Friday, November 15, 2019

Let's give Technology an -ology...

We see technology as a noun, not a discipline or subject. There is no -ology for techn-ology, stuck as it is somewhere between science and engineering. Yet this is an area of human endeavour that has shaped history, economics, sociology, psychology and philosophy.
The tendency is to see technology in mechanical, material terms, to be stuck in the old paradigm, much as in this vision of robot cleaners in 1899, when the artist tried to imagine the year 2000. What we actually got was an AI driven Roomba. We also see this in the many books about technology, such as Usler's The History of Mechanical Invention and Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology, although the latter is far more sophisticated in seeing combinations of technology as the deep driver. The word technology comes from the Green Tekhne (art, craft) and logia (writings). We still see technology as ‘tech’ not ‘ology’.
In economics, from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and his earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the role technology in economic development became obvious. For Smith, the division of labour accelerates technological innovation as processes and procedures are automated, resulting in lower levels of employment and higher profits. He warned us of the dangers, as “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” This is almost oracle-like and can be applied directly to tax evading and rapacious tech companies. What Smith uncovered was the simple fact that technological progress is inevitable but what we do with it is politically optional.
Jump a century and Marx gives us a deeper critique but still sees technology as an object that diminishes labour and allows the exploitation of production by capitalists. In a fascinating Fragment on Machines (from his notebooks, the Grundrisse) he prophesises a knowledge economy, where social knowledge becomes a commodity. This transcends classical Marxism and predicts what actually happened with the internet and now AI. His exact words on the effects of technology were “general social knowledge has become a force of production… under the control of the general intellect”. This idea is elaborated in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism and has been described as ‘Marx beyond Marx’, a third form of capitalism, described by Antonio Negri’s followers as “cognitive capitalism”. What constitutes ‘value’ in this new economy has changed. It is no longer physical but psychological transactions, attention, eyeballs, knowledge, analysis, prediction, prescription, minds.
On the mechanics of technological change, a seminal text is Schumpter's Theories of Economic Development, bwhere cycles of economic development are seen as being driven by innovative technology as their cause.Carla Perez in Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital expands on the idea to identify specific cycles of over-effusive investment, slumps, then a period of fruitful investment that results in significant improvements in productivity. In other words, we overestimate technology in the short-term, underestimate it in the long-term.
Beyond the mechanics of economics, we have had a deep analysis of the sociology of technology by, among many others, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. McLuhan gave us the phrases ‘medium is the message’ and ‘global village’ which have so much resonance that they almost tip over into cliché. He was both an analyst of media and technology but also a visionary, predicted the web, invented the word ‘surfing’ for casual fragmentary media browsing and although he was dealing with the media a decade before the internet, his ideas, endure, through works like The Gutenburg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technolpoly, laid the ground work for subsequent analysis of the effects on technology on society. They saw the dialectic between technology and minds as having complex personal and social dimensions and consequences. Media and messages, tools shaping our minds, the dangers of amusing ourselves to death, with the advent of the web and AI, these issues have become even more complex, with even more profound consequences.
At a deeper, and more detailed level, the psychology of technology has been studied  in works like The Media Equation by Nass and Reeves. The cognitive change from passive to active media is explored in Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky and a slew of works on the cognitive interaction between technology and the mind. It is important that we continue to read the literature from cognitive science on the role technology can play in improving teaching and learning. Without this bedrock of science we will be forever stuck in the world of fads and bogus and outdated ideas, like learning styles, Myers-Briggs and IAT tests on unconscious bias.
At an abstract level, the philosophy of technology was also been addressed by Descartes, Leibniz and Hobbes, more recently by Turing and Searle, then Sartre in Being and Nothingness and Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology, where he questions the instrumental view of technology and searches for a deeper understanding of a relationship that has become much more problematic. This relationship between mind and machine was expanded in a seminal paper The Extended Mindby Clark and Chalmers in 1997, with the idea of extending mind and cognition into the technosphere. Thomas Malone in Superminds, also sees in technology the formation of a network of immense power. This idea of a single network has been tempered by Niall Fergusson in The Square and the Tower, a reinterpretation of history around the idea of networks, where horizontal agoras or squares have been build but also vertical, hierarchical networks of power that attempt to control these structures. He thinks that we need a balance between these types of networks. Daniel Dennett has taken an even more expansive view, in his synthesis of the mind, natural world and technology, within the context of evolution, in From Bacteria too Back and Back
On the back of this interest in the economic, sociology, psychology and philosophy of technology, moral philosophy (ethics) has come to the fore. Dennett sees technology as being ‘competent without comprehension’ and is more sanguine about the dangers than some others. Re-engineering Humanity by Frischmann and Selinger is one such text, a detailed analysis of the slippery-slope of technological creep that may undermine society without us even being aware of its influence. Stuart Russell, in Human Compatible, also sees the problem as one of control.
The reason I have attempted to uncover these lines of literature, is that those of us working in the field, I feel, need sometimes to take to the higher ground. Far too much debate takes place at the level of us versus them, ignoring the complexity and subtleties of the field. Too often we get simplistic futurism or contrarianism. I have only touched upon the rich seams of literature in each of these strands. If we weave them together we get a strong rope by which we can pull the subject up into a more respectable level and see techn-ology as an -ology in itself. 
This piece was inspired by Nigel Paine, who interviewed me on this very topic last week for Learning TV. Thanks Nigel.


Stephen Downes said...

Techgnosology ?

Writing about the knowledge of technology?

Or maybe better, shortened (without the ugly g):


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