Technology – A mystery, a tool – A resource?

A few months ago I shared my thoughts on how we use technology as a tool that serves many purposes. Those ideas present a reasonable depiction of society’s relation to technology, but I’ve come to a point where I don’t think that this could be a stable relation. Instead, I suggest that our relation to technology has evolved over time, from being a mystery to becoming a day-to-day tool. More importantly, I think there are signs that the role of society attributes to technology is rapidly evolving toward technology as a resource. At first glance this might appear as only a minor shift, but I believe it’s worthwhile to take a dedicated second look.

Technology was a mystery

We didn’t always understand technology to be a tool. In fact, that view became broadly accepted only rather recently, when technologies of all sorts became more numerous, more widely available, and more easily accessible with the Industrial Revolution.

But in the long period of social development prior to that decisive transition, technology was rather rare, and new technology was even rarer. Think about the first guy to control fire, and imagine the power this gave to him, and the shock it meant to his peers; think about the first guy to propose a wheel, or even a millwright during the Middle ages: They –the users of technology– were engulfed by secrecy, mystery, magic, and often downright suspicion, because they were able to achieve something that their ordinary peers could not do. And the means by which they achieved their goals where entirely unexplained, and even unexplainable by common knowledge.

We have to realise that for the largest part of human history, the use of technology was not the norm, not usual, not at all common. Things changed only very slowly as technology became more common, and more commonly used. It was then the Industrial Revolution that eventually pushed the democratisation of technology access and decentralisation of technology use. And those were the essential drivers to demystify technology, helping us to arrive at today’s predominant view that technology is a tool for us to achieve our objectives.

Technology is a tool

Today our way of life is based on technology, and built around technology. Over the last two centuries we have gotten very used to technology, and grown comfortable in using it. The mystery of the past has vanished, the marvel is gone: we are not struck with awe anymore. And even in the many instances where we don’t know exactly how a specific piece of technology functions deep inside, we are ready to apply it. That doesn’t say that we are entirely uncritical of technology, or that we would blindly accept every new technology regardless of its potential impact. But we don’t question technology in general, nor do we feel generally threatened by it. We are at ease with the vast techno-sphere we’ve constructed around us. We’ve come to appreciate technology as part of our daily lives; we’ve come to accept that we are empowered by technology.

In essence, we see technology is just a tool, available whenever needed. And we expect technology to deliver to our expectations. There’s of course nothing wrong with that, but we have to realize that our expectations have evolved over time, and will continue evolving. As we’ve gotten past the simple technology fascination that dominated public opinion for the larger part of the 20th century, we do not anymore appreciate technology that needs to be mastered, e.g., the household appliance that requires a degree in engineering to operate. Today we want our interactions with technology to be simple, smooth, seamless, even effortless: the user experience has become a key design consideration already. While we still want to have more and more techno-power at our finger tips, our relation to the engine room is increasingly remote and even distanced. Hence my question is: Has our relation to technology entered into a new era? And where could that journey take us?

Technology becomes a resource

Once you have gotten really used to a tool, you will take its existence for granted. You won’t pay any specific attention to it anymore; and still you will have one simple expectation: the tool will always be available when you need it. Your car will start in the morning, the light will switch on at your command, the internet is always on; you see my point. And this move towards the expectation of available functionality is exactly what marks an important change in our relation to technology. The older view of technology as a tool was focused on the individual, specific, concrete, tangible technology and the purpose it fulfills for us. That view was rather static, assuming that a technology that exists today would continue existing into the future.

Increasingly, that view has been replaced by a perspective of technology as a resource, which is far less specific, less concrete, less tangible. This new view focuses on broad technology domains, not on specific technologies. In this “resource-view“, the utility of technology comes through the continued availability of tools; but we lose sight of the specific purposes that those tools might fulfill, and of the specific tools themselves. Instead, we now see a steady flow of indiscriminate tools. Once we consider all tools as equal and don’t make any differences between them, we sacrifice an important quality in our relation to technology: we lose a realistic sense of what a specific technology does for us, how we interact with it, and how we can control it.

An emerging challenge

The reason why it is hard to realise this significant change is rather simple: it occurs over longer periods of time. And it consists of two parallel developments. (1) As technology is less and less tangible, we lose touch, we even lose sight; we become rather passive by-standers of technological progress instead of active users, movers and shapers. (2) Our former understanding of technology, our feel for technology, does not keep pace with the ongoing and continued development of technology: our understanding becomes is more and more outdated. Taking both developments together, we just “let technology development happen” in a laisser-faire mode, while our sensors for what is actually happening are increasingly out of tune.

As this development is likely to continue, society’s interactions with technology will become more and more clumsy and inept, like trying to button your shirt wearing gloves. We run a growing risk to rely on regulations and policies that are inappropriate: either too rigid, thus suffocating necessary innovation; or too elastic, providing insufficient protection against undesired impacts. This growing dilemma of social control over technology is the topic of an upcoming post.

 

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Comments

  1. While time of a given day has remained constant, the amount of human activities and interactions has been increasing exponentially. This phenomenon begins to be evident after the industrial revolution, but during the last century, as humanity, we have seen a hyperactivity of our mind to create something innovative or something without precedent that invades our daily life. I can certainly see today the laisser-faire mode of technology on people in their 80s who act as asynchronous spectators just letting the technology development happen as you successfully stated. And while most of us try to keep up with the new technology, the pace of the technological development will probably lead us to a similar situation in some years (and because of the exponential increase, probably much sooner than later). The natural question of your dilemma is obvious. After experiencing the use of technology as a tool, humanity will soon wonder about the usefulness and real benefits of the overwhelming innovative and breakthrough technology, which is above the average human capacity of comprehension. And as I now see my parents for instance, adapting to the idea of “buttoning their shirt wearing gloves”, I think that the trend is for our generation to have similar behaviour in the near future as well. On the other hand, diachronically there will always be something technologically inconceivable for the human brain, that will continue to challenge the social dilemma.
    Thanks again for your inspiring post and looking forward to see your next one on social control over technology.

    • Good observations, and truly inspiring. On two accounts.

      First, there is the acceleration and compression of human activity that occurred over time, since the Industrial Revolution. As a result, our ways of life are fundamentally different from that of our ancestors. But more importantly, we also observe an increasing “generational gap”.
      In ancient times, grand-parents could actually give practical advise to their grand-children, simply because the experience of the past mattered for today and into the future. Ways of life were pretty stable, and while political leaders might change, the basics of daily life were set almost in stone.
      That changed in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, which uprooted many of the former “ways of doing things”. As a consequence, the older generation’s advise was increasingly out of tune with new ways of doing things. The younger generation actually led a difference life than their parents did.
      And today, we are getting to the point where tremendous changes occur within one generation. All of that is a challenge to each of us, and it is a real difficulty for all of us, because we are losing society’s coherence due to that increasing mismatch between past experience and future needs.

      Second, how do we position ourselves, picture ourselves vis-a-vis technology flow? As you indicate, we might just see ourselves standing on a bridge, with technology flow passing through below; that’s the passive observer’s perspective. We might as well consider ourselves swept away by a riptide of technology; that’s the innocent victim’s perspective. Or we might see ourselves as the driving force that keeps the flow in motion; that’s the active mover’s perspective.
      While I entirely agree that the totality of the technology sphere is incomprehensible to any individual, I would want to raise awareness that each of us still plays an active role in shaping the future of technology. Even if we don’t understand every detail, we should realize that we are not just passive innocent bystanders: our decisions and actions matter.

      Thanks for the inspiration.

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