Yesterday in class, I asked students what technologies they each rely upon. It was a way to begin sharing and getting to know each other, but it also gives us an interesting list of the kinds of things that live under the sign “technology” and contribute to our survival. Below is a list of the things people mentioned (beginning with my own):
bell of mindfulness, google maps, eye contacts, computers, texting, sun screen, dollies (for carrying heavy things), encryption, cups, key cards, walkie-talkies, gas lines (for heating), electric power, cars, alarm clocks, microwaves, radios, bikes, allergy meds, satellites, clothing, stethoscopes, AC, lights bulbs, oxygen (as a product of photosynthesis), wall clocks, asthma inhalers, welding, food processing, phones.
Apart from oxygen as a product of the “work” of plants, all these things are constructed by human activity to manipulate the non-human realm for our benefit. Students observed that within our list there were those used for communication, transportation, comfort, convenience, security, energy creation, entertainment, and health – a set of needs or desires that each technological artifact is used to satisfy (although it can’t be said that they have, in the end, produced contentment).
It was also noted that some of these have the quality of automation (something acting on it’s own – with its own self-motion). In this way people produce mechanical things that have a kind of “life” independent of our own. Self moving, but dedicated to human satisfaction. (such as the alarm clock that stays alert so that we can sleep.)
The biggest outlier was Tongfeng’s suggestion that oxygen is a technology. No doubt we rely upon oxygen for our survival, but because O2 appears on the air without any human intentional action, can it be understood as a technology? A hard contrast between technology and nature assumes a line between human products and those created by non-humans. Yet, how different is a human construction of a home and a bird’s nest or a bee’s hive? Perhaps technology is inherent to life itself. Is the innovation of cyanobacteria some 2500 million years ago,(1) which pulled large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, fundamentally different from the fossil fuel machines we now rely upon which are returning carbon to the air? On the other hand, if we define technology to include all actions of living things which transform material outside themselves to fulfill their needs, what is lost? What else do we call these complicated mechanisms and new materials which now surround us?