Saturday, May 5, 2012

Technology as human work

From chapter three of Technology, Management and Society by Peter Drucker

Man, alone of all animals, is capable of purposeful, nonorganic evolution; he makes tools. This observation by Alfred Russell Wallace, codiscoverer with Darwin of the theory of evolution, may seem obvious if not trite. But it is a profound insight. And though made some seventy or eighty years ago, its implications, have yet to be thought through by biologists and technologists. 
One such implication is that from a biologist's (or a historian's) point of view, the technologist's identification of tool with material artifact is quite arbitrary. Language, too, is a tool, and so are all abstract concepts. This does not mean that the technologist's definition should be discarded. All human disciplines rest after all on similarly arbitrary distinctions. But it does mean that technologists ought to be conscious of the artificiality of their definition and careful lest it become a barrier rather than a help to knowledge and understanding
This is particularly relevant for the history of technology, I believe. According to the technologist's definition of "tool," the abacus and the geometer's compass are normally considered technology, but the multiplication table or table of logarithms is not. Yet this arbitrary division makes all but impossible the understanding of so important a subject as the development of the technology of mathematics. Similarly the technologist's elimination of the fine arts from his field of vision blinds the historian of technology to an understanding of the relationship between scientific knowledge and technology.… snip, snip … For scientific thought and knowledge were married to the fine arts, at least in the West, long before they even got on speaking terms with the mechanical crafts: … snip, snip …  
Even within the technologist's definition of technology as dealing with mechanical artifacts alone, Wallace's insight has major relevance. The subject matter of technology, according to the Preface to History of Technology, is "how things are done or made"; and most students of technology, to my knowledge, agree with this. But the Wallace insight leads to a different definition: the subject matter of technology would be "how man does or makes." As to the meaning and end of technology, the same source, again presenting the general view, defines them as "mastery of his (man's) natural environment." Oh no, the Wallace insight would say (and in rather shocked tones): the purpose is to overcome man's own natural, i.e., animal, limitations. Technology enables man, a landbound biped, without gills, fins, or wings, to be at home in the water or in the air. It enables an animal with very poor body insulation, that is, a subtropical animal, to live in all climate zones. It enables one of the weakest and slowest of the primates to add to his own strength that of elephant or ox, and to his own speed that of the horse. It enables him to push his life span from his "natural" twenty years or so to threescore years and ten; it even enables him to forget that natural death is death from predators, disease, starvation, or accident, and to call death from natural causes that which has never been observed in wild animals: death from organic decay in old age
These developments of man have, of course, had impact on his natural environment—though I suspect that until recent days the impact has been very slight indeed. But this impact on nature outside of man is incidental. What really matters is that all these developments alter man's biological capacity—and not through the random genetic mutation of biological evolution but through the purposeful nonorganic development we call technology. 
What I have called here the "Wallace insight," that is, the approach from human biology, thus leads to the conclusion that technology is not about things: tools, processes, and products. It is about work: the specifically human activity by means of which man pushes back the limitations of the iron biological law which condemns all other animals to devote all their time and energy to keeping themselves alive for the next day, if not for the next hour. The same conclusion would be reached, by the way, from any approach, for instance, from that of the anthropologist's "culture," that does not mistake technology for a phenomenon of the physical universe. We might define technology as human action on physical objects or as a set of physical objects characterized by serving human purposes. Either way the realm and subject matter of the study of technology would be human work.

Peter Drucker was a social ecologist.

No comments:

Post a Comment