Some (rough) notes on defining technology

Studying technology invites comparisons to the study of the mind. We cannot be direct observers of the mind, since all of our observations are facilitated by it. Is it then possible to know something from the inside of it? We can map the contours of what the mind makes possible, demarking limits and make comparative analyses, but it is difficult to be reflective in a situation where we are entirely dependant on the object of study.

There is no human without a mind, though some people seem to call this into question. I mean this humerously and seriously, especially with regards to the disabled. We tend to treat consciousness/sapience/sentience as an either/or. But there are gradations – categories like consciousness escape the enforcement of boundaries the more we work to understand how non-humans experience the world. In the case of the intellectually disabled, we know that there is an experience of the world that is markedly different than that of an able-bodied person, yet both have an experience. We cannot say that the disabled do not have minds or are not consciousness (except maybe in the extreme case of brain death). Likewise, there is no human who is not technical – examples of technology can be readily found all around us. Technology is part of what makes us “human” in the way we understand it. A truly non-technical human resists imagination. It is important to then try and demark different qualities of technology and the forms it takes in shaping our world. I hope that I am able to provide a definition for technology that is useful and productive.

There are several problems with creating a comprehensive definition of technology. We tend to focus on technology as being electrical and digital instruments which allow people to do things which are impossible with them – computers, cell phones, etc. This ignores both the infrastructure that makes those things able to function – a cellphone is useless without a cell tower, a satilite to talk to the cell tower, a rocket to launch the cell tower, fuel to launch the rocket, refineries to process the fuel, excavators to uncover the crude oil, etc. Also, some (namely Bernard Steigler) describe technology as “organized inorganic matter” – which ignores the role of immaterial technologies as well as biotech and domestication.

When trying to acknowledge technology in it’s largest scope, we then run into the problem of multiple domains. Technologies are both material (as in, having physical instantiations), social (as in engendered by social processes which make it possible) , and produce new forms of sociality, in both cultures that emerge around them and associative cultural effects. An example of these last two would be the Cold War military processes that went ito maintaining ICBM systems in the US & USSR, as well as the culture of “duck and cover” that emerged in the general public. The classical understand of technology itself (in this case, the ICBM) also gave rise to what Ellul would call “technqiues.” A more primitive and rudimentry example is fire – the technology of making fire is not bound up in the flame itself, but the flint and tinder, the friction method, or any means that people were able to conjur fire as needed.

We have two domains then for technology – social (productive and associative) and material. This is where the problem of individual agency enters the picture. As the assoicative social technology becomes normalized, we discover that technologies are also either “participatory,” in this case optional and inclusive, or “preclusive.” By preclusive I mean that the associative culture of a technology begins to prefigure the entire social world. We describe cultures which do not rely on “modern” technologies as “traditional.” Modern civilization, as we know, is wholly dependent on preclusive forms of technology which establish and prefigure a sense of order and normalacy. The decision for an individual to “opt out” or to refuse these forms of technology is largely beyond us – as one divorces themselves from the preclusive forms of technology and the sociality surounding them, they enter into insensibilities.

Participatory technologies allow us to enter and depart at will – it is of no consoquence to social sensibility if I chose not to shave, so long as facial hair is socially acceptable. Likewise, if I do not drink coffee, I may seem strange to some, but this is an acceptable and largely inconsequential social choice. I may more directly engage with participatory technologies, like media. A choice to not watch television or not to participate in social media may be less extreme when one realizes I rely on alternative media to fulful the same associative social effects. Staying in touch with friends via “snail mail” may be unusual, but I am by no means insensibile.

However, preclusive technologies are entirely different. The choice to refuse to eat meat based on an ethical stance against factory farming means I have to look for entirely different social technologies. Specialty grocery stores and communities oriented around this form of consumption will help me make that choice. A decision to divest from or refuse coal consumption means I have to find an alternative source for energy. If I move “off the grid,” it is likely that I will still need to generate electricity somehow, by means of “green energy.” However, I am still dependent on this preclusive form of technology (electrical power) in order to live in the way I have been socialized.

More extremely, refusers of social technologies like government will deliberately try to make themselves insensible to society. The “soverign citizen movement,” “preppers” and others who try to deliberatly move to the margins of society find themselves attempting to escape what is a largely fundamental fact of the 21st century – no one is a citizen of nowhere. Our involvement in society is precluded by these types of technologies. To live in the developed world means reconciling with the existence of cars, roadways, tolls, etc. One’s choice to not drive a car does not diminish that these are real things that impact how we live.

Lastly, there are formal and expressive technologies. Some technologies allow the user a wide degree of latitude in deciding how to engage. Material artifacts carry with them intentions and ideologies in what they are for and how they can be used. Their associations to social technologies may be evident (what is the censer for if not a religious ceremony?) or unclear (I can choose to play whatever I like on a musical instrument). The more formal a technology, the more limited its uses are – an ICBM, for instance, may have many theorized social effects, but ultimately its use is to destroy things. The more expressive a technology is, the more an individual can decide how they want to use it – word processors, instruments, programming languages, even language itself allow us to reshape the horizon of possibilities. The same is true of social technologies – democracy relies upon a good deal of expressivness in its members, while fascism is a rather formal means of making political decisions.

I have outlined two main domains for technology (social/material) under which there are two other dualities – participatory/preclusive and formal/expressive. In keeping with Deleuze’s ideas of “Becoming Molecular,” the porus grey space between these two extremes should be acknowledged. While the first two domains are ontological, the other two are constructed ways of perceiving and interoperating. This effort to define technology begain as a way of thinking past the binary of use/nonuse. I would make the argument that no one is a user as designers intend, neither are they nonusers (given the preclusive character of so much technology). But it is difficult to categorize things as strictly participatory or preclusive, or formal vs expressive, without an exact context for analysis. This is why these categories serve as a rough way of thinking about the boundries of sensibility that technology creates. Technology is firstmost a means of sense-making, of prefiguring order and control in the environment and creating new socialities. While most technology critique and analysis rests in a critical vein of understanding order and control, my goal is to understand the sensibility of technology, and how it restructures the realm of what it is to be an intelligible, social human, in what we can accept and what we can refuse.


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