The Humanistic Implications of a Technology

In coming to understand the humanistic implications of a technology, there are several difficulties. One is deciding what is in fact a fundamental technology, like the lever, and what an application of that technology, like the crow-bar. The easiest way to decide what is fundamental to the technology is to seek commonalities in applications that seem to use that technology, like the lever action moving a crow-bar and the lever action moving the claw end of a claw-head hammer.

In thinking about the crow-bar and the claw-head hammer, one might think of the lever as just a moveable arm. But if one also thought about the see-saw as an application of the lever, one would realize that a lever requires not only a moveable arm but a fulcrum, some mechanism to guide the motion of the arm and to divide the functional length of the arm. Many see-saws allow one to pick up the plank and move it a few inches in one direction or another. If you have two children of equal weight on a see-saw, you leave the plank centered, that is, the fulcrum is in the center. If they are of uneven weight, you move the plank, thereby moving the fulcrum, so that the heavier child is seated at the shorter end and the lighter at the longer end. Why is this adjustment worth noticing? I think that most people think of a lever as a technology for multiplying force. After all, Archimedes is often quoted, quite famously, as having said, "Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world." But the example of the see-saw makes clear that a lever can diminish force; put another way, the force multiplier can be less than 1. And why is that important? Because sometimes the force we find available is too great for the application we desire. If I want to perform delicate surgery, it might be important to create a lever mechanism that allows me to move the handle end of the cutting tool through a wide arc while driving the cutting end through a small arc. Human motions, after all, are sometimes too gross for their intended uses. Do such force-diminishing applications exist? That question arises out of imagination spurred by consideration of the fundamental technology and its real and possible applications.For many of us, its answer may well depend on research, perhaps even extensive research.

A second difficulty, then, is deciding which applications warrant your focused attention. In thinking about, and then discussing, the lever, for example, one could, of course, point to myriad applications, but that could be an endless process, especially for so fundamental a technology. To address this difficulty, one should pick representative applications. But what do we mean by representative?

"Representative" is not the same as "selected." Let's say my chosen technology is "the knife." I can select two knives from a typical kitchen, but if one is a butter knife and the other a bread knife, neither "represents" the ability of a knife to puncture. Puncturing would be what is called an affordance, what the technology affords, that is, what it does or makes possible. The butter knife can represent the ability of a knife to spread and the bread knife the ability of a knife to cut, but spreading and cutting aren't the only affordances of knives. Please note, though, that one need not necessarily have a separate example for each affordance. A steak knife, after all, affords slicing, spreading, and puncturing.

If all I wanted to do were to show that knives can cut, spread, and puncture, I could let the steak knife represent all knives. But let's think further about specific examples. Butter knives and bread knives both cut, although the difference in the structure of their edges is important: the blunt edge of a butter knife prevents tearing the flat slices of soft bread and the serrated edge of the bread knife affords smooth cutting through crusted bread, even though it makes a mess of spreading. In other words, thinking this through, we realize that cutting is a fundamental affordance of a knife but the application of the technology (that is, what sort of cutting is wanted) may imply diverse adaptations. That's why in coming to understand and argue for the humanistic implications of some technology you should go conceptually from technology to application to implication.

That last step to implications is made clearer by considering a range both of actual applications and of potential applications. Why don't we use knives to cut ice? It turns out that the crystal structure of ice is such that it resists and easily blunts ordinary metal edges. For many uses, then, we resort to ice picks--all puncture, no cutting. Of course, this leads to irregularly shaped pieces of ice, which doesn't much matter for use in beverages but might in, say, ice sculpting. Clay sculptors use knives as part of their standard toolkit but ice sculptors typically use chisels and saws, even chain saws. Why? The repetition of minute chipping, such as a saw affords, can produce predictable shapes in the water crystal structure of ice, even if the saw's wide cutting cross-section, as opposed to a knife's thin edge, doesn't afford fine lines. By thinking about actual and potential applications, we begin to see where and when knives do and don't work and why, and this thinking leads to our understanding implications. Knives have real but limited uses in art, but because knives are much easier and cheaper to build and maintain than chain saws, one would expect that many fewer people would dabble in ice sculpture than in clay sculpture. Of course, one could argue that the result of ice sculpture is much more expensive to maintain than the result of clay sculpture, which is true and relevant, but also true and relevant is the fact that the basic materials of ice and clay sculpture have different sources and costs. In other words, we're now into thinking about how sculpting of one sort and another fits into the larger context of human production and consumption. Maybe the ephemerality of ice sculpture is a virtue if one seeks to display wealth conspicuously, as at a rite of passage (a wedding, say) while the stability of a clay sculpture is a vice if one receives something ugly as a gift that needs to be displayed at home.

In addition to simply thinking, there is research, which includes serendipity. For example, in considering the knife, one might ask oneself who cuts. One answer: a tailor. Why is that profession called tailor? A quick trip to the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the "tailor" means "cutter" and is cognate with some meaning of "tail." Following that inthe OED brings us to "taillier," French for "to cut." You'd have to be lucky here, but you just might guess that "retail" also comes from that "tail." In fact, grocery stores are named after grocers who in turn are named from the fact that they buy gross quantities and divide them for retail sale. In other words, the knife is crucial to setting up a system whereby we manufacture large quantities and sell small quantities (think of butchers, for example). The knife, then, has as one of its humanistic implications the ability to establish a good economic basis of specialized production and widespread consumption of daily necessities. Technology--> Applications (both actual and possible)--> Implications. There is no way to know, at the beginning of your study, how many "representative" examples you'll need. That number is the result of an intellectual process that has brought you to deep understanding. This assignment is meant to foster your imagination and research as you seek that deep understanding.