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  • Writer's pictureRussell E. Willis

Technology Revealed as a Mode of Human Activity

Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones

Episode 2

A starting point: the instrumental view of technology

Technology is commonly described in terms of tools, instruments, machines, and systems that humans use for a wide range of purposes. As Melvin Kranzberg noted, from this perspective, technology is "simply a means that humans are free to employ or not, as they see fit." Technology has no intrinsic value or purpose. It is used to achieve the ends and pursue the purposes of types of activities like art, business, religion, or politics. According to Lynn White, technology viewed in this way "merely opens a door, it does not compel one to enter."

This is an accurate description as far as it goes. Indeed, the concept of technology does encompass plows, microscopes, smart phones, and the Internet. The question is whether this instrumental view of technology reveals the essence of the phenomena we refer to as technology. If technology -- in its essence -- is simply a thing to be used, then technology has a very limited moral significance. The conclusion commonly drawn from this instrumental view is that technology is morally neutral. If this conclusion is correct, we should not concern ourselves with the question of technology and responsibility (and I would have no more blogs to write!). From the instrumental view, we should deal only with problems of how specific tools, instruments, etc., are used in good or bad ways, or how they are, or can be, used to promote or thwart the achievement of the "good."

Beyond the instrumental view of technology

Taking a phenomenological approach to technology, a fuller and more nuanced view emerges. According to this view, technology is essentially a mode of human activity, not simply a set of human artifacts. From this view technology also functions as a factor in the ordering of human life. In an age of pervasive technology, technology becomes a primary mechanism and form of social and cultural order. We will come back to this, but for now simply consider how radically and dramatically mobile-phone technology has changed how we communicate, learn, and recreate. Then ask yourself how the internet disrupts modern commerce (have you read a physical book you purchased from a physical bookstore lately?). Consideration of these two dimensions -- technology as a mode of human activity and technology as a form of order -- reveals crucial ways that technology affects responsibility.

A definition of technology

Robert McGinn argues that technology encompasses a specific activity -- the "expansion of the realm of humanly possible." This definition, however, suffers because it lacks any reference to technology as a human artifact. Also, the notion of "expanding the humanly possible" is too vague. New world views and new political ideas can also contribute to the expansion of the humanly possible. (Democracies could be formed and flourish, for instance, without technology). So, building on McGinn's shoulders and embracing the spirit, if not the letter, of his definition, we can say that technology is the extension or enhancement of human capacity or power by artificial means.

Technology as a mode of human activity

In this definition, "human capacity" connotes the mental and physical capabilities and potentialities that are native to or assumed by human beings. "By artificial means" implies that not all activities of extension or enhancement of human capacities and power are technological. For instance, mental techniques can be used to improve one's memory. Likewise, merely using or making artifacts does not constitute technology. For instance, though a human artifact, a decorative bowl made of clay and painted with natural dyes is art, but not technology. To be technology, a phenomenon must be associated with some mode of activity in which human capacity or power is extended or enhanced. And artifacts must be used to enable this extension or enhancement. Using a potter's wheel to create a bowl, or even using the bowl to mix ingredients, would, therefore, constitute technology.

What makes something "technological" is its relation to a distinctive mode of human conduct -- the extension or enhancement of human capacity or power by artificial means. Though it can be distinguished from other pursuits, technology is not generally pursued for its own sake. Rather, technology generally serves other purposes. In fact, technology can be used to carry out any human purpose. For instance, agriculture is the activity of raising and harvesting crops or animals for various human uses (such as food, or pharmaceuticals, or clothes). Agriculture is not intrinsically technological. One need not use artificial means to do this activity. Removing a seed from a piece of fruit and planting that seed is an agricultural activity. However, agricultural activities can be enhanced or extended technologically. That is to say, certain human capacities and powers -- such as the ability to dig holes or otherwise manipulate rocky or dense soils -- may be extended or enhanced by the use of artifacts (using plows or chemicals). Thus, we have agriculture and technology coincidentally.

Some activities become so intertwined with technology that they are commonly, and even reasonably, perceived as "technological." This is especially true when the state-of-the-art and common practice of an activity are technological. Agriculture and communication are prime examples in today's world. (Even "organic" agriculture is thoroughly technological. Just think how often organic farms use greenhouses and mechanical irrigation systems, for instance.) This is also true with activities like space flight that have always been practiced in only a technological mode.

Technology as a principle of order: technological evolution and revolution

When something is enhanced or extended, a change of some sort takes place. Therefore, technology does entail change. This is true whether the agent realizes or intends it, or not. Yet, though activities of extension or enhancement inherently involve dynamism and change, technology is not thereby necessarily associated with innovation. After the original innovation, most technological activities become an aspect of a practice. Specific human capacities or power continue to be enhanced or extended technologically, but the activity remains technological long after the original innovation. In this way technology becomes part of the status quo --the ongoing character of the specific practice and the consequent order of the society and culture.

For much of human history, the changes related to technology have been evolutionary in character -- sparks of innovation followed by adaptations leading to socio-cultural success over long periods of time. In fact, the overall development of technology is evolutionary. In an age of pervasive technology, however, technology becomes a primary mechanism of change. It functions as a source of sociocultural dynamism that continually shifts the boundaries of both possibility and limit. The degree of dynamism engendered by technology -- the force of technology as an ordering principle -- depends on the conditions within which the technology is employed, the amount of power utilized, the degree of innovation, and the length of time between the innovation and the sociocultural adaptation to it. In an age of pervasive technology, technology's revolutionary character becomes more obvious and instrumental to sociocultural development, increasingly becoming the norm.

Next time in Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones -- "Homo Technicus as the Responsible Self"


This is an updated version of a portion of "Complex Responsibility in an Age of Technology," in Living Responsibly in Community, ed. Fredrick E. Glennon, et al. (University Press of America, 1997): 249-251. Buy at Amazon.

References: Melvin Kranzberg, "Technology and History: 'Kranzberg's Laws'", Technology and Culture 27/3 (July 1986): 453.

Robert E. McGinn, "What Is Technology?" Research in Philosophy and Technology 1 (1978): 183.

Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change as quoted in Melvin Kranzberg, "Technology and History: 'Kranzberg's Laws'": 454.


In this series

  • Introduction: Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones - June 1, 2018.

  • Episode 1: "What Does It Mean To Be Responsible? "- June 5, 2018

  • Episode 2: "Technology Revealed as a Mode of Human Activity" - June 16, 2018

  • Episode 3: "Homo Technicus as the Responsible Self"

© 2018 Russell E. Willis



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