DEFINITION OF TECHNOLOGY
In our everyday lives, most of us use a number of words that we assume have a universal, agreed-upon, and accepted meaning for all people in all contexts.
Often, the more frequently the word is used, the more we take for granted that our usage is the only possible usage of the term.
One such popular word freely bandied about and very much in-vogue jargon now-a-days is “technology”.
Let us explore the meaning of the word “technology”.
The word "technology" comprises two parts - "technikos" & "ology"
The historical derivation of the term technology comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning “of art, skillful, practical.”
The portion of the word ology indicates“knowledge of” or a “systematic treatment of.”
Thus, the literal verbatim derivation of the term technology is literally “knowledge of the skilful and practical.”
However, this definition is too general in nature and we have to transcend this narrow view of technology since every technology starts from a human purpose, from the intention to satisfy some human need or behaviour.
Indeed, technology is the manipulation of nature for human purpose – yes, manipulation of nature, so let us use a slightly different definition of technology.
We will define technology as the knowledge of the manipulation of nature for human purposes.
This definition retains the notions of both knowledge and practicality (human purposes) but adds the new concept of manipulation of nature.
This implies that all practical or technical skills ultimately derive from alterations or manipulation of nature.
Technology depends on a base in the natural world (Science) but extends the natural world through the phenomenon of manipulation (Engineering).
Since we want to manipulate nature, the ability to predict what nature will do when manipulated is most useful, indeed imperative.
ETHICS OF TECHNOLOGY
By our very definition, technology manipulates nature for human purposes.
Technology manipulates nature.
Man is a part of nature.
By manipulating nature, man manipulates himself.
Thus, technology manipulates man, influences, even governs human behaviour, and in turn impinges on societal behaviour, traditions and culture.
Technology is an entity that intervenes in the life of human beings in multifarious ways, directly or indirectly, trying to alter behaviours.
Thus, Technology has an Ethical Dimension.
The very raison d’etre of technology is human purpose.
What is the fundamental purpose of human life?
Is it to increase standard of living?
Is it to improve quality of life?
Or is it to have greater satisfaction in life?
We can distill all these various aspects into a single holistic concept: VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE.
Thus, the cardinal aim of technology is to enhance the value of human life.
TECHNOLOGY and the VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE
Let us define the value of human life as the balance or ratio between satisfaction or happiness and pain or suffering.
In the context of this definition, the ultimate purpose of technology is to enhance the value of human life, with a long-term perspective, by maximization of happiness and satisfaction and a concomitant reduction or minimization of pain and suffering (physical, mental and emotional).
As a generalization, people want a better life.
A better life may usually mean things like freedom from want, access to and possession of at least some of the “nonessentials”, comforts or luxuries, good health, a reasonable life expectancy, the absence of emotional stress, satisfying human relations (resulting from gratifying work experience and meaningful interpersonal relationships), intellectual stimulation, and personally rewarding leisure activities.
HUMAN NEEDS and VALUES
Human needs and values change through time as technology advances.
Man tends to accept the fruits of new technology more readily (satisfaction, happiness, comfort) whereas he is reluctant to accept changes in his personal life.
Thus, social and cultural changes always lag behind technology causing a mismatch and disconnect which consequently leads to unhappiness, dissatisfaction, pain and suffering (emotional) and concomitant lowering of the value of human life.
A crude but practical way of classifying human values is to divide needs into those that are essentially physiological and those that are psychological.
Most new technologies cater to the physiological aspect by performing Dangerous, Dirty, or Difficult jobs (the 3 D’s) thereby enhancing the value of human life.
As regards the psychological aspect, an example pertaining to Information Technology (IT) may be in order.
Information Technology (IT) caters to two unique categories of psychological needs of humans:
Cognitive Needs – which refer to the human need for information so as to be ready to act or make decisions that may be required, and
Affective Needs – which refer to the emotional requirements of human, such as their need to do challenging work, to know their work has value, to feel personally secure, and to be in control.
Undue emphasis on cognitive needs and consequent neglect of affective needs may cause emotional pain that counterbalances the gains from technology and this may be detrimental to the “value of human life” as a whole.
TECHNOLOGY IMPACT ASSESSMENT
Effects and Consequences of Technology
In our haste to milk technology for immediate economic advantage, we often lose sight of the long-term consequences: the higher order and indirect effects, especially the delayed and unintended effects of technology.
The Sorenson multiple effect network methodology is a useful technique for an analyzing the impact and consequences of technology.
Let us introduce the term malefit to represent harmful effects and consequences of a technology in contrast with benefit as a useful output.
We may categorize the consequences of a technology [Effects vs Consequences] as:
(i) First Order : Benefits
(ii) Second Order : Direct Malefits
(iii) Third Order : Indirect Malefits
(iv) Fourth Order : Unintended Malefits
(v) Fifth Order : Delayed Malefits
Such analyses definitely help in assessing the impact of various consequences of a technology on the value of human life in the long-term perspective in holistic manner.
Early identification of factors detrimental to the value of human life may prove useful in technology impact assessment to reduce mismatches and smoothen out incongruities.
We must not lose sight of our basic premise that the cardinal aim of technology is to increase the value of human life by maximising happiness and minimising suffering.
Ethical Technology Management comprises a harmonious blend of rational thinking and empathic understanding wherein one studies, analyses and mitigates the conflicting interplay between human cognitive and affective processes.
It may be apt to conclude with a comment by RM Pirsig, who states that, “The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That is impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is… not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both”.
Copyright © Vikram Karve 2009
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.