How we use, gain, and lose technologies…

This post has been a long time coming. I’ve commented before on the use and abandonment of technologies by human beings. Just want to sum those thoughts up here.

Technology is “the usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or serve some purpose.”

The word “technology” comes from the Greek words “techne” – “art, skill, or craft;” and “ology” – “the study of.” Technology is the study of an art, skill, or craft either designed to find or to create that craft’s “techniques” – the specific steps to achieve that art, skill, or craft.

Any sort of problem-solving method is considered a technology. That means, what drives the development of technologies is the understanding or realization of something as being a problem that needs to be solved.

As the Wikipedia entry goes on to elaborate, technology (problem-solving) is about increasing an animal’s control over its life.

Science is a technology. It is an organized method of inquiry that specifically focuses on observable actions and reactions in order to allow for better prediction of those factors.

In this way, any careful observation aimed at predictive capacity is “scientific” inquiry.

And this is what Louis Liebenberg asserts in his book “The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science” soon to be re-released!

For hunter-gatherer societies, tracking animals was a means of both providing information about ones habitat (and increasing control and safety in that habitat), and providing a food supply.

I would say that the development of technologies roughly follows the “main demands” of living:

There are “The Sacred Four” of wilderness survival:

  • Shelter (including clothing)
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Food

and a few others:

  • Community/Communication
  • (Perceived) Safety
  • Physical Performance and Health
  • (Aesthetics)

Yes, close to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but slightly different.

Geoffrey Miller asserts, in his book Spent, that all human (or primate?) endeavors break down to Sex, Status, and Safety; and has an interesting argument for the analysis of and improvement in human performance.

As a brief aside – that pyramid is interestingly similar to this one:


I still see a high value in that analysis, if we connect all of the physiological demands under “safety.”

Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder
There is just one “overarching” concern that is especially relevant when discussing needs-driven behavior, and the development of technology, in human animals – PERCEPTION.

At base, there are very real survival needs – physiological necessities – (the sacred four, and the base of Maslow’s pyramid), without which the other needs cannot be satisfied.

The other three I’ve mentioned are relatively necessary in human society as well. Community and communication are required for society (any animal society) to function. Safety, or perceived safety, is necessary for healthy behavior. Health and performance gains are required for longevity.

Beyond those, for humans, “needs” are almost always “perceived needs.” They’re more akin to “wants” than they are to real needs. And I’d put “aesthetics” in this category, though I may change my mind about that.

“Problems” Created
In this sense, many of the “problems” we encounter in society are created-problems. They result either from a breakdown in the attainment of one or more items on that list, or the creation of “solutions” for items on that list that conflict with other items.

For instance, the “problem” of obesity is the result of a combination of a high degree of availability of all of those items, and the creation of foods (processed, high-calorie, high-sugar, low nutrient foods) and communities (sedentary living) that directly conflict with the other items.

That is, obesity is a cultural creation. It isn’t a mystery at all.

Many if not most of the other “problems” we encounter in advanced society can and should be viewed in this light.

Natural Causes
Autopsy reports will say that an individual died of “natural causes” if their body simply stops working. Old age is a natural cause of death. Similarly, many bacterial and viral diseases can be “natural causes” of death. In hunter-gatherer societies, being killed by another animal may be called a “natural cause” of death.

In the face of “natural” threats, we must put on serious thinking caps…and that’s where science came in. That was part of the cause for the development of tracking skills. Yes, to hunt, and also – not to be hunted…at least, not successfully.

Wherefore Art Thou, Facebook?
Taking a look at the list above, we can match up all of the technologies we’ve created, and really see a reason for the popularity (and creation) of many recent technologies. The closer the technology comes to one of those basic seven (or eight) demands, the greater its popularity will be.

Facebook is a great example. It is as close to community and communication in a “pure” (idealized) form as we can get right now. It’s also very easy (for anyone who has a computer with an internet connection, and time to engage in it, at least).

When more and more people were online, “online community” became a problem. Many people have solved it in various ways, Facebook being the current most popular way.

Can we use this list to look at other trends that might arise, based on where our culture is now?

  • Shelter (including clothing)
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Food

I think what happens when these are taken care of is that they all begin to fall under the realm of aesthetics. That’s my reason for not making aesthetics a real category. Instead, it seems to be a place where the other categories default to once they’ve been satisfied on a basic level.

In the Sacred Four, aesthetics come to dominate housing, clothing, heating sources and options, water choices! (Evian, SmartWater, Fiji, etc.). and foods (haute cuisine to burger king).

As far as the others go:

  • Community/Communication – I’ve mentioned Facebook, but also, the cellphone, the iPhone, etc.
  • (Perceived) Safety – This ranges from “medical” interventions, to knives, guns, martial arts, etc.
  • Physical Performance and Health – Again, various “medical” interventions, training technologies, comprehensive health systems (such as Yoga, etc.).
  • (Aesthetics) – The aesthetics of aesthetics…plastic surgery is a very crude example, where there is no performance or other gain, and any debate can be made over the “value” of the outcome – it’s purely subjective.

The Model, Now the Point
Above is the model for how I perceive this sort of thing in our (US) culture.

What this post is really about is the foundation of this model – the technology of technology.

Technology requires three things – the perception of a problem, the creation of a solution to the problem, and the reification or transmission of that solution.

Without the final step – the creation of a means of making that solution into a “tool,” technology is not technology, instead, it is “magic.”

To quote Arthur C. Clarke – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Advanced, and/or untransmitable or untransmitted. Imagine if someone came to you who could accurately and precisely read the minds of people they could see, but could not explain that process to you? You might call it magic.

Of course, as soon as science documents it as reliable, it would instead be labeled as an “unexplained phenomenon” – science’s term for things it cannot explain maintains science’s control over the thing, where individuals often relinquish control to “higher authorities” (i.e., we rarely say we just can’t explain a thing, instead we call it magic or scientific – i.e., it’s beyond our understanding).

The invention or creation of new technologies is often (and nowadays, almost always) based on old technologies. Hence, the need for a technology to fight obesity – which is itself a technological creation (or at least the result of technological creations).

So, now, in this day and age, what does technology address? What, for instance, is a technology of obesity? It is a technology of culture. A technology that influences culture. Dawkins suggested such a thing when he coined the word “meme” – a cultural gene.

How do we do that? I’ll lay out some ideas in the next few posts.

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