2. Why Do We Use Technology?

…a new communications technology…
allowed people to communicate almost instantly
across great distances, in effect shrinking
the world faster and further than ever before.
A worldwide communications network…
it revolutionized business practice, gave rise
to new forms of crime, and inundated its users
with a deluge of information.

– Tom Standage

The telegraph was unlike anything that had come before. Suddenly news could travel as dots and dashes of Morse code through a cable in the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and America. Letters bobbing for weeks on steamships could be replaced by speed-of-light conversations. Harnessed lightning replaced paper, changing business and crime. With improved commun­ications, some predicted the end of misunderstandings between countries and the end of war. As the 19th century came to a close, the unique technology of the telegraph spread its cables like a giant octopus covering the world.

But the telegraph was not unlike anything that had come before. Other technologies had earlier improved and even transformed communication. And others, such as the Internet, would follow. As mind boggling as it was to move from handwritten letters to invisible pulses of electricity, using technology to communicate was familiar. Writing had transformed communication, as had papyrus, cotton paper, wood paper, printing, and printing with interchangeable type. The telephone replaced dots and dashes with voice (and seemed so fantastic that telegraph companies rejected the idea). Radio replaced wires, and satellites extended radio’s range to circle the globe. The Internet added data in the form of text, graphics, and video to the voices we could already send. Cellular telephones made sure we could connect nearly anytime and anywhere.

What is yet to come?  Technologies as baffling to us as the telegraph was to those living in the 19th century, and used for many of the same reasons we have always used technology. Finding something relatively constant in the torrential flow of technology is valuable in this period of rapid technological change. We picked a dozen categories for why we use technology:

  1. Food
  2. Shelter
  3. Communication
  4. Transportation
  5. Commerce
  6. Art
  7. Religion
  8. Health
  9. Entertainment
  10. Organization
  11. Conflict
  12. Exploration


In this chapter we give examples for the four categories in bold. You may think of reasons to use technology that do not fall into one of these categories. Or, you may find them too specific, and be tempted to generalize them into five or six, similar to the taxonomy of life.

But more important than the specific categories is the benefit of having some categories. Basic human needs and desires change little, and we can expect that future technology will simply find ever more creative ways to satisfy them. These categories—or whatever set you adopt—can be a template to place on unfamiliar technologies.

While this may temporarily blind us to a truly new purpose, handled carefully, it will help us past the marketing hype of new technologies. In most cases, that “completely new, does everything, unlike anything that has ever existed” innovation will satisfy one or several of these common reasons for using technology. Determining which needs it satisfies will help us find other familiar patterns (e.g. the printing press made it easy to print trashy novels; the web made it easy to publish trashy websites).

In the following sections, we illustrate each category with one or several technologies. Finding examples was easy—every newspaper or magazine article that mentions a technology includes some implied or explicit reasons for its use. Deciding which to include was not. A comprehensive list of all technologies used for a given purpose would be endless—we would have to include every technology in existence. And a ranked list showing only the most important technology in each category could be predictable and even dull.

So instead, we looked for the most entertaining illustrations for each category. Do not be disappointed if something as important as the printing press has been pushed out of the limelight by the “high-tech” cigarette, or if we spend more time on Entertainment than Communication. Neither is a claim of relative importance, but simply an acknowledgement that, elsewhere, the likes of the printing press have received “plenty of ink.”


Ch2 communication

For thousands of years, kings, queens, and generals
have relied on efficient communication in order to
govern their countries and command their armies…
It was the threat of enemy interception that
motivated the development of codes and ciphers.

– Simon Singh


On a winter night in 1985, an Iraqi shepherd felt warmth coming from the hill he was sitting on. The surrounding slopes where his sheep rested were cold, so he was very curious. Digging into the earth on that remote spot 300 miles west of Baghdad, he found a warm metal tip connected to a machine. It was connected to Iraq’s main telephone trunk line with Jordan. A nuclear cell powered it to transmit everything it heard to listeners unknown. Demolitions experts tried to open it, but it exploded, killing two.

In Saddam’s Bombmaker, Khidhir Hamza reported that, “According to interviews the security people conducted with other shepherds and Bedouins in the area, helicopters with Iraqi markings had unloaded soldiers on the hill a few months earlier. They’d seen the soldiers digging on the hill, and even heard them talking in Iraqi slang.”  But those soldiers were not Iraqis. Few neighboring countries trusted Saddam Hussein, but Iraq was sure that Israel, alone, had the capability for this elaborate telephone-tapping operation.

Eavesdropping probably predates writing, but we have historical evidence for the use of secret writing shortly after the development of writing itself. In ancient Egypt, priests used Hieratic (“sacred writing”) to keep communications secret. Cryptography, the science of encoding and decoding information, has made use of many technologies, and it has spurred the development of some.

Hidden beneath the rough, dark waters of the Atlantic German U-boats searched for Allied ships to sink. World War II German naval commanders were so confident of the imperviousness of their Enigma encryption machine that they regularly radioed orders to their subs at sea. But, within half a day, Britain could figure out where the subs were heading. How?  British code breakers used Colossus, the first electronic computer (though some call the machine, built from 1500 vacuum tubes, a calculator rather than a general purpose computer).

This is how it worked. Enigma machines used a typewriter keyboard and electrical connections routed through several 26-sided wheels or rotors, which scrambled the letters that were typed. On the receiving end, another Enigma machine with identically wired rotors unscrambled them. When Germany suspected that their codes in their three-rotor machines had been compromised they then added a fourth rotor.

Even with information about the Enigma machines captured by Polish and French resistance fighters, England could not take a brute force approach to figuring out how the Germans wired up the rotors each month. Even if they could test 200,000 states each second, it would have taken more than 15 billion years, roughly the age of the Universe!

To overcome this challenge, England needed three things:  its Colossus computers, human ingenuity, and human fallibility. The ingenuity was analyzing the encrypted messages for patterns in the German language, which could show through the encryption—even if so faintly that only a computer could detect it. The fallibility was the German practice of announcing each victory to every far-flung military unit in precisely the same language. This gave England multiple copies of a message, each encrypted differently by the same wiring of the rotors.

In the 21st century, our reliance on telecommunications is even greater and encryption has become a political issue. The National Security Agency in the U.S. works with Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to monitor and analyze global communication. Telephone, fax, and computer messages are intercepted by “Echelon” computers, which look for the signature of a terrorist plan or other security threat. Humans review the most interesting material once it has been filtered down from an immense number of intercepts.

Some European nations complain that this monitoring picks up business information, which is then shared with U.S. companies, giving them an unfair competitive advantage. As with any arms race, encryption has been improved to foil the Echelon monitoring, but U.S. law prevents export of any encryption system beyond a certain ability (presumably that level above which government computers could not decrypt).

Some communications are easier to monitor than others. The increasing use of cellular and satellite telephones is broadcasting more conversations into the atmosphere, but, as the Iraqis discovered, even “land lines” are not secure.

While the Internet and Web are capable of much more sophisticated applications, two of the most popular have been email and instant messaging—simple, quick, inexpensive communication. Future technology, however strange it may appear, may also satisfy this enduring human need to communicate.


 Ch2 health

I felt as comfortable operating on my patient
as if I had been in the room.

— Jacques Marescaux, MD


How could a surgeon operate in a room distant from the patient?  Cameras transmit views of the patient to the surgeon and remote controls allow the surgeon to operate robotic manipulators. This technology was developed for surgeons in the same room as their patients because it can be slipped through tiny incisions, which are much less traumatic for the patient than holes big enough for the surgeon’s hands. Another advantage is that relatively large finger motions can be translated to miniscule knife or probe motions, giving the surgeon much steadier and precise hands.

Why would a surgeon operate in a room distant from the patient?  The surgery you need may have been studied by a local surgeon, but actually performed hundreds of times (successfully!) by a surgeon in another part of the world. The odds are better with the veteran…if the technology gives the surgeon a good enough feel.

The key to remote surgery is dividing the process into stages some of which involve only information, such as steps two and four below:


  1. The patient is viewed by digital cameras
  2. Information from them is transmitted to a computer screen
  3. The surgeon views screen and manipulates computer controls
  4. Those controls transmit information to robotic “hands”
  5. The robotic hands interact with the patient


Our global communication network is good at transmitting information anywhere. As long as the cameras and robotic manipulators are in the same room as the patient, the viewing screens and controls are in the same room as the surgeon (and the system does not crash), then the distance does not much matter.

Computers can further change the motion of manipulators by incorporating the typical movements of recognized experts in each surgical area. These expert systems imitate the best practices, allowing them to be used even when the experts are not present. Eventually, this may go beyond minor modification of surgical movements with computers performing surgery on their own. An attending surgeon would switch on an “auto pilot,” much as airline pilots commonly do today.

Still very expensive, computer-assisted surgery is not yet bringing the best of surgery to poor areas that lack any form of it at all. Do benefits once reserved for the few ever trickle down to the many?  Well, in 1836, one of the richest people on earth died from something that, today, any pharmacy with antibiotics could cure.

At the time, germs—the invisible creatures that we so carefully sterilize from open wounds and surgical instruments with heat, alcohol and high-tech substances today—were not yet discovered. So Nathan Rothschild, an otherwise healthy 59-year-old banker, died of a simple infection from an abscess or boil—or from the surgeon’s attempt to open it with a non-sterile knife.

Medical technology was primitive by current standards, and did not include the antibiotics that could have saved him. And current antibiotics are primitive compared to the eventual products of biotechnology.

Rothschild could not have imagined the reach of current medical technology. Cochlear implants are electronic devices placed in the inner ear, or cochlea, that bring hearing to the deaf. They convert sound waves into electrical impulses to stimulate nerve endings. For those with nerve damage in the cochlea itself, newer implants connect directly to the brain stem.

To test this technology, a cat in California has a brainstem implant for hearing and a person has a brainstem implant to control a cursor on a computer screen. That person suffered from a brainstem stroke and lost use of his hands, but he can still interact with a computer, which picks up his thoughts on wires that pass through his skull to the implant.

Advances borrowed from other areas—for example the sophisticated audio analysis and signal processing done by spies at the KGB, CIA, and NSA—could make future cochlear implants superhuman. Expect that the future will bring more and more technology to satisfy our quest for health because the consumers with the most disposable income have many of their other needs, such as food and shelter, already met.


 Ch2 entertainment

The constants all through the centuries
will be the same: wine, women, and song.
Other than that, life will be very different technologically.

– Phyllis Diller


Smoking tobacco, which we categorize as a form of entertainment (albeit, an addictive and dangerous form) has its share of technology. The cigarette rolling machine, invented in 1881, helped cigarettes eclipse pipes and chewing as the most popular form of tobacco. But as important as that mechanical technology was, chemical technology is the key to cigarettes’ insidious power.

Here is how it works. Two types of tobacco go into most cigarettes:  reconstituted and puffed. Puffed tobacco is made from tobacco leaves saturated with freon and ammonia before they are freeze-dried, which doubles their volume. Reconstituted tobacco is made from tobacco stems and parts of the leaf that cannot be used in puffed tobacco. These are pulped and then sprayed with hundreds of chemicals including nicotine, which is also found naturally in the leaf.

Nicotine is the most important chemical in cigarettes. Highly addictive, it diminishes appetite, affects mood, and can, at least temporarily, improve performance. Tobacco company laboratories developed chemical additives to improve delivery of nicotine. Ammonia, for instance, makes more of the nicotine vaporize when heated by the burning of the cigarette. Vapor can readily travel to the lungs, where the nicotine accompanies oxygen into the blood, which flows to the heart (which can speed 10 to 20 beats per minute with the first nicotine “hit” of the day), which pumps it to the brain.

In the brain, nicotine affects neurons, the nerve cells behind our thoughts and feelings. Specifically, nicotine mimics chemicals that neurons use to communicate with each other, over-stimulating the neurons with many false signals. By interfering with normal neuron communication, nicotine can alter mood, often pleasurably.

Since the brain, like most life, is highly adaptable, it accommodates to the over stimulation of neurons. As a result, when a smoker stops smoking, the brain initially perceives the normal level of stimulation that resumes as inadequate. The unpleasant symptoms the former smoker experiences are called “withdrawal,” and they can be alleviated by resumption of smoking.

A Spanish historian noted the addictive nature of cigars in 1527. When science caught up with conventional wisdom and declared smoking dangerous to one’s health, the highly profitable industry started working on a “safer” cigarette.

The first danger their scientists took on was tar, one of the many chemicals that smoking introduces into the lungs. They created filters, air holes that dilute the smoke with fresher air, and low-tar blends of tobacco to reduce the amount of tar going into smokers’ lungs.

But they also reduced the nicotine, which smokers’ brains were finely attuned to. Just as your brain can adjust your throw when the ball falls short of the basket, smokers’ brains adjusted the puffing when the nicotine fell short of the “norm.”  By inhaling deeper, covering the air holes with fingers or lips, or smoking more cigarettes, smokers were able to get their accustomed nicotine levels. This also restored the previous levels of tar.

The AccordTM cigarette, introduced in 1998, is a “high tech” approach to safer cigarettes. The smoker inserts one end of a special cigarette into the microchip-based heating unit. Because the tobacco is not burned away into ash, the unit has a liquid crystal display (like those found on watches and calculators) to indicate how many puffs remain in the cigarette. After each pack of cigarettes, the smoker must recharge the batteries in the Accord.

The Irony of “Safe” Cigarettes

Heating tobacco, as the Accord does, rather than burning it, as conventional cigarettes do, produces no carbon monoxide or secondhand smoke. Carbon monoxide is also found at the tailpipes of cars, and can be fatal when a car is run in a closed area, such as a garage. Secondhand smoke has led to many state laws prohibiting smoking in public buildings and even at outside areas like theater lines or building entrances, where smoke might be drawn inside. And yet, manufacturer makes no health claims about the Accord. There is a good reason for this.

The technological problems with “safe” cigarette are dwarfed by the political problems, a pattern we will see with other technology. Tobacco companies worry that developing and selling “safer” cigarettes would be viewed by courts as an admission that other cigarettes are not safe. The lawsuits have stakes in the billions of dollars.

Further, tobacco companies are concerned about regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Current tobacco products are exempt from FDA scrutiny due to a “grandfather clause” under which a new law does not affect someone (or something) that preexisted the law. But a new class of “safe” cigarettes might not fall under that clause. The irony is that the safest course for tobacco companies—if not for their customers—seems to be to avoid “safe” cigarettes.

In the movie Sleeper, Woody Allen plays someone cryogenically frozen and then thawed in the future. There, a favorite form of entertainment is touching a metal ball that makes the toucher feel good. Humans already spend lots of resources on feeling good, so a future technology that effectively and efficiently does that will be in demand.


Ch2 organization

…social groupings larger than 150-200
become increasingly hierarchical in structure…
There must be chiefs to direct, and a police force
to ensure that social rules are adhered to.

— Robin Dunbar


Why would we need technology in order to organize?  An answer comes, circuitously, through a story about the brain’s neocortex. And we start with chimpanzees.

Take three chimps in the same band. Each chip is aware of his relationship with the other two and of the relationship between the other two. Who is dominant, who has done favors for whom, who can be trusted to repay favors, and who cannot?  Chimp decision-making has been observed in the wild. Two chimps may team up to attack another chimp to steal food…unless the victim is near others who may come to his aid. Any chimp for whom the victim has performed a recent favor, such as grooming, is suspected of being a supporter.

Social animals keep track of their relationships with other group members and they also keep track of the relationships between them. In highly social groups, it is a matter of survival to know how others will interact.

As groups become larger, there are more relationships to track. With just two individuals there is just one relationship. With three individuals there are three relationships (shown as arrows below) and with four there are six:

 Ch2 relations in a group

Metcalfe’s Law

Chimpanzees in a tribe form a network. In a network, the number of possible one-to-one relationships is proportional to the square of the number of individuals. Doubling the tribe quadruples the number of possible relationships. Multiply the tribe size by three and the possible relationships multiply by nine.

People, telephones, computers, and railroads form networks, too. Robert Metcalfe suggested that the value of a network is proportional to the number of possible relationships, which is the square of the number of nodes. Those who accept this “law” as true are equating value with possible connections.

Network technologies such as telephones, fax machines, pagers, cellular phones, and email accounts have grown slowly at first, but accelerated suddenly once they reached some critical mass. The first person to own a telephone could do little with it, but today, having a phone is indispensable because it can make so many connections. When just a few university scientists used email, it had little value to most people. Today, many rely on email for both work and play.

A primate study has shown that the size of the brain’s neocortex correlates with the size of the social groups in which that individual lives. Based on the pattern found in non-human primates, the human neocortex suggests a maximum group size of 147.8, or about 150. In a group of 150 individuals, there can be 11,175 such relationships, too many to memorize as a list, but not unreasonable to learn in context. A soap opera aficionado has no trouble remembering which of dozens of characters hate each other, for instance.

While that number of 150 still guides the size of clans, military “companies,” fraternities, and church congregations, technology has steamrolled over it with cities. Technology concentrated people with agriculture and then united disperse populations with various communication technology. How do we cope with more relationships than we can remember?

We define relationships with technology. Stoplights and traffic systems define relationships with other drivers. Uniforms define relationships with police, fire, and medical personnel. A judge’s black robes are symbolic of the system defining our legal relationships. Symbolic language, writing, and computers help us manipulate, store, and transmit symbols of our relationships.

Still, there is stress from living and working with so many people. How can technology help our relatively unchanging biology adapt to our increasingly complex surroundings?  Imagine knowing everyone you see. Unless you live in a small village, you would probably have to be augmented by technology. Technology will eventually be able to identify everyone you come in contact with, providing you information about whom they are related to, what their interests are, what they do for a living, and what their friends or former friends say about them. This information could be displayed on your glasses or contact lenses so that walking down a busy sidewalk, there would be no strangers.

Do we want village life with 10 billion people?  Whether we want it or not, technology is enabling this level of familiarity. Already, glasses exist that project information on your field of view, like the heads-up display used by fighter pilots, helicopter gunship pilots, and the drivers of some cars. Attached cameras, wireless links to remote computers, and image recognition software exist and their commercialization is not far off. Once the glasses are reduced to contact lenses our remarkable familiarity with each other will appear quite natural.

To complete this utopia—or nightmare—we need only add “Big Brother” databases to store and cross-reference all this information. In 2002, the U.S. Information Awareness Office was formed to do just that in order to fight the war against terrorism.

As with each category we have touched on, it has been only a touch. Many other technologies satisfy our desire and need to organize. The web, for instance, organizes people through chat rooms and virtual communities. Terrorists are known to have used the web to organize their efforts. Humans are social animals so it seems inevitable that we would use technology to organize.




Why do we use technology today?  For many of the same reasons we have always used it. Perhaps for the same reasons we always will use it. In our quest to understand and evaluate technology, “why do we use it?” is a powerful question because it so quickly categorizes even those things we do not yet understand.

Just as science has categorized life into taxonomy, we may categorize the reasons we use technology. The diagram below shows a standard classification (or taxonomy) of living things into five kingdoms, and then traces humans through the increasingly specific levels of phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

The diagram also shows how we might start to classify the reasons we use technology. We are not saying that technology fits into the classification of living things, just that a similar approach may help us understand why we use it.

The classification of living things has changed over time. It started with just two kingdoms:  animal and plant. Fungi earned a third category and then science discovered life worthy of additional categories. Some scientists suggest a 6th kingdom (archaea, an ancient form of life that evolved separately from bacteria and blue-green algae), showing that classification does not lead to a single, obvious, and universally accepted answer.

As useful as our map may be, there is danger we might confuse it  for reality, attempting to force any new technology into one or several of our categories. If it did not fit, we might ignore it, believing that anything outside a category is unimportant. Or we might miss an additional use for a technology simply because it satisfies some other need so well (e.g. a hammer as art).

Still, just because a tool can be misused, does not mean that it cannot be properly used. Our tool is, in a sense, itself a technology, one used for exploration. And, like all technologies, our categories are a double-edged sword.


Ch2 taxonomy of life and tech


This webpage is adapted from the book
Technology Challenged: Understanding Our Creations & Choosing Our Future
available at Amazon