There are many aspects of our life that we take for granted, especially things that are pre-existing or seem everlasting. We fail to recognize that everything that surrounds us has a history. Everything from church bells to Carolina rice has a past which involves a long process of adjustment during which the invention is improved and modified to fit the needs of the users. In this adjustment process, adoptions are not only made to produce the new product (technique) but also to produce at a low cost. In this article, David E. Nye raises a series of questions which people quite often overlook while considering the evolution and development of a technology over a period of time like why the thing was developed the way it did? How were the technology and its manufacturing process effected due to social and political needs? And more importantly, how did people come up with the idea of this new technology? Nye gives the example of Black Rice by Judith A. Carney which clearly demonstrates how the planters imported a species of rice from West Africa and slaves who had the technical knowledge of cultivating that crop to Carolina estuaries of North America. He argues that the knowledge, techniques, and tools to develop a technology come from somewhere.
Here is a link to a quick review of the book Black Rice by Judith A. Carney: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/432302
The definition of technology is not limited to big machines like steam engines, aeroplanes, automobiles, and computers, but also includes houses, landscape, roads, agriculture, city, work-space, and energy systems which are just a few examples of a long list. Nye talks about the community of a new set of researchers which emerged called the SHOT (Society for the History of Technology) which focused on the history of objects in isolation, the inventors, laboratory processes, and the state of knowledge at that particular time. He calls these people internalists as they write from the point of view of an insider who looks over the inventor’s shoulders. Internalists found out that public demand and individual desire are are not something which drives an invention to come into existence. Money and talent can speed up the process, but they cannot always result in a serviceable invention. Therefore it is important to know when a device became practically possible then to know when it was invented. Internalists establish a chronology of the practicality of the product development and the product itself. During the process of developing some feasible inventions are abandoned as unprofitable because they don’t suit the user’s specific needs.
Anthony F. C. Wallace states that we shall view technology as a social product and shall not concentrate our attention on the claims of individual inventors because the concept behind the development and use of the technology involved a group of people that contributed to the basic idea behind the technology before success is achieved to make the technology possible.
To explain why a technology wins the large market and the other fails one needs to consider the technical and cultural factors. This is where the contextualist approach comes in. If we compare steam-, electric-, and gasoline-powered automobiles in the first half of the 20th century, the gasoline car took over the market because of numerous reasons. Countryside lacked electric grids, the batteries were heavy and charged slowly, and the electric car was advertised a woman’s vehicle and described as a safer, quieter, and small ranged. No wonder it lost its attention from the primary customers when men chose to look-over pollution and noise of gasoline car which offered long range, speed, and low cost. Technology is not a stable artifact, it is subject to change and modification based on the political and cultural needs, it is an ever-evolving system. Contextualists view the adaption of every technology as a continual reconstruction of the sociopolitical structure of the world. They try to understand the technologies from the point of view of the people who were present at the time when that technology was being implemented. This implies that machines and technical process are a result of cultural practices, and society in general, and may develop in multiple directions. For example, The computer and the Internet in the United States was not something that came from a foreign society and made an impact; rather, it was a technology which was shaped by its people according to their social context. Like every technology, the internet and computer opened a way for new business, social agenda, and political question. People started to use these devices in different areas for multiple purposes.
Here is a link to an article which talks about the evolution of the internet from a military experiment to a general purpose technology: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23738871.2016.1157619?src=recsys&
Today these technologies are an integrated part of our lives. People around the globe have embedded the computer and the internet in their daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. To the new generations, these devices seem to be a part of the natural setting of the world. But, it’s not correct to assume that a new technology forces an institution into an involuntary transformation. Rather, an institution incorporates the technology at a point of its ongoing development and evolves around it.
The real question is, “As humans adapt to each new instrument and deceive and learn to reinterpret the world, are they losing touch with other modes of understanding?”
Jose Ortega y Gasset concludes that technology, “leads to the construction of a new nature, a super-nature interposed between man and original, nature. As we surround ourselves with technical objects we form an artificial nature which hides the primordial nature behind it. The man soon tends to believe that all these things are there as nature itself is there.” Technology shapes the perceptions and establishes the horizon of experience. It actually depends on the many contexts in which the people decide to use the technology and how they interpret it. A child born today feels it’s natural to use the electric lights, watch television, ride a car, or talk on mobile. While the child’s grandparents who have experienced these things develop over time will regard these as remarkable innovations.
The relationship between technology and perception is an important subject, especially when we consider the pace of technological change. We cannot ignore the history behind a technology if we are to answer the question how did we arrive in this present, what has been lost in the process, and why the technology was developed the way it is.
Nye concludes that technology matters because humans use technology to shape themselves and the world around them. They have naturalized these changes to suit their needs. Ultimately, it’s peoples decision to chose how technology matters. They can refuse to let a technical innovation define their history as inevitable, or they can accept the world as it is in present.