Another attempt at working out the basics….

Any consideration of technology has to at least five factors:

1) The Material-ecological basis. What we call the physical, chemical, biological (and so on) processes of the world. Technology depends on properties of the world and interacts with ecologies. The world does not have to be understood accurately for technology to be made. The properties of the world, and lack of understanding, mean that technology does not always produce the results intended, and has the possibility of side-effects. Not every imagined technology is possible, at every stage of technological development, and it may not be possible at all. Surprisingly, standard economics seems to assume that when a technology is needed it will arise, and arrive in the form and at the cost we would prefer. Technology may arrive, it may not.

2) Energy requirements or production. All technology requires energy to make, or to power, and some technology generates energy. The amount of energy generated for the amount of energy invested in the technology, is a relatively important indicator of how much impact the technology can have. We have to look at the energy available (human, animal, thermal, weather, fossil fuel, nuclear etc) to understand the possibilities of a technology. Even the most basic technology magnifies the effect or precision of the users actions.

Ecologies also require energy circulations, and that circulation can form part of the systems of technology, and be disrupted by those systems of technology.

3) Social organisation. Every technology comes from a form of social organization, which may influence its design and effects. It also interacts with the social organisation. Social organisation can be fundamental to the technology as, for example, when building pyramids. The organisation of labour-energy is just as important as the tools used. Technology can change or restrict forms of social organisation. Social organisation can disrupt technology as when managers assume that they can define the requirements of a software system without consultation with people doing the work, and design software incapable of being smoothly integrated into work.

  • 3a) Social Struggle. Take it as a likely heuristic (or guide) that every form of social organisation, involves a form of social struggle. Technology is often used to extend and resist social power. It is designed to reinforce patterns of work, obedience and decisiveness. It may be being used to enforce cosmologies, and religious power. What does the design and implementation do in political terms? Who is intended to benefit? Who suffers? How are risks allocated? How is pollution and other forms of harm allocated.

4) Symbolism, art, magic, rhetoric. Technology is often designed to have a particular ‘look’ and this look or ‘decoration’ becomes inseparable from the technology and its use. Technology can act as a metaphor for the way we think about the cosmos and life. Not long ago the universe was supposed to be like a clock, nowadays it may be thought of as like a computer. Minds can be seen in terms of software etc. Technology can be used to impose and reinforce social distinctions, as with 19th Century hall furniture. Technology can be used to persuade us of the rightfulness of social actions, as when imagined Carbon Capture and Storage is used to keep fossil fuels burning. Geoengineering assumes that manipulating the world ecology is easier than changing social systems, thus defending the social systems that produce pollution and probably undermining Geoengineering’s success. In the case of CCS and Geoengineering, the imagined technology may also function as a social psychological defense mechanism, and suppress the awareness of the danger of the current situation and its social generation. Magic can be seen as a way of coordinating activity, changing people’s consciousness, focusing attention and so on, and so it can be difficult to separate what we call magic from what we call technology. Traditional Balinese irrigation systems, seemed to depend on religion for their co-ordination and functional, largely non-conflictual, distribution of water. Something which collapsed when the traditional system was abandoned as a result of taking on the magic of capitalism.

Technology can be part of the rhetoric involved in imagined futures. Or in futures hoped for by some particular social group. In that sense it can also enter into social struggle.

5) Unintended consequences. Because technology arises within complex systems and is used in complex systems its use, especially new usage, can result in unintended consequences and unintended disorders. One obvious example is that producing technology can result in pollution, or use of technology can result in pollution. These consequences are, in a way, also part of the technology. People can use them to learn more about the world, or they can dismiss them as accident (even if they are recurrent), or say that they have nothing to do with the actual technology usage.

Technology is rarely straightforward and simple. It is embedded within and generative of complexity.

A kind of definition of technology:

A combination of material (involving chemical, physical biological processes), organisational, communicational, symbolic, artistic, magical, and other, processes which expands, magnifies, or makes more precise human actions and their consequences (intended or otherwise). Technology is intimately tied up with energy production and magnification.