This is a short review of the book “Philosophy of Technology” by V. Dusek and its main themes and ideas. I’ve selected some interesting ideas to talk about, and included some excerpts from the book in the end.
Well… to start, I somehow had more of a ‘technology’ and less ‘philosophy’ expectation before reading this book… Wasn’t really a disappointment, because my weakness for things starting with “Philosophy of …” could have been a key reason for picking the book in the first place.
Working in the fields of technology and innovation for a while, I thought it would be fun (??) to go over foundational philosophical frameworks that contemplate technology and its impacts.. It is, but the discussions in the book seemed to frequently digress towards recurring philosophical discussions (so if you’re not very academically inclined, you might be bored at some points – read faster).
The book has many beautiful discussions, and below I include some thoughtful and insightful questions… Its core themes and issues include the concept of technology as a set of tools or systems, the principles of work and alienation, technocracy and how technology might impact society (arcane / not as exciting discussion as you’d hope), among other themes.
“Philosophy of Technology” also visits some interesting fields, including the interesting discussion of “What truly defines the human condition: is it language or tool-making (technology)?” , Local knowledge and local technology , Feminism & Technology , and “Anti-Technology”.
Here’s a list of the key units of the book:
Definitions – of Technology & in General
So what is technology ?
Well you’re not ready yet. Before getting a definition of technology, and this being a philosophy of technology book, you need a definition of a definition (honestly this was quite an exciting twist!).
So what is a definition anyway?
A kind of definition used in philosophy and in other academic areas is a précising definition. This sort of definition retains the core ordinary meaning of the word. It is not stipulative or arbitrary. However, unlike a reportative definition it does not simply describe how people actually use the word. It attempts to sharpen up the boundaries of application of the word by describing the range of application and cut-off points.
(How big is “big” for a certain kind of thing? How few hairs can one have and still be counted as bald?)
This leads us to another sort of definition different from both the above, the reportative definition. This sort of definition is a report of how people ordinarily use words. It doesn’t claim to find the true structure of reality, but it also doesn’t simply make up an arbitrary definition by fiat. Dictionary definitions are close to reportative definitions.
Reportative definitions often have fuzzy boundaries or vagueness of application. Ordinary language is frequently imprecise as to exactly what objects count as falling under the definition.Quote – On Definitions ( philosophy of technology )
and… what if there was no such thing as a definition :
Nominalists in the late Middle Ages, such as William of Ockham (1285– 1347), denied the reality of essences or universals and claimed that only individuals are real. British philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the early days of experimental science, held that there were no real definitions. Thomas Hobbes (1588– 1679) claimed that definitions are stipulative, even though he thought he could base science on them. In the seventeenth century, Hobbes successfully described the definitional or postulational side of science, but he failed to explain how he tied his definitional and deductive notion of science to observation. For Hobbes, definitions are introduced at the start of an investigation, they are not, as they were for Aristotle, the final result of investigation.Are there no definitions ?
Also, before being able to define definitions, we need to think about the guidelines for definitions.. Here are some :
Some general guidelines for definition are the following: 1 A definition should not be too broad or narrow. (That is, the definition should not include things we would not designate by the word we are defining, and the definition should not be so restricted as to exclude things that should fall under the term defined.) 2 A definition should not be circular. (For instance, we shouldn’t define “technology” as “anything technological” and then define “technological” as “anything pertaining to technology.”) 3 A definition should not use figurative language or metaphors. 4 A definition should not be solely negative but should be in positive terms. (AGuidelines for definitions
I like Hegel’s input:
Some philosophers, such as Hegel, have suggested that the point is not to avoid circularity but to make the circle big enough to encompass everything!Hegel : A definition is just right !
So … back to technology, and how to define it. Or, how not to define it?
An example of defining technology in a too narrow manner is the common contemporary tendency to mean by “technology” solely computers and cell phones, leaving out all of machine technology, let alone other technology. A case of defining technology in a manner that may be too broad is B. F. Skinner’s inclusion of all human activity in technology. Skinner understands human activity as being conditioned and self-conditioning. For Skinner conditioning is considered to be behavioral technology.Not-good definitions of Technology
Long story short (is that still possible), we can’t have one sentence… that would be useless… there are however three main characterizations :
Definitions of Technology Three definitions or characterizations of technology are: (a) technology as hardware; (b) technology as rules; and (c) technology as system.Defining Technology (1)
It basically rests around the question: is technology a set of objects (material or otherwise) or a system of different elements, which implies processes and flow (see below quotes)?
A definition specifically focused on systems, and integrating different research is as follows:
Galbraith (1908– 2004) defined technology as “the systematic application of scientific or other knowledge to practical tasks” or “the application of scientific or other knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems that involve people and organizations, productive skills, living things, and machines.” This consensus definition is sometimes characterized as the “ technological systems” approach to technology. The technological system is the complex of hardware (possibly plants and animals), knowledge, inventors, operators, repair people, consumers, marketers, advertisers, government administrators, and others involved in a technology.The Systems-view definition of technology
Camps & Schools
What stood out in this book, as would be expected in similar philosophy of technology / philosophy of science books is the predominance of camps. The world is arranged into camps, and members of a camp are (subjectively) more correct than those (inferior) members of the other camp (or else they’d move) [In fact, I discuss the role of ‘camps’ within science communities in detail in my book ‘Fuzzy on the Dark Side’].
Here are some camps, isms, and ists (excerpts from the book) :
- The most widely known and accepted philosophy of science (often presented in introductory sections of science texts) has been inductivism. According to inductivism, one starts with observations of individual cases, and uses these to predict future cases.
- Realists often describe scientific theories as “pictures” of the world.
- Instrumentalists describe theories as “tools” for prediction.
- The instrumental realists of the 1980s developed a strong focus on the embodied, active aspects of science that became a significant movement within the philosophy of science.
- The “logical” part of logical positivism consisted of the reconstruction of scientific theories using formal, mathematical logic.
- Verification was weakened to confirmation or partial support by the logical empiricists.
- Two topics raised by the post-positivist philosophy of science are the theory-laden nature of observation and the underdetermination of theories by evidence.
- Among the contributions of the social constructivist and related approaches are case studies showing how consensus is formed in scientific communities.
- Popper’s falsificationism or critical approach, belatedly appreciated, allowed for the role of theory as prior to observation and the role of philosophical theories as background frameworks for scientific theories.
- Postmodernism is a broad and diverse movement that has been influential in the recent decades in the humanities and social sciences, including science and technology studies.
Some insights & thoughts
Technology & Practical Rationality
Technology is aligned with a specific (Instrumental: means-end) rationality. Many thinkers consider this type of ‘practical’ rationality’ to be inferior to some other ‘higher’ rationality.
In contrast to the technocrats and technological optimists, those who have been pessimistic about the dominance of technology in our society have often contrasted a higher or genuine rationality with technological rationality, or “instrumental rationality” (see below). Technological rationality is seen as a lower form of rationality that needs to be supplemented and overseen by genuine philosophical, dialectical, or other higher rationality
Instrumental rationality is means– end rationality. It involves the search for the most efficient means to reach a given end. Instrumental rationality and the search for efficiency are rightly identified with the technological approach.Technological Rationality vs Higher Rationality
Rationalization & Values: Are our values random ??
According to Weber Western culture is being rationalized. More and more areas of traditional thought and action are being structured by instrumental reason. However, the goals or values about which the means are rationally structured are based on irrational decision. There can be no genuine reasoning about values. Here Weber agrees with the existentialists, and sees choice of values as an arbitrary, irrational decision.Weber, Values, and Technology
Does technology produce culture or vice-versa?
Are the meanings that drive value-selection in society completely arbitrary, and thus subject to technology and its objects, or is the opposite more accurate?
Bruno Latour (1992, 1993) has criticized the overemphasis in social constructivist sociology on culture producing technical objects and the underemphasis on the role of objects in producing culture. Latour emphasizes that neither nature nor culture is primary, that objects should be treated as “actants” symmetrically with people, and that the starting point for analysis should be the nature– culture hybrid.Latour on Culture and Technology
Who Controls the technological system ?
However, even the inventors, engineers, maintenance people, businesspeople, bureaucrats, politicians, and others involved in the system lack overall intellectual grasp or strategic control of the system. They control as well as understand only a small fragment of the system.
Winner draws on writers such as Arendt (1964) on Adolph Eichmann, or Albert Speer’s own justifications, to claim that individual responsibility is eroded and eliminated in the technological system.Technological Systems and Individual Freedom
Action vs Labor: What is creative? (Arendt)
If Marx talks about alienation, and (indirectly) about the role of specialization and ‘instrumental application of application of science’ in that, Arendt expands this discussion by differentiating between ‘labor’ and ‘action’.
For Arendt, action is primarily characterized by speech in the public or political realm. Like labor, it produces no permanent physical product but is truly characteristic of the highest form of human activity.
In contrast to labor, however, action is truly creative.
In Arendt’s terminology Marx mistakenly reduced both work and action to labor. Arendt claims that in the modern world action in the true sense has all but disappeared.Arendt, Action, Labor
Flow & Processes vs Things : How to see the world?
Process philosophy holds that the ultimate entities in the universe are not enduring things or substances but processes. Its oldest precursor in Western philosophy is the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who famously claimed that one “cannot step in the same river twice,” and that “there is a new sun every day.” Whitehead’s process philosophy (as well as that of James and Mead) also makes relations central. Rather than things or substances, relations are the fundamental stuff of reality (basic metaphysical elements).
Notebook / Document of Quotes
A compilation of quotes from the book I found interesting and worthy of re-examining is included here. This is a personal selection, and in no way a valid summary of the book or its ‘most important ideas’.
Think-Grow Knowledge Modules
The Think-Grow Knowledge Modules are mini-libraries of book summaries, each giving a wide (wise) enough view of a specific field.
They offer a simpler, wiser, and more convenient approach to reading about different fields. The Better Brain Library in particular has summaries of books on intelligence, thinking, and mental training.