Indeed, how deeply do we understand what we make? The increasing power and consequence of technology seems to obscure its definition. Technology is like a cloud; it envelopes and surrounds us, but we can’t quite apprehend it because its omnipresence obscures our vision. We know it familiarly, thus vaguely.

The philosophers and historians, who have some distance from the practice, are often the ones who have thought deeply and rigorously about what technology is. But contemporary technologists cannot rely only on definitions made by those who are not engaged in the practice of technological creation. Instead, we must define technology for ourselves.

Technology as a Path to an End

Any characterization of technology should adequately acknowledge its inherently goal-driven nature.  A simple definition is that technology is tools, processes or systems that make something easier. In other words, technology is a reusable, low-resistance path to achieve some end or goal. Thus, by materializing this path, technological creation gives power and primacy to a chosen course of action. This is often done by making the path an efficient one. For example, if I build a water turbine, I am creating a new, efficient path—that of the turbine’s process of channelling hydropower to create force on its blades—to the goal of generating electricity.

Implicitly, I have also favoured this particular path to the goal over other means—technological or not—to that end. Bringing something into existence is in fact endorsing that thing itself. The first digital camera was a low-resistance path to an end, the end being photographic images. Its invention and manufacturing was an endorsement of the digital-camera-path over the existing film-camera-path as the way to achieve that end. Not only does a piece of technology always carry its maker’s endorsement; it also has a way of advocating its own use. Richard M. Weaver said that the automobile’s simple being, its mere standing by the curb of your house, is an invitation to use it.

Prioritizing certain paths necessarily neglects others. The technology must efficiently route people’s finite energy and attention; that necessitates routing away from something. A technology implicitly endorses its own route and ends above other routes and ends. Often different technologies clamor to offer competing routes or ends; sometimes, certain technologies end up dominating others, rendering certain routes or ends obsolete. For example, as digital cameras proliferated, many people switched to them, moving away from film cameras and darkrooms as the route to photographs. The analogue photography pathway was deprioritized, along with its associated behaviors — the inefficient, but gratifying workflows and the painstaking culture of physically retouching a single image for hours. Analogue wasn’t necessarily worse, it was just deprioritized, made harder and less attractive.

Technology is not neutral. These tools, processes and systems favour some paths and necessarily disfavour others. The technology-maker decides what to value and endorse, helping to perpetuate some moral slant or system. Even if two technologies have the same ends, differing paths can generate divergent consequences — Facebook and Instagram might have the same or similar ends (having people connect online), but Instagram makes people more visually aesthetic as a route to that. Image-first is an implicit value baked into Instagram.

Precisely because a technology is a reusable, low-resistance path, when a piece of technology catches on widely, it tends to exponentially scale the type of behavior that it makes easier. When TVs exploded in popularity in America, it exponentially scaled the behavior of zoning out in front of a screen, hypnotized by constant visual stimulation. Social media websites have exponentially scaled the occurrence of one-way parasocial relationships, where only one person is aware of the other’s existence. The more technology scales behavior, the more consequential the decisions that constitute it become.

Notice that we’re not defining technology as a solution to a problem, but rather a path to an end. Though many technologists see their work as “problem-solving”, problems are in the eye of the beholder; one first has to make decisions about what constitutes a problem before making decisions to solve it in a particular way. That decision-making process is prior to and more fundamental than the problem-solving process.

Joseph Dunne points out that, when confronted with a problematic situation, “one is not calculating the efficiency of different possible means towards an already determined end. Rather, one is often deliberating about the end itself: about what would count as a satisfactory, or at least not entirely unacceptable, outcome to a particular ‘case’".2 Making technology involves an ongoing attempt to bring the world closer to the way one wishes it to be. The technologist actively participates in determining what that wish is, rather than having clearly defined problems handed to them.

Distinguishing Technology from Science

“Science concerns itself with what is, whereas technology concerns itself with what is to be” - Henryk Skolimowski, 1966

It may be clear by this point that technology is deeply entangled in human will and judgment. Technology is certainly not value-neutral, although it is often portrayed as such. Part of the reason is our messy collective handling of the relationship between technology and science.  Science and technology are frequently mentioned in one breath; while they are related, we must decouple the two to fully understand what technology is, apart from science.

A scientist is a spectator whose goal, at least in theory, is to detach their identity from the scientific process. The person’s will is constrained to looking for truths that are universal, certain and timeless. The scientific method is constructed to rid its output of human context and distortion, so that in theory, anyone should be able to replicate a set of results. The scientist’s identity should be rendered irrelevant.

In a sense, science aims to be a minimally instrumental pursuit, as it only aims at the truth. In contrast, technology is highly instrumental; it’s all about pursuing various goals using tools.

Consequently, in its idealized form the scientific method limits freedom of the will, while technology amplifies freedom of the will. Technology is by no means derived with certainty. It is the extremely particular result of someone’s will, based on rationalizing through the concrete and contingent circumstances of the world.

We are not pursuing “truth”; we are exploiting “truth”.

(The caveat is that science, of course, involves significant free will and judgment in practise too. Scientists have to make decisions about what constitutes a worthy investigation, outlining and framing the task at hand. Science has also been commissioned for entirely instrumental ends. I have noted that objectivity and non-instrumentality are ideals that the scientific process aims for, which does not reflect practise. Still, the difference in ideals for science and technology has major implications for the way people conceive of and execute the work.)

Even though technology often exploits scientific truths, technology does not require rigorous science. For millennia, humans built tools and found new and more efficient ways to do things with trial and error, without needing a methodical pursuit of truth. Cheesemaking is an ancient biotechnology whose genesis never relied on a theory of bacteria. Nowadays, science and technology have a closer relationship, but even so, technology is not determined by science.

Anyone trying to apply science via technology must reason through contingencies, constraints, and behavior in specific circumstances. Questions like What is most appropriate and desired in this context? arise. Science focuses on necessity and universality; technology focuses on contingencies and specificities. Thus, technology does not just follow from science as some kind of 1:1 relationship. There is a critical juncture between science and technology, between present and future. Here the technologist stands, choosing what kind of future, out of the infinite possibilities, that will actually materialize based on our scientific understanding of the present world.

A piece of technology prioritizes some low-resistance path to achieve an end, and its essential nature involves instrumentality and free will. It must inherently be purposive.

Correspondingly, neither the work of technology nor a technological artifact can be either neutral or deterministic. Viewing a technology as a purely neutral object is ignoring the human intention designed into it, the meaning that humans give to the technology we interact with, and the incredible agency involved in a technologist’s work.

Skolimowski asserted that our technological pursuits consist in providing means for constructing objects according to our desires and dreams.3 After we internalize the scope of our agency, the critical question for technologists will become: what are the desires and dreams worth specifying, and the paths we should create, and endorse, to get there?

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.

1 Cuomo, Serafina. Technology and culture in Greek and Roman antiquity. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

2 Dunne, Joseph. "An intricate fabric: understanding the rationality of practice." Pedagogy, Culture & Society, vol. 13, no. 3, 2005, pp. 381.

3 Skolimowski, Henryk. "On the Concept of Truth in Science and in Technology." Proceedings of the XIV International Congress of Philosophy, Vienna (September 2-9), no. 2, 1968, pp. 554.