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Just what is technology?

Tuesday, 16 October 2007 — by

While the title might sound like an About.com topic, when I ask the question: “what is technology?” how wide or how narrow do we choose to focus our search? For me, technology is everything that’s man-made and not just the newfangled stuff, with PCB’s (Printed Circuit Boards) and microprocessors…

You see, the perception (or common misconception?) is that technology is new stuff, like computers, energy-efficient light bulbs, high-speed trains, space flight, nanotechnology, genetics, crazily tall buildings and stupidly long bridges.

When in actual fact, technology is glazed drinking mugs, the three field system, mass-produced cloths, glass windows, zip fasteners, the bow & arrow, central heating and the printed word.

Technology is the evolution of an idea. It’s the thinking of a man or woman who sees before them an opportunity to improve a process, or to create a device or object that facilitates, improves or aids something or someone else.

Technology is about a unique inspiration given the remit of creativity and the notion to express that idea as something real and tangible.

However, the motives for this spark of creativity aren’t always as laudable and arguably lamentable. Take for example any example of a weapon, or a chemical agent created to hinder or hurt another. Whatever their reason for being, they are technology none the less.

As a species, we’re gifted with sizable brains and opposable thumbs, both of which afford us a near-unique ability to make real the innovations that we imagine.

Technology is always greener on the other side of the millennium

Or, an alternate sub-title would be: “When good technology goes bad!” which is punchier, but cheap. In any case, therein lies the theme I had in mind.

An example of good (as in transformative) technology would be the automobile. You could argue that a further distillation of that particular line of reasoning would take us towards the external and internal combustion engines, but that would make this topic too narrow.

The car and the roads they run upon — for the most part, at least — really did change everything. The train was a sign of things to come, but the car was when things really changed. Our lives were impacted in an almost immeasurable way, and I do mean that in both a very literal and in a very broad sense.

Many things have been said of cars in particular, sometimes bad things. But the way I see things, there’s no such thing as “good” or “evil” technology. Those are whimsical notions, not much welcome in these here parts:

“So here’s my take on things: technology is not evil, nor is it good. Technology is needs-driven and is ultimately the product of a market niche being identified and then filled with one gadget or another to fulfill the needs of that market … When I hear this kind of thing, it puts me in mind of some James Bond Ubervillain intent on inflicting mass, world-wide misery on each and every one of us. Needless to say, it’s nothing like that.”

While you have only a few tens of thousands of cars per nation, you’ve got a manageable situation. But once you’ve got tens of millions of cars per nation, then you’ve got a dilemma.

You have stress being placed on natural resources, on land usage, on air quality, and on the people living amongst cars in their everyday lives.

On the one hand, you’ve got a nation whose needs for mobility need to be satisfied, yet the needs of their environment and pressures placed upon that environment weigh greater with every passing year.

This is where we need to collectively put on our thinking caps and innovate our way out of a possible environmental and climatological disaster.

Moving forward in reverse

So technology’s got us into a right old mess? No, that’s not quite right. Good technology usually meets its design brief to the letter. What got us into a right old mess was and still is the lack of forethought and planning with regards to how any given technology might impact on its environment.

But the thing is — and it’s an ironic thing at that — the biggest ‘innovations’ need to come from the regular people. We need to think beyond our own immediate conveniences and start to adopt more environmentally-aware schemes, such as car sharing, public transport, or even walking and cycling.

While I truly believe we all need to play our part in creating sustainable living, there are things that I firmly believe are not our responsibility, where big business and the governments should play a more pro-active role in the environment.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to go backwards a few steps before you can go forwards. Our current thinking is one of ever-evolving technology that gets smaller and solves our every ill and ail.

That might not change, but as these technologies continue to evolve, our minds eye must be thinking of those technologies and how they will impact a world that we see as growing ever green…

Maybe you have your own ideas what technology is? Why not share your ideas on our Page over on Facebook?

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David Bradley → Tuesday, 16 October 2007 @ 8:49 BDT

Technology is science applied. Science is knowledge and understanding.

db

Wayne Smallman → Tuesday, 16 October 2007 @ 9:11 BDT

Dare we say: the appliance of science?

Heidi Cool → Wednesday, 17 October 2007 @ 3:54 BDT

The appliance of science sounds good to me, it seems to cover everything from the bow and arrow to iPods. I think the trick is there has to be some kind of economic incentive for many technology initiatives. Companies that were balking at pollution controls are now discovering that they can actually save money when they explore green solutions. Yet others still balk. The oil crisis of the early 1970’s should have been a cue to begin looking for ways to improve fuel efficiency or come up with alternative fuels. Yet progress languished, as there wasn’t a perceived urgency. Hopefully we’re feeling that urgency now.

On a different tangent I still have a great appreciation for analog devices. One of my favorite gadgets is my apple peeler/slicer/corer (which can also be used for potatoes). With this little gizmo you put an apple on three prongs connected to a threaded rod. One cranks a handle that turns the rod to rotate the apple against a peeling blade/slicer combo and through a round coring blade. It’s brilliantly efficient and runs on people power. I’ve yet to see a food processor that could manage the same task.

Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 17 October 2007 @ 9:20 BDT

Ha! The phrase: “the appliance of science” is a tag line Zanussi used in the 80’s-90’s for TV adverts. Maybe they don’t use it anymore.

“The oil crisis of the early 1970’s should have been a cue to begin looking for ways to improve fuel efficiency or come up with alternative fuels. Yet progress languished, as there wasn’t a perceived urgency. Hopefully we’re feeling that urgency now.”

It’s laziness more than anything else. Which reminds me of people who smoke & drink heavily all of their lives. They have a mild heart attack and are
told to sort out their lifestyle.

Thing is, they’re still alive, so why bother? 5 years later with weeks to live, they’re crying: “Why me?!”

It’s the same thing with fossil fuels; the signs are there, but the petrochemical companies just aren’t watching where they’re going.

BTW, as another example of an ‘analogue device’, what about the bicycle?

YC → Wednesday, 24 October 2007 @ 4:35 BDT

The application of technology and the desire for immediate commercialization of it that might need to change, if the consequences outweigh the benefits.

doug m → Monday, 29 October 2007 @ 22:01 BDT

technology moves too fast on some fronts, and not fast enough on others. there needs to be a good balance between innovation and the releases of new products, having 6 different ipods that all do the same thing isn’t very appealing to some

Wayne Smallman → Monday, 29 October 2007 @ 22:25 BDT

Hi Doug and thanks for the comment.

I doubt that there’s ever been a point in human history where technology has been fully checked and balanced by some rule of ethic or morality.

War or economic pressures usually hasten the adaption of one technology over another, long before moderation or proper guidance can be invoked.

So pause for thought and consideration with regards to the possible impact of any given technology isn’t something that happens all that often.

More often than not, it’s people who do bad things with technology, or make technology move too fast…

Ngozi Alywin Erem → Friday, 4 July 2008 @ 4:34 BDT

It is quite amazing, that technology is moving human race at a very fast pace. We now have machines, that do what we want it to do. They are specially manufactured for such and are called “Robots”. We also have home robots. Soon we Shall have cooking robots and that would be very fascinating. I am looking forward to seeing technology applied in cooking. I wonder whether people would want to eat food prepared by robots.

Wayne Smallman → Friday, 4 July 2008 @ 9:51 BDT

Ngozi, thanks for commenting and the interesting question.

I suppose we could argue that our food is already prepared by machine, certainly in terms of harvesting, cleaning, cutting / chopping and irradiating et cetera.

But it’s a different thing to have them to actually cook the food prior to being eaten.

Worthy of a discussion in its own right, I’m sure…

Sciencebase → Friday, 4 July 2008 @ 15:13 BDT

But, there are robots cooking food already (hey, no McDonalds jokes, now) in factories, they’re not like the mechanical-arm robots that put cars together, they’re just computer-controlled machines, but a lot of ready meals etc are made by such machines…

I doubt we’ll have a cordon bleu chef with a silicon chip on his shoulder any time soon though.

Priyanka → Tuesday, 29 July 2008 @ 9:11 BDT

I would not restrict technology only to man. What about the beavers constructing damns and the monkeys that use crude hammers?

I would consider technology as the process through which an action is effected. (Does there have to be a clear thought behind it?)

~Priyanka

Darwin → Sunday, 30 January 2011 @ 4:57 BDT

I think technology is everything that make human works more efficient. In communication technology, mobile phone and internet helps people to be connected. That’s technology.

Although, common people will refer to IT industry and electronic gizmo when being asked about cutting-edge technology, that’s simply because that field is the most increasing now.

But we have also other technology in architect, civil engineering, even design.

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