Overview

Being technologically literate is knowing what questions to ask.

— Ira Flatow

 

To understand and evaluate technology, we ask nine questions (each the topic of a chapter) and seek enduring answers. We start by building a foundation:  In chapters one through four, we examine technology’s identity. Once we identify technology, we analyze how it changes in chapters five, six, and seven. Together, these seven chapters give us a foundation for its evaluation, which we do in chapters eight and nine.

  1. What is technology?  Since we are looking for patterns that have long been—and will continue to be—true, we cannot define technology as just the latest inventions. We need a much broader definition. In Chapter One, we try several, including tools that extend our abilities. A definition that includes history—even all the way back to stone tools—may endure into our future.
  2. Why do we use technology?  In Chapter Two, we uncover a few answers that apply to most of what we have invented. Our desire to communicate, for instance, has been satisfied by writing, paper, printing press, pencil, radio, telephone, television, email, and “instant messaging.”
  3. Where does technology come from?  In Chapter Three we look at environments conducive to the birth of technology. One pattern we find is that denser populations gave us more chances to encounter and build upon each other’s inventions, speeding up progress. This might help us understand why technology changed slowly for thousands of years but rapidly now.
  4. How does technology work?  All humans use technology, much of it so simple—a hammer or shovel, for instance—that we do not even think about this question. Perhaps surprisingly, there are simple patterns that hold for a variety of technologies. One pattern we uncover in Chapter Four, feedback and correction, explains how computerized thermostats, robots, and other complex technologies work.

The four questions comprising the first four chapters focus on the “identity” of technology, but “change” is what makes technology a pressing issue, and we address it in the next three chapters:

  1. How does technology change?  While it is common knowledge that computers double in power every couple of years, few know that this exponential growth curve started back when computers were made of electromagnetic relays and vacuum tubes…or that mechanical clocks followed a similar curve of improvement beginning in the 1300s.
  2. How does technology change us?  It is not just the technology that changes. We change in response to it, just as any living thing adapts to its environment. In Chapter Six we find that technology has affected how we work, live, and perceive our world. Machines have displaced workers and created new jobs, pushing us up a pyramid of work, which often requires more thinking and less brute strength.
  3. How do we change technology?  Just as technology changes us, we change it. While Chapter Five looks at patterns of change intrinsic to technology, Chapter Seven looks at the ways that people influence it. As inventors, managers, investors, leaders, teachers, and in many other capacities, our choices and decisions guide technology. In a sense, humans form much of the environment in which technology either survives or becomes extinct.
  4. What are technology’s costs and benefits In Chapter Eight, we search for patterns in the tradeoffs we make with technology. One tradeoff we examine: the more a technology enables us, the more we become dependent upon it. This was uncomfortably clear as we approached January 1, 2000 and worried about the Y2K bug, which had the potential to cause many millions of computers to malfunction. Computers are so useful that we have come to depend on them to schedule our factories, operate antilock brakes on our cars, and keep track of our bank balances.
  5. How do we evaluate technology?  In Chapter Nine, the second of our two chapters on evaluation, we draw on sociology and psychology. Countries, corporations, religions, clubs, families, and individuals bring their own values to bear when evaluating costs and benefits. For example, the values of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime labeled Stinger missiles “good technology” and TV satellite dishes “bad technology.”

These nine questions fit into the categories Identity, Change, and Evaluation (from which we get the acronym “ICE-9”) as shown in this diagram:

ICE-9 pyramid
Identity, Change, and Evaluation in 9 questions (ICE-9)

 

The ICE-9 questions are a honeycomb or structure of cubbyholes into which we can place new things we learn about technology. Asking those questions about technologies we encounter (directly or through TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, or books), we find patterns that hold true for many technologies. And these patterns form a context.

How might we apply these questions to a technology we return to later in this book, radios in North Korea?  First, the background: any radios that can be tuned to frequencies other than the one carrying official broadcasts must by registered with the government. The tuners are soldered into place and police make surprise inspections, looking for tampering. Information is so tightly controlled that defectors are surprised to find that South Korea is more prosperous than North (which has had widespread starvation) and that U.S. donations of rice are not subservient gifts of tribute. Combating this dearth of information, a group in South Korea is smuggling in disposable radios. With ICE-9:

9. How do we evaluate it?  The government of North Korea evaluates the radios in terms of their power. By promoting dissenting views, this technology is a threat to their control.

8. What are its costs and benefits?  Like many technologies, radio offers tradeoffs between such goals as control and freedom. In this situation, radios subvert control and promote freedom.

7. How do we change it?  Engineers design radios, activists distribute them, organizations fund them, and North Korean police hunt them.

6. How does it change us?  Independent news sources heard over the radios change listeners’ conception of reality: they discover that starvation is not normal and that their nation is not the world’s most powerful.

5. How does it change?  Electronic technologies, in particular, have become smaller and less expensive at an amazing rate, making disposable radios feasible.

4. How does it work?  Many technologies can be characterized as either centralized or distributed. Unlike a large transmitter, the radios are highly distributed, so many could fail or be destroyed without affecting the rest.

3. Where does it come from?  These radios come from specialization, designed by experts in microelectronics. Broadcasting, however, was an accident: radio was invented a century ago for one-to-one conversations where telephone wires could not be run.

2. Why do we use it?  Communication is one of the oldest reasons we use technology and it still drives such devices as radios, satellites, cellular phones, and email.

1. What is it?  Radio is a tool to extend our abilities, allowing us to hear something from far away. But the physical radio that we can touch is just the tip of the iceberg. Out of sight are systems of technical standards and networks of energy distribution and manufacturing just as important.

 

Technology takes on greater meaning when we understand its context. Oblivious of that context, many are satisfied to simply use technology, ignoring their relationships to it and its relationship to our environment. Dams also illustrate this point.

Looking down on the earth from space, some of the largest, most visible technologies are hydroelectric dams. Invisible from that high perch, however, is how interconnected the whole system is. Salmon feed in the oceans, enriching their bodies before returning to their spawning grounds. Unless dams block them. Salmon farms provide a spawning area below the dams, addressing the dwindling salmon population. But not a related problem: before creation of dams and farms, upstream bears, eagles, bobcats and many other animals ate salmon, and then fertilized inland trees with phosphorous and nitrogen from the ocean. Trees evolved over eons to thrive on that fertilizer, one of countless relationships now affected by technology.

But change is nothing new. Primitive tools changed how humans hunted, sheltered, and clashed. They changed the environment in which we evolve so, naturally, different traits became the most survivable—for instance, our ability to create and use tools. Medical technology, including antibiotics, has changed the environment in which viral diseases are competing to survive, helping to evolve antibiotic-resistant viruses. It has also extended human life, giving us time to philosophize or invent yet more technology.

 

…there could be a crucial hurdle
at our own present evolutionary stage,
the stage when intelligent life
starts to develop technology.

— Martin Rees

 

That we will change salmon, trees, viruses, and ourselves is inevitable. And, as technology advances, we will have greater power to cause change. The open question is whether we will effect those changes with a myopic view of the technology and its most immediate application, or with a view of the grander patterns.

We opened the Introduction with a quote from Carl Sagan cautioning us about the power and danger of our “world-altering contrivances.”  The danger comes from blindly embracing or rejecting technology—rather than influencing our world based on understanding and evaluation. Creating an intentional future is a collective process, and it is our hope that you, and those you pass this blog along to, will find this approach useful.

 

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