What is Technology, Exactly?

Cuneiform

The last post, Why this Blog?, was a fresh start for what Upgraded Humans is about: the relationship of people and technology. It’s an imperfect relationship—like teens in the awkwardness of adolescence trying to figure each other out—rather than a harmonious, flourishing one—like a married couple in their golden years. It takes time, understanding, and maturation to get to a relationship with that kind of mutual prosperity. Many of our technological innovations and abilities are relatively immature—as is our understanding of technology.

Thanks to the genius of Marshall McLuhan, we saw that whenever we think about a particular piece of technology, there are four fundamental questions we need to ask to understand how it impacts us as people. What does it extend? What does it make obsolete? What does it revert into? What does it retrieve?

To ask those questions and begin to reflect on the answers, though, requires that we can identify technology in the first place to ask the questions about it. We need to talk about one more question before The Four. What is technology?

We all have a pretty intuitive sense of some things that definitely are technology. We know it when we see it. Smartphones, of course, and related devices like tablets, laptops, and headphones to go with them. We’d also probably think of most of the ways we get around: cars, trains, buses, motorcycles, boats, airplanes, and spacecraft (Well, someday spacecraft. Keep working SpaceX!). And we’d also be quick to include other things that plug into an outlet or have batteries: Hello Kitty waffle irons, hairdryers, microwaves, televisions, Xboxes, lamps, and cameras.

But we might not immediately think of other things like: clothing, tables, weapons, shampoo, prescription medications, musical instruments, books, language, governments, forms of taxonomy and naming, farming, clocks, credit cards, and houses.

Yes, these too are technology. Why? What makes technology, technology? Our good friend Marshall McLuhan has an answer for this also. He used the word media instead of technology, a more communication-centric way of talking about it, but the definition still fits. So what is it?

All forms of technology are human creations that extend or amplify some part of ourselves.

That’s it. Simple, yet profound.

Technology is first and foremost something that humans have created. We make it. It doesn’t grow in the woods. It doesn’t appear out of the heavens. We create it, and modify it, and improve it, and expand it, and sometimes abandon it. Modern English is much different than Egyptian hieroglyphs (though our increasing use of emojis and GIFs is making things a little more similar). Thousands of other languages have arisen and gone extinct well before any of us were born. The current iPhone is much different than the original, music-only iPod, but we could track that evolution from one model to the next. And every smartphone is a particular arrangement of metals, chips, glass, rare earth elements, and other components that would never come together in the form of a phone by the wind or the sea or the tectonic shifts of the earth. We conceived it and we made it.

What technology does is extend or amplify some part of our selves. You probably noticed this is exactly what the first question in The Four Laws of Media asks. You’re brilliant. The best way to begin to understand the effect of a particular technology is to first examine and understand what human ability it extends. Whether it’s a limb, the senses, our brain, or something social between people, every technology is an extension of one or more of the abilities we have.

The wheel or wings—of a bike, car, airplane, or otherwise—extends and amplifies the locomotion of our two feet. We can go faster and farther, and more comfortably so. It’d take you a long, grueling time to walk and swim to France (Unless you live there, of course. If so, bonjour!). Weapons are extensions of our fists, fingernails, and other body parts we might fight with. Shampoo, “age-defying” lotions, first-aid, prescription medications, and other products we put on or inside our bodies, enhance the body’s ability to remove dirt, fight pathogens, heal itself, and perform normal organ functions. Books and notes extend our capacity for memory, organizing our thoughts, articulating long ideas or stories, and sharing them with other people. Musical instruments extend and enhance our singing voice, our sense of melody, and our capacity for self-expression. Naming things extends our capacity to organize and interpret the expansive array of plants, animals, and other things that make up the world around us.

Socially, governments extend our ability to live together by a communal rule of law and shared understanding of the common good. Money extends our ability to assess and exchange value with one another. Telephones, streaming video, and other electronic communication allow us to speak with and view each other across great distances. Industrialized agriculture, refrigeration, and cross-country transportation extend our shared capacity to grow, store, and move the food we all need to eat.

And on and on. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of examples of technology when we understand it properly.

The major complication of technology, and one of the motivations for Upgraded Humans, is that though in the beginning human beings controlled the construction of each of the extensions and enhancements, once they’re made they often begin to control us. That’s where the need for the Four Laws comes in. If we don’t reflect on those questions, particularly if we don’t understand which natural human capacity that a certain technology extends, we’re likely to be nudged in ways that might not be good for us by the technology we were originally the master of.

So a few last questions for now.

How did you end up with a Hello Kitty waffle iron?

What things had you not thought of as technology that you realize are technology based on our definition?

Does thinking about it as technology—as an extension of an ability you have—change the way you see what it does and what kind of power it has?

Does that reveal anything about the power it has over you and the way you need to take back the reigns?

Comment below! Send ideas or pictures of things other people would never think of as technology. And, as always, thanks for reading.

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