Tao of Technology

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being
is what we use.



Was Lao-Tzu describing the context of technology? Writing the Tao Te Ching, basis for the Taoist philosophy, 27 centuries ago, he described the importance of what surrounds technology, pointing out that it takes meaning from relationships just as we do. In the 21st century, the quickening pace of change forces us from the comfort of focusing on narrow aspects of our world to recognizing the panorama of its interconnectedness.

Viewed another way, technology is one thread in the tapestry of our world. It touches and affects every other thread, and is touched and affected by them. So, if we aim to understand our world, technology is a good thread to follow. And now, at the dawn of the 21st century, is a particularly important time to understand our world. Technology has given us great leverage over our world and its future, but the lever swings both ways.

In the previous chapter, we mentioned that Bill Joy was concerned about genetic technology, nanotechnology, and robotic technology for two reasons. First, its creation depends more on information (which happens easily, as the music recording industry discovered with Napster and its file-sharing successors) than on rare materials (e.g. plutonium). And, second it can self-replicate. Earlier, in the chapter on how technology works, we described the possibility of nanotechnology, in the form of nanobots, replicating out of control like a cancer. In fact, Joy sees market forces toward “better and improved” products making such technology inevitable unless we approach them with a view of the larger context.

Viewed myopically, each technical advance from current technology to self-replicating nanobot could make good, economic (or military) sense. Who would not want something a little better than the tools we have now? Power and profit motivate their development. Each step would make sense to the corporations or governments funding it, but the total product could make any power or profit gained utterly meaningless. Nanobots that could scavenge atoms from the air around them (performing the beneficial service of removing carbon pollution and, so, reducing global warming) could scavenge from anywhere.

Whether through unfortunate error or malicious intent, nanobots could build their progeny from the atoms in soil, plants, buildings, and even our bodies. They would convert matter in any form they found it, and as with flu virus, killing some of the nanobots would not stop their advance. As we saw with distributed organization in the chapter on how technology works, technology can be as resilient to component failure as an ant colony is to individual ant failure. Even one remaining nanobot would make another, and then each would make another. As we saw with exponential growth in the chapter on how technology changes, this quickly results in huge numbers.

We have created immensely powerful tools and we may find compelling reasons to develop in the direction of technology that we would be unable to control. What alternative do we have to locking our doors and hoping that “the experts” will make the right decisions for us? Within our grasp is a rich, contextual understanding of technology and a considered, critical approach to evaluating it. Using that, we will be able to choose the sort of future we want and then to influence the technological decisions toward that direction. So this book is not about just an interesting new way to view technology, but an important way to cope with the rapid change it causes so that we can guide that change.

For education the lesson is clear:
its prime objective must be to increase
the individual’s ‘cope-ability’—the speed
and economy with which he can adapt to
continual change.

Alvin Toffler

In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler writes about the stress of cultural and technological change on humans. He recognizes that this rate of change is new to human civilization and that it requires response from education. One response is this book. Another is the school curriculum we mentioned in the chapter on how we change technology, which presents the same ICE-9 approach (one lesson per chapter) on a different level. Whether we use ICE-9 or another strategy for understanding and evaluating, we need an approach that lifts us above the blur of detail that so many equate with technology. We need the sort of enduring and lucid patterns that we have found in this book:

What is technology? It is applied science and it also precedes science. It is the tool that extends our abilities, the system of tools and techniques, and the information that underlies all of this (much as DNA coding underlies life).

Why do we use it? We want food, shelter, communication, transportation, commerce, art, religion, health, entertainment, organization, exploration, and some even want conflict. These applications existed in antiquity, now motivate the latest inventions, and will effectively categorize future technology.

Where does it come from? One technology leads to another, by both extending our physical ability to create and demonstrating that something more is possible. In populations made dense by proximity or telecommunication, we share our developments, triggering further innovation. Specialization allows us to pursue refinements full time. Both plan and accident create technology. Protection of intellectual property can both stimulate and inhibit innovation.

How does it work? Every technology needs energy, often converting it from one form to another. Organization can be centralized or distributed, with each having advantages. Control systems use feedback and correction to accomplish a goal. The information controls technology, and in the form of algorithms it may determine behavior independent of how the technology is implemented. Mechanisms and processes may be repeated many times and/or incorporated within other layers of mechanisms and processes. New behavior, unpredictable from any of the component parts, emerges from certain organizations of technology.

How does it change? Technology becomes inconspicuous by becoming common, and it disappears by becoming incorporated into other technologies. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but also its daughter when brilliant inventions cast about for worthy applications. When a technology offers advantages, confers prestige on its adopters, is compatible with existing systems, and all this is clearly visible before risking its adoption, then many will take that risk. The process of autocatalysis describes how technology acts on itself to change itself, which often leads to accelerating change. That accelerating change is also characteristic of the process of evolution, which is not restricted to biology passing information through genes, but applies to technology passing information through memes.

How does it change us? Improved nutrition, sanitation, and medicine have nearly quadrupled human lifespan, in spite of our dense and connected populations offering better environments for disease. Spear, plow, factory, ship, and computer have changed how we work, rendering some occupations obsolete while creating new. Books, newspapers, television, and the Internet change what we consider to be true, just as drugs and virtual reality change what we consider to be real. But, even beyond our perceptions, technology changes our very species by changing the environment in which both technology and we are evolving, perhaps on a collision course.

How do we change it? Fortunately, we are not fated to passively observe technology changing us. We consume some technologies and let others fail in the marketplace. We invent new, improving on the past. We govern with both prohibitions and subsidies as politicians, judges, and voters. We manage the countless decisions that guide development and diffusion of technologies. We invest the resources necessary to advance technologies. We also question and reevaluate them. And we teach about technology in general and these roles in particular.

What are its costs and benefits? Independent of the specific technology, we encounter some universal tradeoffs. The more useful something is, the more dependent on it we become. The more capabilities and features we demand in new technologies, the more complex and less predictable they become. Costs and benefits can be sudden (catastrophic) or slow (chronic), and we regularly trade one for the other and back again. Technology can provide us more control and security in our society, but usually at the cost of freedom…and it can provide more freedom at the cost of control. The wonder of ever-improving technologies leaves a trail of obsolete artifacts and skills, and the faster they improve, the more they render worthless.

How do we evaluate it? Beyond the objective weighing of costs and benefits lie our highly subjective values. If focused on survival, we might evaluate a technology on whether it feeds and protects us. If ritual is central, then we ask if it is consistent with our myths and traditions. Where power rules, does it enhance and protect our clout and control? Those who subordinate themselves to a higher authority ask if their leaders or traditions deem it good. Economically motivated ask, “Is it profitable?” Those focused on ecology ask, “Are its benefits greater than its environmental and long term costs?”

These are not the best answers. They are a launching point for each of us to look for our own answers. They set a context for the ICE-9 questions and they set a standard that future answers will need to meet or beat. They make some answers appear glib and superficial—such as technology being computers or coming from factories.

And, once we have found effective coping responses, we need to spread these skills so that others will also thrive in this rapidly changing technological world. Education has never been so urgent, so share this book. Give it to teachers and parents you know, and tell them about the KnowledgeContext curriculum. Find new answers as well as new questions, and share those (with this author, too). As we noted at the beginning of this book, creating an intentional future is a collective process.

Human history becomes more and more
a race between education and catastrophe

H.G. Wells

For perspective, we close with two modern sages: Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (also a movie by Stanley Kubrick) opens three million years ago on a harsh and dangerous land where wild cats top the food chain. Our forebears, more ape than man, discover an alien monolith, smooth and shiny, which imparts to them the idea of using tools. With bones as levers, they strike down prey, fight off predators, and battle each other. Over time, the bones are copied and improved into a world of technology, which mankind uses to go beyond our world. On the moon, astronauts in the year 2001 discover a second monolith, buried beneath rock and dust. Uncovered, the monolith signals its alien creators that mankind has evolved to a technological threshold. We have evolved.

Let us imagine a different ending to Clarke’s story. In our version, the alien civilization shares the concern that Carl Sagan voiced in the quote opening this book: that our “world-altering contrivances,” unlike the bones from which they sprang, pose a threat to our civilization’s very existence. Having proven that we can use tools, but not that we can do so consciously and wisely, we might need help. So, instead of sending an announcement to extraterrestrials, the second monolith would show us the step that follows the ability to use technology. Inscribed with something akin to the ICE-9 questions, the monolith would impart the idea of understanding and evaluating.

Clarke’s book is science fiction, not prophecy. The year 2001 has passed and we have found no monoliths, either signaling faraway aliens or presenting an alien rendition of ICE-9. But we have found something smaller and more convenient than a monolith: this book.


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