Technology: What is it? What should it be?

Below is a script that I’ve prepared for a lecture that I’ll be delivering on Monday (19 Jan) to students at the School of Science and Technology (SST), Singapore.

Technology: What is it? What should it be?


1. Introduction

Today, I would like to introduce you to a new subject that’s not taught in many secondary schools. To my knowledge, only a handful of schools teach it. Nonetheless, I’d like to introduce it to you, so as to broaden your mind and your perspectives about technology.

Today, I’ll be giving you a taste of philosophy, more specifically, on the philosophy of technology.

But what is philosophy?


Philosophy is a discipline that searches for answers on issues where there is no clear answer. Some people say that they don’t like philosophy because there is no single, clear, universal answer like science. That’s true, but that completely misses the point. There are many issues, especially issues about human life (and what to do with it) where science is unable to give you a single clear answer. That is precisely where philosophy comes in. Sometimes, life presents us with many options. Sometimes we encounter situations where none of the choices are ideal. In such cases, we are damned if we do this, and damned if we do that. We are placed in a very difficult position. How then do we decide? Philosophy helps us to decide by broadening our perspectives of these issues, and to consider many other related issues which we may not have considered before.

So, how is philosophy related to technology? Regardless of your age, or what you are doing now or in the future, many of us are unaware that we have the power to shape the way technology develops. There are three categories of people that shape technology in different ways:


(1) The end users (or consumers) who use technology. Everyone falls into this category. It is the most basic category. We are users, consumers of technology. What many of us are not aware of, is the fact that we play an important role in the development of technology. Every dollar we spend on technology is a vote of support of the kinds of technology we desire. The popularity of certain products signals to the companies producing them that these are the kinds of technologies that people want.

(2) The developers who design and develop the technologies we use. Some of you may already belong to this category, some of you may join this category in the future. Developers are the ones who have a direct role in the creation of technologies, implementing certain technological ideas. Their work shapes how people use these technologies.

(3) The decision makers. Not everyone will fall under this category, but some of us may be there one day. The decision makers are those who have a great influence over the implementation, or general direction of a certain technology. These are people who are ministers, policy-makers, directors, or people who sit in certain technological consortiums that decide on technological standards and ideas for the rest of the world. These are the people who decide how much money should be spent researching certain ideas/technologies, or how certain technologies should be implemented or encouraged (or even discouraged).

Many of us – technological geeks – are always very excited over the coolness of a certain technology. We buy or even develop certain technologies based largely on whether it’s cool or not. Sometimes, we may consider the cost or the convenience that it provides. But we should be aware that we fall into at least one of the categories above. And so we should try to expand our decision-making process, we should try to expand and broaden our thinking of technology and so be aware of how each decision we make has an impact – directly or indirectly – on other human beings, and ultimately on society. There will be times where these decisions are not easy to make. It is thus very important for us to start thinking about these issues early.


How do we begin thinking about these issues? By asking questions!


2. What is Technology?

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So, the first question we should ask ourselves is: What is technology?

Many of us take it for granted that technology refers to computers and machines. Essentially, anything that runs on electricity is a form of technology. But is that all technology is? What about tools and other human inventions that don’t run on electricity? Are they technology as well? Are creams, lotions, and cosmetics a kind of technology? What about a stick? Could a stick be considered technology?

Is technology just about the inventions? Or is there more to this? I think, there are three ways of understanding technology, each of these three ways are connected to each other.


2.1. First understanding: A means to fulfil a human purpose

One way to understand technology is to see technology as a means of fulfilling a human purpose. A person (or community) may have a problem or a need, and so someone invents something to solve that problem. That’s one way of looking at it.

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I’d like to emphasise the point about fulfilling a human purpose. At the end of the day, we should recognise that technology is designed by humans for other humans. Though nowadays, machines produce the things we use, we must not forget that these were designed by other humans. Sometimes we buy things, like accessories, for our phones and computers. Similarly, we must not forget that it ultimately is done not to satisfy the phone or computer, but to satisfy a particular human need or want – e.g. the human desire to have something that looks nice. Why do I emphasise this? Because, sometimes, it’s easy for us to get too caught up with developing something to fulfil a certain function, that we forget that we’re developing technologies for other human beings. In such cases, the things we develop may be very impersonal as we only create things that solve the problem, but it’s too difficult or unfriendly to use. When we remember that we are developing something for someone, we begin to bring in other considerations in the process of our development.

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Technology is designed by humans for other humans, to fulfil a particular purpose. In order to achieve this, technology must be able to exploit a particular phenomenon – be it natural, human or otherwise. For example, a hydroelectric damn exploits, takes advantage of the vast energy released when water falls from a great height, so as to produce electricity for other humans to use. Motors exploit the effects of magnetism, ships exploit the phenomenon of buoyancy, tyres and brakes exploit the effect of friction, etc.


Like the two sides of a coin, technology has two sides: (1) on one side, we have the hardware (or device) that is tangible and capable of interacting with the physical world, thus also capable of exploiting a certain phenomenon to fulfil a particular human purpose; (2) on the other side, we have the software (or process) that is intangible, invisible, but nonetheless very real, for it is the very idea or concept of the workings (the logic) of how the hardware/device is to be implemented.


Let us consider a very basic technology: a stick! A stick on its own is not a piece of technology. But when we begin to think of it as a tool, as a piece of hardware that exploits a certain phenomenon for a human purpose, we begin to impose a technological concept on it. It thus functions as a tool.

So, if the hardware is the stick, what technology could a stick be? If I intend to use it as a back-scratcher, I am exploiting the stick’s roughness and its length to reach where I am unable to reach. When I use the stick, I am imposing an idea, a logic, aa software onto the stick, so that it functions as a tool, as a piece of technology.

I could also use a stick as a weapon. Once again, I am exploiting the stick’s length and hardness, and once more I am imposing a certain idea, a certain logic onto it so that it functions as a tool, as a piece of technology. I could also think of the stick as a selfie stick, once again, I am exploiting a feature of the stick, and imposing an idea, a logic, the software, onto it.

This is how technological thinking works. And if you notice, it is the concept or idea of fulfilling a particular purpose that organises the hardware and software in a certain way. And we find this organisation present at every level of technology. Let’s consider a laptop, for example. The laptop can fulfil many functions, many purposes. It comprises the hardware that allows me to interact with it, and for it to interact with other devices; and it consists of the software – the logic, the operating system (e.g. Windows, Mac, Linux) that allows the computer to interact with me and other apps.

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But what happens when I begin to take the laptop apart? I have a monitor, trackpad, keyboard, motherboard, processor, RAM, hard disk, etc. Each of these components are designed to fulfil a particular function, a particular purpose. And each component too has some software to control it (i.e. the firmware). Let’s focus on the motherboard and take that apart as well. What do we find? We find a plastic circuit board with copper lines, we find resistors, capacitors, and transistors. Again, each component is designed to fulfil a particular purpose, it exploits a certain phenomenon and it is made or arranged according to a certain logic (software). We don’t always think of software like this, but we can still think of the arrangement and connection of the resistors, capacitors and transistors as the imposition of a kind of logic, a kind of human thinking, as a kind of software.

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Whether I zoom in or out, there is always technology, each technology comprising of components, each component with their own purpose to fulfil, and a phenomenon to exploit. The more I zoom out to a higher level, the more complex the technology gets, and this complexity also gives me a wide array of options to choose. Resistors, capacitors, and transistors, each have only a specific function to fulfil, yet the combination of these things somehow gives me something as complex as a computer, which allows me to type, to surf the internet, to watch cat videos, to play games. And at every level, there is a particular concept or idea that brings together hardware and software, and it organises these things to fulfil a function.

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Let’s compare a stick to a computer: As technology becomes more and more complex, it is capable of running certain processes on its own. But technologies that are simple are not capable of such automation. They require a human operator to execute it. But when it comes to very complex tasks such that the technology itself is incapable of automation, that’s where humans come in as the operators.

This brings me to the second way of thinking about technology.


2.2. Second understanding: An assembly of components and practices

So far, we’ve been talking about technology as a means of fulfilling a particular function. But we can also talk about technology as the execution of processes and devices to achieve those functions.


Not only does a particular technological concept/idea organise hardware and software around it to fulfil a function, technology also organises components and people around it to execute these processes. In many ways, humans are inseparable from the technologies we create. Because technology is designed to fulfil human purposes, human beings are involved at some point of the process.

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Here’s an example to think about. Here we have a jet engine. It consists of a series of components that eventually will create propulsion. In the context of the jet engine, when you execute the jet engine, you execute the various components to function together: the injector to inject fuel into the chamber, the igniter to ignite the fuel, and the turbine to blow it out. Let’s now go one level higher: the jet fighter. On the level of the jet fighter, we have a human operator, assisted in some ways by an operating system that controls the jet fighter. Nonetheless, the jet fighter consists of many components, the jet engine, the electronics, the rudders, the weapons system, etc. The pilot, as the operator, executes and controls the different components that make up the jet fighter so that it can fly and attack when needed.

But the level of execution doesn’t just end there. We can go up one level higher: the fighter squadron. Here, the squadron consists of a fleet of jet fighters, supported by a maintenance team. The commanding officer is the chief executor. He is the one who orders the pilots and the maintenance team to carry out specific tasks involving technology, including the maintenance schedule, when to fly, and the mission objectives.

We can continue going up one level higher to the air operations command, where the commander is in charge of several squadrons, each under his instruction. From this point of view, each squadron has a specific function to fulfil. And it is the commander who, like an operator of technology, gives out instructions to each squadron as to how they should execute their respective functions, and when.

And again, we can go up even higher, to the Air Force, where the Chief of the Air Force, has, under him, several commands (organisations): air operations, air logistics, air defence, etc. Each organisation has its specific function: flying and attack, air and airfield maintenance, defence, etc. And the Chief of Air Force, like an operator, treats each organisation like a piece of technology, giving out instructions on what to do, and when, in order to fulfil the grand mission of the air force.

Did you notice how, as we go up higher and higher, the organistion becomes more and more complex, and thus the availability of functions increases. A jet engine can only turn on or off to propel. A jet fighter can take off, fly anywhere the pilot wishes to go, and attack targets. A squadron can send out a fleet for any particular mission, while its maintenance teams keep the planes in good condition. The air command can instruct various squadrons to do different tasks as part of its broad picture, but the air force sees, yet a bigger picture, and sees the various air commands as important functions with specific roles to play in a battle.

At the same time, as we go higher and higher, more and more humans are involved. Regardless of which level of execution the person is involved in, every human must undergo training, and learn a specific set of practices to interact with the technologies involved. Yet at the same time, as we go higher and higher, notice how we impose a kind of technological thinking on the humans themselves.

Here’s something to think about: Is a human organisation a kind of technology? In many ways, yes! Each organisation behaves like a piece of technology: the organisation was set up to fulfil a human purpose, designed by humans for other humans. Each organisation achieves its function by exploiting certain phenomena, either natural physical ones, or human phenomena, such as behaviours or specific patterns of social interaction.

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Humans are involved in this sort of technological execution in a fixed set of ways, as operators or users of the technology (be it actual technologies or organisations of humans as technologies). Here, in this second way of understanding technology, our understanding of technology isn’t just about the tools. It’s about the tools and the humans who use these tools. It’s about how our technological thinking has become so pervasive that we have begun to think of humans as tools as well. “Human Resources,” is a good example of this – humans as tools, as resources useful for fulfilling certain functions. While this is not a bad thing in itself (it can help us to organise people in more effective ways), the problem arises when we forget that we are working with other humans and treat these humans as tools, and resources.


2.3. Third understanding: Technology as a collection of devices and practices that shape our culture

Before we begin on the third point about technology, let’s do a short recap of the first two ways of understanding technology. First, technology is about fulfilling human purposes. It involves a concept or idea (of fulling a specific purpose), and this concept organises and brings together various hardware/devices and software/processes to help achieve that specific function. And we see, at different levels of technology, that this is present not only in the main system itself, but in all its sub-components. Second, we humans are inseparable from the technologies we create and use. At some point in the execution of technology, there will be humans involved. Training is required, and this in turn creates aa fixed set of practices on how we use and approach technology. And at the same time, organisations are a kind of technology that fulfils a specific human purpose. Organisations are set up by humans for other humans, and they consist of humans who use technology in one way or another.

The third point is this: technology is a collection of devices and practices available to a culture, and its entirety shapes our own culture.


What is culture? In short, a culture is a framework, a way of thinking that affects the way we think about issues, the way we perceive situations, the way we value things (and what we value), the way we act, and how we respond to other people.

When you introduce a piece of technology into the life of an individual, that person’s life is changed in one way or another. Think of the first time you got a handphone (or computer or any major piece of technology). How was your life like before it, and how was your life like after you received it?

With the introduction of technology, an individual gains something, but at the same time, the individual loses something as well. He is shaped by his experience of technology, and his behaviour in turn, is affected by it as well. When you multiply that effect to a group of individuals in an organisation, community, or even country, you see a new culture emerging, a culture that is shaped by technology. In this sense, technology is more than just a tool, it’s more than just about humans using machines.

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This is where we must now focus our attention on the important ethical and philosophical questions about technology.


3. What should technology be?

If technology is capable of shaping people and societies, transforming them either for the better or for the worse. We must ask ourselves this important question: What should technology be?

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Whatever answer we have for that question will have a huge impact on the kind of world that we will have in the future. Asking, “what should technology be?”, is in many ways similar to asking: “What kind of world or society do you want to live in?”

What kind of world do you want your family, friends, and future children to live in?


These are important questions that we need to consider because regardless of who we are or what we do (or will do in the future), we belong to one of the three categories of people who shape technology: users, developers, and even decision makers. Even if we are not developers or decision makers, we vote using our money, with the things we buy. We vote for the kinds of technologies that will come out in the future. As developers, we may have a more direct say in the way technology is developed. And as decision makers, we have a direct say in how the technology is to be used, and the direction in which technology is to be researched and developed.

What are the ethical considerations that we should consider with regards to technology?


Firstly, when dealing with a specific piece of technology, we should ask ourselves: what do we gain AND what do we lose in the process of adopting this technology? Whenever technology is introduced into a community, something will be gained, and something lost as well. Machines may help to save money, and allow production rates to go up, but in the process, hundreds or thousands of workers may lose their jobs since the machine is capable of doing what these people did. An automatic pet feeder may give convenience so that you are not required to be at home at a certain time everyday, but it may result in you neglecting your pet. Social media may make us very connected with the people around us, but it may make it take people for granted.

These are the issues that we should be aware of. What kind of values do we want to promote in the process of technological adoption?


Also, when it comes to the exploitation of phenomena to fulfil a purpose, there are certain kinds of exploitation that we should be concerned about. Should we promote the kinds of technologies that, in the process of exploitation, causes a negative impact on the environment? Or should we even encourage the kinds of technologies that prey and exploit human weakness just to make money?

Some may say that the problem lies entirely with humans: there is nothing wrong with the technology, it’s just humans who abuse the technology. That might be true. But we cannot ignore the fact that each technology produces a fixed set of paths that people would usually tread along. If we are aware that a certain technology inclines people to behave in an undesirable manner, is there something that we can do about it to reduce it? Or are we going to wash our hands clean and say: this is not my problem?

Ultimately, the technologies we create or encourage will come back and affect us, either directly or indirectly through people who have been affected by it. We do not live isolated lives, what one person does will affect another person, somehow, someway.

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Like a sword that can kill or defend, technology has the ability to break people apart, break families apart, to make people selfish; yet at the same time, technology has the power to bring people closer together, to improve ties between family and friends, to have better societies, and to promote more compassionate and more considerate people.

So it boils down to the big question: What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of world do I want my family and friends to live in?

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This is not a question that I can answer for you. It is something that I hope you will discover for yourself as you continue using and develop technologies over the course of your life.

What are the technologies that we should promote and develop to bring us closer to that kind of world? Or, what kind of technological practices do we want to promote that will shape people for the better?

What should technology be?



Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What is it and how it evolves (New York, Free Press, 2009)