💾 What is technology?

TL; DR – there are three building blocks to understanding technology as a concept. #1 is that tech = creation. #2 is that we build it to pursue our lives outside our biology. And #3 is that it shapes us deeply as humans.

There’s no bigger concept to our times than technology.

But, what is technology? If we’re asking questions concerning technology, what are they concerning? When is something technology – and can we ever stop calling it that? When are bad things technology’s fault, as opposed to the person who uses it? Think about it for longer than a minute, and you realise it’s a tricky concept to pin down. All the more reason for us to get to grips with it.

Here’s my take:

Technology is creation that furthers our pursuit of life, and shapes our understanding of the world.

Woah, there’s a lot to unpack there. I try to take theories from big thinkers, and make them usable and simple. Let’s go through the three parts step by step:

Technology is creation.

We start in Silicon Valley. Specifically with ‘Zero to One: Notes for Startups’ by Peter Thiel, one of the Valley’s most influential founders and investors. In it, he says the single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress, is technology.

Technology is going from 0 to 1 – building new things. In other words, creation.

In Thiel’s words, these acts of creation – technology – are miracles because they let us do more with less. And Thiel contrasts technology (going from 0 to 1, or vertically) with globalisation (going from 1 to 100+, or horizontally). Moving from horse and cart to car is technology, then building it 100 times in a factory is globalisation.

And this ability to create new things isn’t automatic. There have been times in history – like the Dark Ages in Europe – where people haven’t created anything.

That furthers our pursuit of life.

If creation isn’t automatic, then why do we create? Beyond ideas of progress and doing more with less, Thiel doesn’t have much more to say here. So, we move to our second thinker, Bernard Stiegler, and his magnum opus ‘Technics and Time’¹.

Stiegler’s technics are organised inorganic matter, coming from the same Greek root (techne, or ‘craft’) as technology. And for Stiegler, these technics give humans the pursuit of life by means other than life. Stiegler argues that through technics we can proceed with life, but according to new laws, laws other than those of our biology as humans.

Being able to better pursue our lives – this is why humans create. Technology are tools we create that further the pursuit of life.

Fundamental verbs, or labels for the pursuit of life: carrying, communicating, travelling, transacting, recording, and so on – are what technology allows us to do better, faster and easier than we could with just our biology.

One implication of this is that technology doesn’t have to be only what is “cutting edge”. Phones, computers, cars, TVs – intuitively, you would call these things technology even though they’ve been mainstream for years, if not decades. But they were all once created. All are non-biological, inorganic things that once went from 0 to 1.

And they are used, all the time, for the pursuit of life. And when they’re used, these created things are technology, no matter how long they’ve been around for. Using a pen to write – the pen is technology. Using a knife to cut – the knife is technology. Use a phone to communicate – the phone is technology.

For Stiegler, the pursuit of life is conquering time and space. That’s what tech allows us to do, for good or ill. A lot of the time, tech gives us greater freedom, greater utility, greater happiness. Sometimes, it’s destructive to the human (think: the gun), or to the world (think: fossil fuels). It comes down to the human, and what pursuit of life the technology is furthering.

And shapes our understanding of the world.

There’s one final piece to the puzzle.

Humans create things, and then those things shape us as humans.

The origins of this thinking take us back to Martin Heidegger², one of the founders of the philosophy of technology. For Heidegger, technology was neither a means to an end or a product of human activity. In other words, he warns us against thinking of tech as only something people use to achieve something, or only **something humans build. It’s both of those, and more.

Technology is – crucially – a lens we use to understand the world around us. Again, this is something you’ll have experienced many times over. The car has shaped how you see the horizon. Social media has shaped how you see friendship. Now, more than ever, we need to go beyond only understanding technology as a neutral tool.

In today’s globalised world, most things are created elsewhere from where they’re used. There’s distance – of geography, of culture, of lived experience – between creator and user. The Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr is one of the most articulate in pointing out how, the greater this distance, the more the created thing – the technology – shapes us. The further away it’s built, the less you know about it; the more devoid it is of your values and creativity. The more it’s something that happens to you, and thereby shapes you. In Nasr’s words, It’s no longer an extension of your soul.

These days, we outsource most of the pursuit of life to tech. Tech isn’t an extension of our souls, but something we manage and input into, without understanding. Our forefathers used the abacus to calculate. We manage the process of calculating with an iPhone app. Our forefathers used the scythe to cut grass. We turn on and direct the lawnmower.

And, Nasr also points out, this distance is a recent, Western phenomenon. In Persian and Arabic, one word captures the English words for art, craft, and technology. These languages still assume the created thing is used by its craftsman, and her community, rather than someone far away.

More and more our technologies, created for the pursuit of life, then invent us as humans. The further away they’re created, the more they invent us. What we then create – is it still humans, creating for the pursuit of life? Or has technology graduated to the role of creator, at least in part?

We’ll leave that for another day. We now know what technology is (creation), why we create it (the pursuit of life), and take responsibility for how it affects us as humans. Capturing its essence, I hope we’ve built firm foundations for ideas to come.

Technology is creation that furthers the pursuit of life, and shapes our understanding of the world.

¹ Stiegler is unbelievably difficult to read, but worth it. If you fancy the challenge, I recommend starting with this summary from the philosopher Daniel Ross. Stiegler sadly passed away in August 2020, aged 68.

² Again, Heidegger is difficult to read in translations from the original. Start with this 2-min article or this short paper by the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus.

🎬 Thanks to James Wilkinson and Raiyan Azmi for looking at drafts of this post.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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