What is Technology?

Towards a working definition

As a designer-by-trade, I build technology. But what is technology?

Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorite science fiction authors, once wrote that:

technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine—and so on and on… Technology is the active human interface with the material world.

In this sense, it is not limited (as Ursula K. Le Guin’s rant aptly shows) to “the enormously complex and specialised technologies of the past few decades, supported by massive exploitation of natural and human resource.” She goes on:

We have been so desensitized by a hundred and fifty years of ceaselessly expanding technical prowess that we think nothing less complex and showy than a computer or a jet bomber deserves to be called “technology” at all. As if linen were the same thing as flax — as if paper, ink, wheels, knives, clocks, chairs, aspirin pills, were natural objects, born with us like our teeth and fingers – as if steel saucepans with copper bottoms and fleece vests spun from recycled glass grew on trees, and we just picked them when they were ripe…1

Thus, technology is about anything and everything we use to interface with the world, to cope with it. It can be pencils and papers, knives and clock, chairs and houses, as well as computers and airplanes.

  1. Ursula K. Le Guin, “A Rant About ‘Technology’” ↩︎