Monday, October 13, 2008

Biologoical relationships of technology

Final Draft:

(I will commonly refer to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” as simply “Sheep” for simplicity's sake)

Technology: a broad concept that deals with a species' usage and knowledge of tools and crafts, and how it affects a species' ability to control and adapt to its environment. (Wikipedia)

The relationship between technology and human nature is best viewed, as I understand it, as a simply biological relationship. Technology is only possible through biological systems. Matter will not simply coalesce into technology. It is rather created through some process, whether it be intentional or by accident. However, it is the use of this creation that dictates whether it is true technology. If in a swirling mass of chemicals, ATP (adenosine triphosphate... arguably the most important molecule in any living system next to DNA) is created, it is not truly “technology” until it is used to power the various metabolic functions the cell requires. It is through biological systems like this and through the process of evolution that new chemical “technologies” and, eventually, physical technologies are created.

Technology is usually defined as the precise or knowledgeable use of any “tool,” and, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether that precision is learned or instinctual. The tool doesn’t necessarily need to be created with particular intent, but it typically is. After all, acquired characteristics of species were produced and fine-tuned over millions of years, so in a way, you could say that they were created with intent... otherwise, where would new species come from? I think Lyotard said it best: “Any material system is technological if it filters information useful to its survival, if it memorizes and processes that information and makes inferences based on the regulating effect of behavior, that is, if it intervenes on and impacts its environment so as to assure its perpetuation at least (Lyotard 12).” Every species uses its own evolutionary novelties as an ability to control and adapt to its environment. Take, for instance, the Aye-Aye, a pro-simian (monkey-like primate) from the jungles of Madagascar. It has developed a long spindly finger with which it collects ants and various other insects from holes in trees (Fleagle). It uses this specialized finger as a “tool” to get what it wants (dinner). Similarly, the deep sea Anglerfish uses its rod-like appendage to lure prey toward it, which are attracted to the pulsing light at the tip. It does this by moving its “rod” in much the same way a fly-fisherman uses his (same motion, same effect, same means to the same end… dinner). These are just a couple of an infinite number of examples of technology in nature. They arose out of evolutionary novelty and stuck around because they allowed their owners to control and adapt to its environment. They use their tools the same way we use ours. The only difference is that our “tool” allows us to create new technology without waiting for evolution to help us. Our brain is the greatest tool of all. We use it the same way animals use their tools… to get food and, once we have it, seek comfort, reproduce, and so forth. That is animal nature and, since we are animals, it is human nature as well. We use our master tool, “the brain,” as a means to acquire our basic needs (food, shelter, offspring) and once we have those basic needs met, we use our brain to meet our higher needs (mental, spiritual, emotional) as well. Thus, human nature could not exist without technology.

Technology is used as an extension of any being, regardless of its biological or mechanical makeup. The simplest use of technology of course, is the biological use. All life is equipped with certain tools to manipulate and control its environment. It is equipped with the knowhow to properly and precisely use it. And, if it lacks one of these, it cannot continue living.

We as humans cannot control what nature has given to us. Most animals can do things that humans would never even dream possible with our bodies. Because of this, we as humans are envious of those animal characteristics we don’t have. As humans we listen to these emotions and do what we can to satiate them. The big difference is that we can use our brain to simulate other animal capabilities. But, like Lyotard said about creating consciousness, this is only a simulation (Lyotard 17-18). We can never actually “have” the characteristics of that animal or thing we are observing. We can only simulate it and to simulate is to live vicariously through something else; to live as if something were really happening even if it isn’t. If we want to fly like a bird, we create the technology to do so. If we want vision like a hawk, we create the technology to do so. If we want to further either one of these and be better than the animal, we fly farther or look deeper into space than anything before us. But our technology is merely a simulation of these traits that we long to acquire, but never will. We never will be able to run like a cheetah or dive hundreds of kilometers below sea level like a sperm whale. We can simulate it and use our technology as a crude extension of ourselves, but it will never truly be “us” that do these things. Our technology is merely an extension of ourselves as we try to emulate some other animal; I will never have the teeth of a wolf, but I can use a knife to kill my prey the same way the wolf uses its teeth.

War and violence are a big part of human nature. It’s that simple. There has never been a culture of completely peace-loving humans and, if they don’t fight each other, they have to kill other animals for food and resources (sinews, fur, leather, etc.). Violence has and will always be a part of our nature and will gradually worsen as our technology grows in complexity (it provides an increasing ability to do harm on an increasing scale as our technology improves). Taking this into account, it is only natural for the humans in “Sheep” (who now have the technology) to blow up the world like they did. That was not their goal, but it is also human nature to use your most efficient technology to do what you have to in order to survive ... including nuclear warfare.
(It’s all about efficiency with humans, regardless of which field it is being applied to. Efficiency just seems like part of our nature as humans. We are busy creatures and don’t have the time or the patience to do things the hard way. It was Epicurus who said that we as humans like to maximize pleasure and minimize pain (Hedonism). Efficiency helps us achieve the most comfort with the least amount of toil. Rick Deckard, in “Sheep,” was able to efficiently “retire” errant technology only because of the technology available to him, including his organization. Fredrick Winslow Taylor also knew that efficiency was everything in organization. He designed an extremely efficient management system, known as “Scientific Management.” This “technology” allowed him to efficiently control labor and get what both he and his workers wanted. Both parties were able to thrive in many different situations [pig iron handling, shoveling, ball-bearing inspection, etc.] and, like I said before, this tool is used the same way animals use their tools. His scientific management is nothing more than the emulation of certain insects like ants and bees [all hymenoptera to be precise]. These insects are the most organized creatures on the planet and Taylor’s technology allowed us to simulate their natural organization.).
Yes, their technology was harmful to their race as a whole, but it was their human nature combined with the aid of technology that ultimately killed most of life on Earth. I would also like to reiterate the fact that they used this technology as an extension of themselves. The end of life on Earth was dependent upon their technology and, without it, they would have merely used whatever nature gave them to fight with the leaders of the other countries. They would most likely have walked over and strangled each other… the way nature intended it (judging by what it gave us).

Our society has come so far technologically that we are beginning to fuse with our own created tools into what Haraway refers to as “cyborgs.” She says that, “Modern medicine is... full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine (Haraway 150),” but in my opinion, it seems only natural. Our technology is being used, in this sense, to keep our biological bodies functioning. We are using our tools, our technology, as an aspect of ourselves. When we integrate our biological bodies with machines, we are both asserting our reliance on machines and also our complete mastery over them. We assume complete dominance over our machines and assimilate them into ourselves. It is in this way that technology no longer functions as extensions of ourselves, but rather as ourselves. It, in theory, becomes us. What then is the difference between our technology and ourselves? Is it that we created this technology that we are now a part of? I don’t think so. After all, it is biology that creates the simplest forms of technology. Evolution combined with morphology and instinct usually makes new technologies, but as humans we can bypass the entire step of evolution. We may continue on this path until we become simply the detached consciousness that Lyotard was looking for the whole time. However, we are still human and it is our nature to create technology for our own gain, just like it is any other biological system’s nature to use its own pre-existing evolutionary technology to its own gain. Technology doesn’t threaten us any more than we threaten ourselves… we are technology.

Works Cited:

Fleagle, John. Primate Adaptation and Evolution.
Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”
Lyotard, “Can Thought go on Without a Body?”
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Wikipedia. “Technology.”
Taylor, Fredrick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management.


Kevin Hengelbrok said...

My last blog, I had a lot of plot summary and Dr. Adam commented on it. It seems you have too much plot summary and not enough argument. Also, I got out of your essay that technology is human nature... but i didnt get anything else really... there were a few hints towards an argument but nothing really stood out the whole way through. If I was to redo this paper... I would hone in three or four main sub-arguments (the hint questions would be a good place to start) and really use the texts to emphasize them. Try using Joy and Lyotard to contrast with the narrative texts such as bladerunner and hawthorne. i know when you cut out a lot of the plot summary you will lose a lot of your paper and it will feel like starting from scratch... i was in your shoes last week... but fill that space up with your own ideas on technology and human nature in the world today... the world has never been so connected and look at what happened to the global economy over the past two weeks...

also, it would be great if you commented on mine too... it should be right above yours... i also did this prompt.

Adam Johns said...

The wikipedia definition is weird. Why do you like it?

Your discussion in the first paragraph is interesting, but seems to be more in line with Lyotard's understanding of technology than the Wikipedia definition. Just saying...

Your discussion of biology and technology is smart, detailed and (pay attention, anyone else reading this!) actually rooted in detailed examples. I still think that your introduction didn't prepare us particularly well for this material, though. It's smart and interesting, but it's hard to tell exactly where you're going with it.

I'm similarly impressed with your discussion of simulation, but it raises questions. Are you suggesting that people are driven both by the desire to simulate other animals, and by frustration at the inadequacy of the simulation? This argument is implicitly veering into psychology...

Your discussion of Dick, insects, and Frederick Winslow Taylor is fascinating, but let me point out that it rests partially on undefended generalizations, e.g., about the human drive to efficiency.

You assert, but don't explain, that the human technologies in DADES were "extension" (I'd prefer the word prosthesis, myself).

Your closing discussion is fascinating but vague. I feel like there should be an explicit psychological argument here which is absent; you seem to see the Haraway-esque world of integrated technologies as being utopian in some sense (when the simulations become real, we are satisfied, not frustrated?). Or am I misreading you? This is interesting stuff, but not finished or developed.

Overall: You have great material, and you do a decent job of integrating it all together. A weak introduction and a vague conclusion keep this paper from attaining its ideal self, but a mark of its quality is that I'm actively interested in everything you have to say here...