Reflections on Technology – 2

Roots  of Technology

Science arises from the our urge to understand and interpret the world of experi­ence.  Technology arises from our efforts to solve the problems facing us.  Thus the fundamental motivation for science is intellectual; that for technology is practical.  The need to survive is more basic than the need to understand.  Hence technology arose in human history long before science did.

When humans felt the need to kill game animals for food they developed stone implements and bows and arrows.  When they wanted to farm, many tools of agricul­ture came about: the spade and the plough were thus invented.  When they decided to build, they learned to fashion clay and mortar, and contrived wheels and pulleys, ropes and ladders.  When the need arose to travel, they began to use animals, con­struct carts and other vehicles.

Now we may wonder how humans survived before all these inventions came about.  After all, for over a million years human beings are known to have lived from generation to generation without too many tools to satisfy their so-called needs.  Are these needs then real or imaginary? Does not technology perhaps answer the needs of humans the same way that the purveyors of pornography claim to respond to a need of society?

It is true that many of the needs that are satisfied by technology are not needs in the sense of being indispensable for the our biological survival.  However, this state­ment is valid only with reference to particular stages of human societies.  What may be indispensable for a given society at a given time may be totally irrelevant, super­fluous, or even harmful to some other society at the same time.  A small community in a remote  village in some part of the world, for example, can live very well without the telephone system, as did New York City until the l9th century, but today New York without telephones would be paralyzed.  And it is very likely that a hundred years from now the same village cannot function without the telephone system.

But how do societies develop such needs in the first place? The answer to this lies in one peculiar feature of modern technology: its tendency to propagate and to proli­­ferate.  Practically every new invention calls for and leads to one or more other inventions.  The more com­plex an invention is, the greater is the number of related technological inventions on which it depends.  As a result, once a society enters a phase of complex technology, its needs are bound to proliferate.  This generates an ever enlarging array of technology.

Then again, as stated earlier, technology does more than simply solve our prob­lems.  Enjoyment is added to ease.  Technology provides considerable enrichment to life, even if most of it is related only to creature comforts.  The human being is, by nature, a pleasure seeking animal.  An important characteristic of physical comforts is that they  start as luxuries, and end up as necessities.  This is what makes technology attractive in the first place, and indispensable next.  Thus, for ex­ample, in many countries of the world refrigerators and even indoor plumbing are now items of luxury.  They are regarded as basic necessities in other countries.  Once Americans became accustomed to large gas guzzling cars, it turned out to be quite a problem to convince them that these are not as essential to life, liberty, and the pur­suit of happiness as they had been led to imagine.

Finally, as with science, there is also an innate urge in humans to create technology.  Man is Homo faber, a creature that does things.  It is this urge that gives rise to art and to architecture. Aside from its role in fulfilling our basic needs and in adding to life’s enjoyments, technology also serves to express our innate inclinations to build and to construct, to accomplish and to create.  Whether this technological imperative is good or not, it is an inherent characteristic of human beings.

It is this technological imperative as much as any other factor that provoked the Egyptians to erect impressive pyramids, and the Chinese to build walls that stretched for thousands of miles.  It is this urge that created the magnificent cathedrals of medi­eval Europe and the multi-storied skyscrapers and mile long suspension bridges of our own times.  The technological imperative prompts us to design aircrafts that will soar at ever increasing speeds, to launch spacecraft that will zoom beyond our solar system, and conceive of satellites on which generations of humans can spend rich and happy lives.

Some have seen in this propensity, especially in its modern manifestations, sheer madness, a suicidal mania that must be curbed before it is too late.  Reflective thinkers, including some scientists, have decried the mentality, and have warned of serious disasters to emerge from this.  They have used analysis, scholarly commentaries, sarcasm, and wit to point out that this technological obsession is in effect the tempter that will  lead to our own extinction.

One author described the technologist as a rapist of the land.  Engineers who work for the highway commissions, the park services and the port au­thorities, he pointed out, are “dedicated, single-minded men” who talk “the language of fanatics.”  Referring to our reckless interference with nature he wrote: “The Engineers know: build a dam, build a levee, build a wall, dredge, fill, change.  The marsh will die, the phytoplankton will die, the algae will die -and thus the shrimp and the bass will die, but the Engineers don’t care.  What good is a salt marsh?  Who needs a swamp?”


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