I should start by saying that I love technology. I am technology optimist, and I believe that despite its many and varied setbacks, the benefits of technology vastly surpass its deficiencies. Having said that and despite my age, I am also an old technologist, I’ve spent the past 15 years tracking the progress of numerous technologies, and throughout all this time the critical lesson that I have learned is that no matter the implementation technology is optional.
I know it sounds counterintuitive. After all, I’m sure that the astronauts living in the International Space Station, all the people working from home, or patients in ICUs would immediately disagree with me. However, what I meant by the optionality of technology, is that in any human endeavour, the focus should be on the wellbeing and integrity of people. Any technologic, economic, and even environmental considerations should come after that. But to further explain my position, we first must discuss what technology is.
The concept of technology is a tricky one. It is one of those terms that most of the people understand and readily thrown around in everyday conversations but are challenging to describe in concrete words. We know that smartphones, the internet and Amazon have something to do with it, and so do computers, drones, or smart toasters, but how can we describe the technology available in all these implementations. Some technologies have to do with hardware, others with intelligent behaviour, and some others more with connectivity. Still, it isn’t easy to pinpoint what all of them have in common. The problem widens when considering the diverse group of people working on the field, often, siloed-behaviours steep finding common ground to advance its understanding.
Technology shouldn’t be so difficult to describe. I often found dictionary definitions simple, yet comprehensive. My preferred one is from Merriam Webster, “the practical application of knowledge”. Now, that might open a whole different can of worms. Under that logic, one could argue that furniture, concrete and even clothes should also be considered as technology. And the short answer is yes. However, we must be clear that the physical embodiment of these elements is not the technology part, but rather the knowledge applied to address a specific problem. Take concrete as an example; its technology lies on the knowledge used by engineers to obtain the precise characteristic necessary for its particular implementation. Furthermore, each application of concrete is based on specific human needs—such as housing, transport or storage; and this is the type of consideration that I’m proposing.
In academia, there is a subset of theories, under the term sociomateriality, that deals with the intertwined relationship between humans and technology. Sociomaterial theories seek to understand the effects that humans have over technology, but also the impact that technology has on people. My research uses this approach and considers the affordances and constraints that digital technologies offer to support innovation. However, across all my conversations with technology experts, manager and other practitioners one thing remain clear, the whole purpose of any technology is to provide a solution to a social problem. No matter if you are focusing on your customers, your employees, or your partners, there is always a social reason behind any technological implementation.
My research, and the title of this entry, stresses this reflection. Technology is a tool, and it should be understood as such when dealing with any problem, yes. However, technology also has its nuances, and it is essential that users, designers or managers understand the benefits and costs that every technology brings to the table. Furthermore, they must have a clear understanding of the problem they want to solve, only after such a thoughtful consideration is useful to start discussing technologies. Understanding technology also helps us increase our agency, as we become more effective when we select and use it aptly.
Now, why don’t you give it a try? Consider those activities where you use technology. Think about the specific characteristics that make it particularly useful for your situation, and then reflect on the social problem that it addresses. It could be your entertainment, saving time or effort at work, or helping you keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues. Finally, think about other ways to solve your social problem, is there another way to accomplish your goal? Is there another tool to do it? Is technology optional? In any case, this is all I have for today. I plan to focus on technology this week, so keep an eye for tomorrow’s entry.