Technology – A multi-purpose tool

Intuitively, we’ll all subscribe that technology is a tool: we use technology to do something, we employ technology to achieve a goal. And that’s entirely in line with Brian Arthur’s definition of a technology as the orchestration of phenomena to achieve a human purpose. But what are those purposes? With today’s post, I’ll try to find out whether there are some characteristics that we could use to categorise purposes? And what could such categories then tell us about technology?

We can easily identify many different purposes that we develop technologies for and apply them to. For example, we could employ Ian Morris’ Theorem that sloth, greed and fear are the key drivers for human progress, as people are constantly “looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways of doing things“. However, Morris articulated a sociological view of technology use, while I am interested in the opposite angle: a technological view of society’s purposes and needs.

I’d suggest two very broad categories to develop the argument: in the first category, I’d group technologies that help us harness the forces of nature; in the second category, I’d summarise technologies that augment human abilities. The first category is “nature-centric“: How do we draw what we need from nature? The second category is “human-centric“: How do we extent our reach, improve our skills, enhance our capacity?

The nature-centric category comprises those technologies we employ to gain access to natural resources and to process them further. That seems abstract only at first glance, but it becomes pretty straightforward once you consider potential sub-categories. Think about food production and processing (e.g., crop framing, cattle breeding, or even very basic processes like cooking and baking). Think about material extraction and processing (e.g., mining of metals ores, steel milling, or metal manufacturing). Think about energy generation, transformation, and storage (e.g., power plants, the electric grid, or batteries). And let’s not forget the identification and production of useful agents (e.g., medication, production processes in chemical or pharmaceutical industry).

All these examples present nature as an inexhaustible cornucopia of resources that can be extracted, shaped and combined. They share the “where to take it from”-perspective, with no consideration for the end-state, for the “what to use it for“-perspective. That is the heart of the second category.

The human-centric category looks at the desired end-state. Building on the foundation provided by the nature-centric category, this second category articulates the purposes of augmenting human abilities. Again, that’s abstract at first glance, but it becomes increasingly clearer once we talk about potential sub-categories. Think about augmenting our muscle to overcome our bodily limitations regarding force, reach, or precision (e.g., hammer and anvil, jet engines, or micro-surgery). Think about augmenting our senses to make us see farther and further, both literally and figuratively  (e.g., telescopes, thermometers, accelerometers, X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging). Finally, think about augmenting our thinking to facilitate, structure, and shape our thought process and enhance our knowledge and insight  (e.g., the abacus, the clock, mathematics, computer hardware and software).

Through this categorisation of purposes we can see that a single technology often supports several purposes. And a single purpose is achieved through combining several technologies. Through this categorisation, we can derive some insights on the interaction between technology and society as you might remember Brian Arthur’s observation that technologies co-evolve with society in a process of mutual adaptation. If we start out from a human-centric purpose, we can see that we must employ some nature-centric technologies to achieve our objective. And in the opposite direction, we can see that a nature-centric purpose can promote several different human-centric technologies.

Together, the different categories of purposes form a virtuous circle for innovation, each propelling the other forward: human-centric demand draws novel nature-centric technologies, and nature-centric opportunity pushes novel human-centric technologies. Neither could progress without the other, but together they drive human development.


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