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Technology (1): Second Nature

My working definition of technology is: anything useful made by a mind.

Kevin KellyTechnology’s Epic Story (TED talk)

What technology isn’t

Technology isn’t (just) computers and gadgets. Certainly, these things are technologies, but technology isn’t, to quote Kevin Kelly stealing a phrase from Allan Kay, (merely) “Things that were invented after you were born.” It’s probably better to use the (now) clunky sounding “high technology” to label these newest, most advanced technologies, or perhaps a more specific phrase like “digital technologies.”

But to focus on gadgets as technology is to miss… almost everything else.

Deeper roots

Technology – from the Greek tékhnē, roughly “craft” or “art” (in the sence of “artifice”) – is far more than gadgets. Aristotle* writes:

Art (tékhnē) is identical with the a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning. All tékhnē is concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being, and whose origin is in the maker and not in the thing made made; for tékhnē is [not] concerned… with things that are, or come into being, be necessity, nor with things that do so in accordance with nature (since these have their origin in themselves).

Aristotle – Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, Chapter 4

So we have this idea of technology as all the things that are deliberately made by people in a way that goes beyond what “nature” provides.**

Second Nature

Technology goes even beyond simply making new things from the raw materials that nature provides. Technology gives humans power over nature. As long ago as the first century BC Cicero wrote about how humans create a “second world,” or nature-within-nature through agriculture and irrigation.

Cicero might be surprised by how far we’ve come, but his basic point still stands: the “natural” environment of humans is profoundly artifice-ial. The world we live in is a made world – a world of technology:

  • The house you live in;
  • The bed you woke up in;
  • The sheets you slept under;
  • The devices for controlling the temperature of your air and water;
  • The clothes you’re probably wearing;
  • The breeds of plants and animals you ate most recently and the techniques you used to prepare them;
  • The furniture you sat at an on while you ate, and the tools you ate with, and the plate you ate off;
  • Your toilet;
  • Your toothbrush;
  • The fillings in your teeth;
  • Your artificial eyes (glasses, cameras) and the light you see by;
  • The vehicles you get around in;
  • And your computer and phone, of course.

“Technology is killing us.”

So for all of our fears about new technologies and their dangers, we do well to remember that technology is the very stuff of human existence far more than it’s a threat.

To live without technology is to find yourself in the forest after dark, naked, and weaponless as a light snow drifts through the trees, and the wolves begin to circle. It’s to be scared of the wolves as they begin to circle, but to have no words to use to shout for help.

Hat Tip: Evan Scherr‘s post on the etymology of technology

*Not that something is necessarily reliable because he said it.
**More on technology in nature and pre-history in a future post
***The Roman one – the one any other Cicero you know of is probably named after.

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