Understanding Technology

In the Introduction to his 1977 book, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, Langdon Winner identifies a “pervasive sense of puzzlement and disorientation” as a chief characteristic of late twentieth century discussions of technology. He adds:

“[…] writers who have isolated technology as an issue have repeatedly stressed that what is involved is not merely a problem of values or faith, but more importantly, a problem in our understanding of things. There is, they assert, something wrong in the way we view technology and man’s relationship to it. In its present array of vast and complex forms, technology continually surprises us and baffles our attempts at comprehension. From all sides one hears the call for new evidence and new interpretations to remedy our disoriented state.”

I would suggest that the situation is only more acute some 30+ years later. Winner is right to focus on understanding, or a lack thereof, and he is right to insist that understanding is not simply a matter of accumulating more data.

Speaking of research about technology and society Winner notes, “Much of social scientific research in this area amounts to a triumph of instrumentation–virtuosity in measuring and comparing quantifiable variables–rather than an earnest effort to advance our understanding.” Consequently, he adds a little further on,

“[…] in almost every book or article on the subject [of technology] the discussion stalls on the same sterile conclusion: ‘We have demonstrated the relationship between Technology X and social changes A, B, and C. Obviously, Technology X has implications for astounding good and evil. It is now up to mankind to decide which the case will be.'”

The problem, or at least one aspect of the problem, is that technology in some form or another is what we use to think about technology. Or, to put it differently, our understanding of technology tends to be circumscribed by technology and its modes of framing the world. Consider this example I serendipitously happened upon this morning courtesy of Alan Jacobs: the Reporter app. Reporter is the work of Nicholas Felton, who has been ambitiously documenting every quantifiable aspect of his life for the past few years. He is a lifelogger par excellence; a pioneer of the Quantified Self. Here is the description of Reporter cited by Jacobs:

“Reporter works by buzzing you several times per day with a brief quiz based on the questions Felton asks himself. They range from “Where are you?” to “What are you doing?” and “Who are you with?” Some questions can be answered by tapping Yes or No, while others are multiple choice questions, let you type in text, or offer a location picker that polls Foursquare for nearby places. You can also add your own questions (like “Are you happy?”) or program certain questions to occur only when you hit the app’s Awake or Sleep switch (like “How did you sleep?” and “What did you learn today?”). Each time you report, the app also pulls in various pieces of information like the current weather, how many steps you’ve taken today (using the iPhone 5s’ M7 motion coprocessor), and how noisy it is around you using your phone’s mic.”

Jacobs puts his finger on the problem: this kind of data collection proceeds on an impoverished view of the self. To make his point Jacobs suggest another set of questions that Reporter might choose to ask. I’ll let you click through to Jacobs’ post to read those.

Apart from its specific failures, the Reporter app is a useful example of a larger pattern. Whatever understanding the app may provide is already circumscribed by the limits of the sort of data that it can collect and process. Moreover, it already proceeds on the assumption that data collection is the best way to arrive at self-knowledge.

If I read him rightly, Winner might take the Reporter app to be illustrative of the whole of our relationship with modern technology. Our understanding of technology is stymied by how technology already sets the terms and conditions of our thinking;this is why getting any traction in our attempt to understand technology can be so challenging.


N.B. I’ve bracketed the question of the usefulness of “technology” as a category. It is a question that I go back and forth on, and in a subsequent post I’ll discuss it again in conversation with Winner.

3 thoughts on “Understanding Technology

  1. I think there are two important aspects to improving understanding of technology. The first is science education. Society should require that the majority of people are able to understand how a technology works before it is widely used. Science journalism (as one form of science education) is too focused on the extremes: black holes and the Higgs Boson, for example. These are important, but I see less focus and interest in popular venues on science of cell phones and hard drives, for example. This is seen as known, and thus not interest worthy. Really, almost no one knows all the aspects of the different sciences behind how a cell phone works.

    Secondly, humanities education and thinking can help unpack the issues surrounding our relationship to different technologies (as you do regularly on this blog!) The Reporter App is a technology to help us ask scientific questions about ourselves. It allows us to turn ourselves into data. Humanities training and experience can help us ask if this is something we want to do. And even if it is, one should still clarify what scientific questions one is asking, and why.

    Regarding the question of seeing ourselves as data, here’s something I wrote: (I actually linked to a post of yours about Barthes and the photo of his mother)

  2. Hmm, I’ve never thought of technological determinism from that perspective before – how technology limits and shapes out conversations on the technologies themselves. For instance, the overarching goal wordpress designs into its blogging system is to accrue views, follows, likes, etc. But never in the system is there a stopping point, a point where when views level off to about as well as you can expect per given blog, there’s indication that it’s ok. Gathering bigger and bigger numbers becomes the goal.

    It’s 12:40am, and I hope all this makes sense.

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