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Book Interview


Robby Hays

Chandan Lodha

Miguel F. Aznar


Student advisors Robby Hays and Chandan Lodha
interviewed Technology Challenged author Miguel F. Aznar.



Robby: If you had to choose one of the following definitions for technology: applied science, tools that extend our abilities, systems, or information; which would you choose? Why? Miguel: Tools that extend our abilities could be the broadest definition, provided one understands that “tools” need not be tangible. Systems and information are often invisible, but still tools. I would pick this definition because it is the broadest, most inclusive. I think there is greater danger in using a narrow definition and ignoring potential technologies than there is in using a wide definition and including some candidates not subject to the patterns that we have uncovered.
Chandan: How did you first define technology, and now how has your definition changed? I started with the common definition of computers and electronic devices. These were a hobby of mine so, of course, I focused on them. “Technology” was the complimentary term that described these things as new and powerful. We need a new word to describe the latest breakthroughs—perhaps the common term “high tech”—so we have a simple way to refer to all tools that extend our abilities. This category is very important to understand.

My definition changed as I started to notice similarities between “high tech” and historical tools. If both are used for the same reasons, and both are subject to the same forces of change, and both exhibit the same sorts of costs and benefits, then their similarities may be more important than their differences. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck and looks like a duck, then it must be a duck.

Robby & Chandan: Do you think, as you learn more about technology, your definition of technology will continue to change? As I learn about new discoveries and inventions, I may find that they fit into many of the same patterns that “technology” does, yet somehow not fit my one-sentence definition of technology. In that case, I will study them to see if they justify a new, broader definition.

I want a definition that helps me discover enduring patterns. Enduring patterns are useful because they prepare us for the future. New things come along, but we are not confused and disoriented because we’ve learned these patterns that fit the new as well as the old. If my definition is extremely narrow, then every few months new discoveries or inventions will appear that do not fit it and I will have to start from scratch trying to understand them (or simply ignore them and hope that they do not affect my life). If my definition is too broad, then everything qualifies and any generalizing truths (i.e. patterns) are so vague as to be useless. A good definition helps me to recognize familiar and useful patterns in the new that seems to be coming along faster and faster in our world.

Robby: What do you think the main reason people use technology is? What do you think is the most important reason why people use technology? In Chapter 9, I wrote: “Psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that our choices are driven by our needs, and some (such as the need for food and water) are primary. We are motivated to satisfy these physiological needs before all others, but once we do, we are free to concentrate on our next level of needs: safety and security. Then, once we satisfy those, we can focus on further needs—including belonging, love, and creative fulfillment. With each satisfaction of a more basic need, we are free to pursue satisfaction to ‘higher’ needs.”

So I would answer your question that the main—and most important—reason we use technology is for whatever is most pressing for us. If our survival is in question and we need to find food and water to survive the day, then having Internet access is utterly irrelevant. In the environment that you and I live in, food and shelter are virtually guaranteed and we rarely think of them. To us, communication may be far more important. To many in the first world, entertainment is paramount. Just look at the number of hours people spend watching TV, how much they spend on their equipment as well as cable or satellite subscriptions. Or look at those who use drugs, including alcohol and nicotine, to keep themselves entertained. An addict may even ignore the food and shelter that Maslow claimed is our most basic need. Laboratory rats that repeatedly pressed a lever to get a cocaine “fix” did so to the exclusion of eating, drinking, and sex.

So the answer to your question is much more interesting than simple.

Chandan: After writing this book, do you have different reasons for using technology? The book, itself, is a technology. It is a tool for communication and the process of writing it gave me a stronger drive to communicate. Researching technology revealed these amazing patterns that help to explain current events—for example, understanding North Korea’s crackdown on radio technology in its greater context—and I felt the need to share that. I felt empowered by this knowledge and I wanted to share it with as many others as I could.

Beyond my greater appreciation for communication as a reason for using technology, writing the book broadened my awareness of the many reasons we use it. I probably use it for the very same reasons before and after, but am more conscious, more aware of those reasons now.

Robby & Chandan: What technology do you use the most and why do you use it more than other technologies? The technologies that I am most aware of using are computers and the Internet. In order to research technology, write the book, and promote it to those who may help to further promote it, these are very useful communication technologies. But there are technologies I use as much or more without being aware: bicycles, electric lights, refrigerator, clothes, toothbrush, telephone, etc.
Chandan: Do you think all technology has evolved from stone tools? Stone tools are the earliest technologies that tended to survive in the fossil record. Wood tools and other plant- and animal-based technologies tend to decompose, leaving no clues for us to discover. Anthropology suggests that these may have preceded stone tools, leading to them.

As far as more recent technology, it may be a matter of semantics. Although stone tools may still be important in very primitive areas of the world—grinding seeds with a mortar and pestle, for instance—it has been a long time since they were important to the leading edge of technology. Although this question would be answered better by someone with expertise in anthropology, which I do not possess, I would hazard the opinion that stone tools are somewhere back in the common lineage of all technology. If we could trace back technological evolution, as we are trying to trace back human evolution, we might find several “Adam and Eve” types of stone tools, developed independently in different areas, but similar in form and use, that led to all technology that followed.

Robby & Chandan: How would technology be different if stone tools hadn't been the first technology? Boy, now I’m out of my depth! The Australian aborigine tribe that I wrote about in Chapter 9 had no stone suitable for stone axes, but they traded what they did have to get it.

The fictional movie “The Gods Must be Crazy” described a tribe of African bushmen that encounter a Coca Cola bottle, and are amazed by it because they have nothing as hard—which they would have if they had stone in their geography. Assuming that the movie offers an authentic depiction, the technology developed was based on plant and animal products: bows and arrows, anesthetizing poison, snake skins, etc.

In the case of the bushmen, these technologies did not appear to lead to more advanced technologies. Would they have, given enough time? Or was there an absence of need and, therefore, motivation for more advanced technology? Or are stone and, perhaps, other material resources necessary for further development? If this last case were true, then removing stone tools from world history could have inhibited development of any further technology. The world would be a very different place, with small, isolated populations still using bows and arrows.

Robby: Do you think knowing how a technology works is important or unimportant to being able to understand a technology? Knowing how a technology works is useful to understanding a technology because it tells us about its limits, potential uses, modes of failure, etc. If we want to improve a technology, this engineering-level understanding shows us the physical constraints within which we would need to work. Someone unfamiliar with how a technology works may be afraid of accidents or misuses that are completely unrealistic.

But there are opportunity costs to understanding how technology works. Understanding even a single technology can take a great deal of time and may be quite difficult. Years of science and engineering study may need to precede examination of the specific technology. Now, multiply that by the countless new inventions appearing around the world, sired by millions of specialists and you see that understanding how all technology works in complete detail is impossible. And the more time we spend figuring this out, the less time we have to understand environment, sociological, and other aspects of technology. So we have to balance our efforts.

Fortunately, there are simple patterns that explain how a wide variety of technologies work. Not only are we relieved of learning new patterns for each and every technology, but these patterns are fairly common sense, not requiring an advanced degree in science or engineering. Understanding them does not substitute for such an advanced degree. They do not magically confer on us the ability to design new, complex technology. But they do equip us to understand and evaluate technology at a high level. And they equip us to better understand the technical answers provided by those who have devoted their lives to science and engineering.

Chandan: Do you think in the future there will be a technology that has a chip that serves as an unlimited energy source? Truly unlimited? No, I don’t think so. But “unlimited for all practical purposes we can imagine right now,” then yes, though it might not be a “chip.”

While driving at night, take a look at all the electric lights around you. I’ve seen streets, presumably leading over a hill to a new housing development, that are surrounded by nothing but grassy fields and yet lit by hundreds of bright lights. How much energy is being consumed to shine on the grass and the occasional passing car? Many kilowatts on that section of street alone. All this to power lights that are not even necessary—after all, the few cars that use this road have their own headlights.

Now, if you rode a stationary bicycle connected to a generator, you might be able to power one of those light—if you were cycling champion Lance Armstrong! He can produce between half and a whole kilowatt, but not indefinitely. To power hundreds of lights, each consuming about a kilowatt (maybe more!) with human power, you’d need to fill the field with such bicycles. Plus, you’d need support personnel to feed and water the riders and you’d need replacement riders to rotate through. This field of bicycles is ridiculous, right? If that were the source of energy, we’d never even conceive of lighting empty streets at night. Yet, for most of human existence, humans and animals were our only source of energy. Wind sails are about 5500 years old and waterwheels about 2100.

So, trying to explain the amount of energy we expend thoughtlessly to a human from our ancient history, we would, in effect, be describing an unlimited quantity of energy. Technology’s accelerating rate of change means that we who live in the early 21st century may have as much difficulty comprehending the quantities of energy used in the 22nd century as that ancient human would have comprehending ours. We might well call it “unlimited,” even though for the 22nd century inhabitant, it might be a bare minimum amount.

Robby & Chandan: Besides an energy source, is there any other thing that a technology has to have in order to work? This is worthy of a discussion of experts. Because we intentionally adopt a very broad definition of technology, this question is particularly hard to answer. If we accept “information” as technology, then it can at least exist—if not be useful—without any particular physical manifestation.

The safest answer is that there is nothing, not even energy, that every technology must have in order to work. This subscribes to the Arthur C. Clarke theory that if someone says that something is impossible, he is most probably wrong.

Robby: What is the difference between "How Does Technology Change?" and "How Do We Change Technology?"? How do you tell what goes in which question? Don't humans cause every change of a technology? The two questions are closely related and can even overlap. The way I intended the questions is to separate those factors that are intrinsic in technology from those roles we can intentionally play to influence it. These are sufficiently distinct to justify two questions.

For instance, at least some factors of evolution by natural selection appear to apply as well to technology as they do to living organisms. Yes, humans are involved in the ecosystem that subjects technology to these forces and it is humans who do the things that actually change a technology, for instance by inventing something new. But this scheme transcends individual humans. If some technology is particularly well adapted to a given environment, natural selection will reward those humans that adopt that technology with greater survival rates. We address this in “How Does Technology Change?”

In the chapter on how we change technology, we focus on the roles we play in that ecosystem. Individuals will make choices to engineer, promote, manage, and so on. What is it like to play one of those roles? What are examples of people who have?  What happened to them? This is important to know for all of us who look to examples around us—our parents, for instance—in order to decide how to spend our lives. Yes, they are subject to the natural forces we describe in the earlier chapter, but there is a richness in the stories that applies more to human choices.

We can imagine a future in which technology operates autonomously. Already, assembly line robots assemble cars and scheduling software routes trucks around our highway systems, but within decades, humans may have only minor roles in the operation of our society. That’s scary, but unless we understand both the natural forces causing change in technology as well as the roles that we (or future autonomous robots) can play, we have no tools to evaluate that potential threat. Being equipped to evaluate is good.

Chandan: Is there a pattern you have noticed related to technology changing? Yes, several patterns and I wrote about them in the book.
Robby & Chandan: If technologies were invented in a different order, how would they change differently? Some technology could not have been invented in a different order. Integrated circuits were invented shortly after the invention of new photoresist chemicals, necessary for etching patterns on silicon chips. Others may not depend physically on a previous invention, but do depend on a different way of thinking. In the book, I talk about the importance of ideas for the invention of new technology. Here’s an excerpt:

How could developing stone tools have been so slow? Were humans that much less intelligent back then? In answer to that question, consider the island of Tasmania and an old TV show, MacGyver. As anywhere, Tasmania suffered from occasional famine. Unusual, however, was that for about 4000 years Tasmanians, surrounded by rich oceans, did not fish. They did not think of fish as “food,” much as most Americans and Europeans rarely think of insects as food, even though people in many parts of the world recognize them as highly nutritious.

Now, on to MacGyver, the television show about a resourceful hero who uses a paper clip to short-out a nuclear missile, a chocolate bar to plug an acid leak, and a cold capsule to trigger a homemade bomb. What did he have that most people with easy access to paper clips, chocolate bars, and cold capsules lack—other than life-threatening situations every week? Information. Most of us lack information about missiles, acid, and bombs just as the Tasmanians lacked information about fish. Similarly, before we invented stone tools, we lacked information about stone tools—a seed for technology.

Our vast interrelated network of technology is like a crystal. The molecular components of crystals can float around in liquid (non-crystalline) form until they come in contact with a “seed” crystal. This seed is literally a few molecules that have already been stacked into a crystal structure. These cause more molecules to come out of solution, adding themselves to the structure. Integrated circuits are made from a giant silicon crystal grown from a tiny silicon seed. Stone tools may have been the conceptual seed from which all technology since has grown.

Robby: If we continue to improve computers at the current rate, do you believe something similar to what happens in The Matrix or The Terminator will happen, or do you believe we will be able to maintain control over computers? The Matrix and the Terminator offer entertaining views of the future. We can find technical flaws that suggest that these specific scenarios are unlikely to occur. For instance, in the Matrix humans were used as batteries, organic power sources for the controlling technology. As far as I know, humans would make simply awful power sources. Why wouldn’t the powers-that-be use photovoltaics? Solar cells spread across a world cleansed of humans would be a clean and simple energy supply that would not rebel and threaten the technology, as the stars of the movie did.

But to the overall question of whether technology will eventually usurp human control, that is still open. Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, Bill Joy, and many other brilliant scientists and engineers have written on this topic. There is, as yet, no consensus on the answer. But we can see trends…disturbing trends. The vast blackout of New York and surrounding areas on November 9, 1965, plunged 30,000,000 people into darkness. In 2003, a blackout affected more than 50,000,000 people.  The power grid was designed to protect itself so an overload in one section cascaded to others, like dominos tipping each other over. Technology is becoming far more autonomous and capable of “protecting itself.” The premise in the Terminator movies is that “Skynet” triggered a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia in order to protect itself from humans trying to turn it off. Our dependence on technology is growing, so it’s likely that we will continue to approach such situations where we cannot turn it off, but it may be able to turn us off.  Watch an interview with Chris Langton on the evolution of technology.

Chandan: Does technology change people in a different way depending on whether they read Technology Challenged or not? If you are aware of something affecting you, you can make choices about how you react. If you are unaware, you cannot. Technology Challenged helps us to become aware of technology’s impacts. That way we can make informed, critical choices about our actions and reactions. And that is an important distinction between humans and other animals, which tend to operate instinctually.
Robby & Chandan: What technology do you think affects people the most? Earlier, I mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, suggesting that the most important reasons for using technology vary depending on our environment and situation. The same holds true for determining which technology affects us the most. If water is scarce for drinking, cooking, and irrigating our fields, then water well technology may affect us the most.

To try to answer your question globally, we’d have to start with transportation and communication technologies. Ocean-going ships caused upheaval around the world. Trade connected China with Africa and Europe, including trade in technology such as magnetic compasses, gunpowder, and paper. Europeans conquered the western hemisphere. Wars became global. The telegraph connected Europe with America and some thought that this instantaneous communication could clear up the misunderstandings that lead to war. Though wars continue, the telegraph and the telecommunication technologies that followed it have had huge impact. Look at how CNN affects Americans’ perception of the world and how MTV affects the world’s perception of America.

Transportation and communication technologies have united the world in many ways and with both costs and benefits. Without being able to pick a specific technology, such as the Spanish galleon or TV, I would say that these two classes of technology have affected the most people in the greatest way.

Robby: Do you think people change technology more than technology changes people, or the other way around? It’s a bit of an “apples and oranges” comparison. People and technology are changed in quite different ways, so I don’t know that there could be a simple answer to this question. Nor might any answer make sense if we cannot quantify how many technologies, how many people, and what degree of change occurs in each.

But forging ahead where angels fear to tread, I would say that technology changes people more than the other way around. Most people do not consciously change technology, so their impact is small and felt only in the aggregate. For instance, consumers affect technology by making it successful (or not) in the market place. In the aggregate, this is a big impact, but the choice an individual consumer makes has little impact.

On the other hand, many technologies can change how people live their lives. From medicines that keep us alive to ubiquitous products like cellular phones and cars, people eventually adapt to use them, often benefiting and often becoming dependent. This would make for an interesting roundtable discussion, as I am only scratching the surface.

Chandan: How much affect do you think Technology Challenged is going to have on people who read it and technology? The future is hard to predict. Here are the factors I consider in attempting such a prediction. First, I have seen no other tools for understanding and evaluating technology. Second, the book is written for a general audience and, so, is accessible to a great many people. And, third, technology has tremendous impact on our lives and may determine our society’s survival, so understanding and evaluating it is quite important. Based on those three factors, I believe that the book will affect people quite a lot. That depends on publicizing it so that people are aware of it and the value of its content. We each can impact that by telling our friends about the concepts the book introduces. Spread the word. It’s important.
Robby & Chandan: Which socioeconomic class changed, is changing, and will change technology the most? You ask a question worthy of experts, but I will give it a shot. Technology often follows a trickle-down pattern, with early adopters buying expensive, often unrefined, forms of technology that will eventually become affordable and more useful. Early mobile phones cost a lot, and were large and heavy. But those acquisitions funded further development and now cellular phones are cheap, tiny, and light. They have improved in performance and coverage areas, as well. Looking at technological change from this perspective, we could say that the rich enable change.

But the large organizations responsible for much of technology’s development are interested in getting to the broader markets as quickly as possible. Forget spending years selling a few $5000 phones, let’s sell millions of $100 phones! So, in this case the more populous middle class will be a driving force.

Still, one thing that the history of technology shows us is that predicting where and how technology develops is nearly impossible. It comes from all quarters and is frequently used in totally unanticipated ways. The best way to look at this question may not be through the lens of socioeconomic class as through categories developed in the study of technological diffusion. Consider five waves of adopters:

  1. Innovators and enthusiasts, adopt a new technology as soon as it appears.
  2. Visionaries and other early adopters soon follow once the technology is a bit more practical to use.
  3. Pragmatists, the early majority, join in once the price comes down.
  4. Conservatives, the late majority, adopt once the technology has become standardized and easy to use.
  5. Laggards and skeptics are dragged, kicking and screaming, into adopting it when everyone else is already using it and they have little choice (“What do you mean you have no telephone?!?”).

I draw these categories from Everett Rogers (who wrote Diffusion of Innovation) and Geoffrey Moore (who wrote “Crossing the Chasm”). Based on this way of categorizing people, we could say that innovators and enthusiasts cause the biggest changes in technology.

Robby: If a technology has more costs than benefits, how come sometimes it is still kept for human use? There are at least two reasons for this. First, costs and benefits can—and usually do—affect different people. If someone else suffers the costs, the person reaping the benefits may well continue using the technology. This is not compassionate, but it is common. For instance, you may be perfectly happy with how your factory works even though it poisons my water well.

And, second, lack of information can keep us from making good decisions. If the system in which the technology operates is complex, it can be difficult to determine that it is the source of the costs. Yes, something bad is happening, but we don’t want to blame this wonderful technology that is doing so much good for us, so it must be coming from some other source. Even when such self-delusion is not involved, the basic science explaining the connection between cost and source may be undeveloped.

Over time, both of these disconnects can be addressed. It would be an interesting study to see how long this can take and if some costly technology is never held accountable.

Chandan: Can you think of the perfect technology that enables without crutching, is complex yet predictable, gives us a little control and a little freedom, is always progressing, and benefits everyone? No, I sure can’t.
Robby & Chandan: Overall, do you think there are more costly or beneficial technologies? Since every technology has both costs and benefits, we can’t classify any as strictly “costly” or “beneficial.” If, however, we try to weigh costs and benefits, giving each technology a score from one to 100, then we could ask, “What percentage of technologies score higher than 50, or are more beneficial than costly?”

If we did not have the disconnect I addressed two questions back, it would be easy to say that, as a rational society, we would have far more technology that is, on balance, beneficial. With those two disconnects, it is hard to say, but I would guess that technology is overall a good deal more beneficial than costly. I certainly would not wish to live a hundred years ago (before penicillin) or a thousand years ago (before the printing press).

Robby: How would you evaluate Nanotechnology? Very carefully. In 2003, author Langdon Winner testified before the US Congress on the issue of nanotechnology. He urged them to form citizen committees to help evaluate development of nanotechnology. Involving the general public has several benefits. First, it avoids the backlash seen against genetically modified (GM) foods, which have been introduced without much publicity. Many believe that such a “secret” deployment of a new technology means it could be dangerous. A second benefit is that a greater diversity of voices are involved. Given the breadth and unpredictability of impact, including people with a variety of backgrounds could help. With so powerful and potentially beneficial and dangerous a technology, it seems only fair to include the public, especially when government funding (taxpayer money) is going to support development.

I would educate those citizen panels with the ICE-9 questions from the curriculum and book. It would give them a simple yet useful tool for approaching nanotechnology. No matter the detail they wished to immerse themselves in, ICE-9 is a perfect framework. I have contacted Langdon Winner as well as the Loka Institute (which is advocating Langdon's recommendation), but it may be a friend of someone who reads this interview that actually makes the contact that gets ICE-9 in.

Certainly, if there were some other tool for understanding and evaluating technology that were even better, then Congress should use that, but I have seen nothing like ICE-9, much less anything better. Here is a chance for you to change technology: find some way to connect ICE-9 with those in the US Congress guiding this effort.

Chandan: From your point of view, what makes a good technology? A good technology is one that is understood and has been evaluated against an explicit value system. In other words, put the technology into context, gather information about it from a diversity of sources, consider what your own values (and those of your society) are, and then see how that technology’s costs and benefits match up against those values.

There is no absolute “good” or “bad” for every technology across every environment. There is a great deal of relativity. What I consider good is conscious evaluation. What I consider bad is blind embrace or rejection of a technology. That is static. You might as well flip a coin. In our dynamic world we need dynamic responses, which means putting technology into context so we can assess it. That is precisely what the ICE-9 technique in the curriculum and the book help us to do.

Robby & Chandan: Before you knew much about technology, how would you evaluate technologies differently than now? As most people, I was much less conscious of my evaluations. I considered short-term issues of price and immediate usefulness. If there were bigger issues, I was probably unaware of them and ill-equipped to confront them. The more I know about technology, the more I see it as a natural aspect of our Universe, the more I see its interactions and the patterns of those interactions. That is reassuring. Many people are overwhelmed by the rapid pace of technological change, but understanding technology helps us to understand how it changes. We find the constants within the change and are no longer overwhelmed.

Understanding technology deeply is a philosophical thing. It affects how you view the Universe around you and how you make the major decisions you do. It is a different mindset, a different worldview. I think it’s healthier for the individual and I strongly believe that it is healthier for society at large. We have important decisions to make concerning technology and doing so with knowledge and perspective is the safest, most productive way to go.



 2010 KnowledgeContext


Teaching Young People to Think About Technology