The word “technology” conjures up a host of images–computer circuits, satellites, cavernous Metropolis cities, Google glasses, Batmobiles; its promise is one of the annihilation of space and time, the ability to have at our fingertips an infinity of information and extend our power over the natural world.
What is the nature of technology, though? What mythologies lie beneath the iPhones and airplanes? What meanings do we assign to it? The centrality to technology to our culture is indisputable–can we really separate it from ourselves? To what extent are we the things that we make?
Personally, I don’t see technology as being fundamentally different from other aspects of cultural life like religion, art or food. I believe that we are technological creatures; in an anthropological sense, one of the main things that define our genus is our ability to make and use tools. An Oldovai hand axe is different in form from a tablet, but conceptually they are the same thing; just think of the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Our hominid ancestor tosses a bone into the air, the camera pans up and the stick becomes a spinning spacecraft. Far from being a modern phenomenon, technologies–tools, devices, machines–have been with us, in some form or another, since the beginning.
However, the word “technology” wasn’t actually used in its current form until the late nineteenth century. In his essay “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” American studies scholar Leo Marx writes how prior to industrialization, different inventions were seen more as atomistic contraptions, as so many different machines. The term “technology” emerged alongside the advancement of what he calls new “sociotechnical systems.” During industrialization, society became connected via the telegraph and the old world was transformed as industrial workers replaced craftsmen and machines began to dominate everyday life on a broader level than before.
Inevitably, a new concept had to be invented, one that could describe the newly mechanized world. Indeed the word “technology” implies something of an entire history and worldview, a changing of the way we see ourselves and the things that we make. And the narrative that developed around technology posited humans and their creations as the driving force of history; the idea of technological progress became what Marx called “the modern equivalent of the creation myths of pre-modern cultures.”
Hand in hand with this is a fervent religiosity with which we began to understand the role of technology and progress; in his book “America as Second Creation,” technology scholar David Nye writes how early Americans saw the frontier as a new Eden and saw it as their righteous duty to cultivate civilization with machinery and turn the feral land into a utopia. If there is any doubt as to whether this trope of technology-as-divine-instrument has carried forward in history, just consider that after the moon landing, Norman Mailer wrote that Neil Armstrong was “a veritable high priest of the forces of society and scientific history…a General of the church of the forces of technology.”
Nye does well to point out, both in this work and in others, the fact that our relationship to technology is primarily an emotional one, mediated by feelings of morality, cultural superiority, and awe at our own creation. Despite the mathematical, seemingly linear nature of technology, we don’t relate to it logically but through abstractions. Technology is, as I mentioned, just another aspect of human culture, which is communicated in and mediated by symbols. If we don’t unpack the mythos surrounding these things or recognize that our thinking about technology is rooted in history, that there are alternatives, we will have less agency to address all of the serious problems–global warming, pollution, land loss, even modern types of eugenics–that come along with blind technological innovation and unquestioned adherence to technology’s telos.
There are many alternatives to look to in the communities of people who are very conscious in what technologies they adopt based on what social values they hold. Most notably, the Amish get together as a group to decide which machines to adopt and which to leave behind. There are also different responses to medical technologies that seek, through invention, to conform every body into some enlightenment ideal of the “normal” human–a movement within deaf culture, for example, resisting cochlear implants.
We are the things we make, but we can also control what this looks like. Rather than throw our hands up in the face of determinism, in thinking about technology and its unsteady history, and by unpacking some of our own myths surrounding it, I hope we can start to take a more self-conscious approach to it and choose modes of technological being that support a more just and ecological world.