What is/n’t Technology? (Obsolescence — Emergence)

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Trying to think through “technology” and am realizing how it suffers from too broad a definition. Everything is technology, from a chimp sticking a blade of grass or a twig into an anthill to contemporary information and bio-technologies. Something’s not right here.

The simple dictionary definition is not all bad. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to practical purposes, and tools that represent same. As in rabbinic hermeneutics, I’d keep sight of this simple definition (peshat), even if the point is to move beyond it. I like the focus of the peshat on how technology is  knowledge-based, purpose driven, and also “intentional.”  Technologies are tools developed and used in order to modify (intensify) a practice, an environment, an object or a subject; for instance: the physical world, a culture, a body politic, or religious organization, a human body and bodies, human consciousness; in the case of the Zohar, this modification extends up to include nothing less than the organization of the Godhead. The difference between technology and more simple tools is that technology is more systems based.

Another way to look at is temporal. I think this is in part what Heidegger was getting at. For the sake of heuristic clarity, I’d like to distinguish “technology” from “tool,” to see them as separate but overlapping things. A technology would refer to a tool at its first moment of emergence, when it is new, when it makes new things happen or appear for the very first time. So fire or the wheel is no longer a technology, although once upon a time it was. What distinguishes a technology then is its newness, its emergence-character. After its “first” emergence, what was once a technology becomes a tool, one tool among others.  I realize but don’t really mind that in saying this I’m privileging the present or the future in historicist ways that run counter against the Hedieggerian and other critical grains.

I could just be there’s a more simple and elegant solution, which would be always to modify the noun “technology” with the appropriate adjective or prefix: primitive, obsolete, industrial, hi, information, bio, autopoietic, allopoietic, etc. etc. This is what, I think, Lewis Mumford does in part of Technics and Civilization, which I’m about to read.

That said, I can’t really see how anyone would recognize my beaten up old cellphone, the one I inherited from my mother in-law (z”l) as having anything anymore to do with “technology.” Maybe this  means that technologies, if not Technology itself, are marked by a finite quiddity. Technology is a finite amount or substance or function that then gets used up. I guess I don’t mind calling my cellphone  an obsolete technology. But looking at it, I have to say that I don’t think there’s much left in it worthy of the name, even if, a long time ago, there once was. I like the way my cellphone looks, and it means the world to me. The fact that it still works, this obsolete thing, is nothing short of a “miracle.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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