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Thinking about technology subject of Camden philosophy conference

Tom Groening | BDN
Tom Groening | BDN
Val Dusek, a professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, speaks to a participant at the Philosophy at the Edge conference in Camden on Saturday, July 28, 2012. Dusek was one of three featured speakers at the annual event.
By Tom Groening, BDN Staff

CAMDEN, Maine — Val Dusek dates the start of technology to the first time a cave dweller clanked rocks together to create a spark to kindle a fire. Yet philosophy, the academic inquiry into knowledge and thinking, only began examining technology within the last 100 years.

Dusek, a professor of technology at the University of New Hampshire, spoke Saturday at the annual Philosophy at the Edge conference hosted by the Camden Philosophical Society. This year’s theme was “Thinking Technology: Crossing and Creating Boundaries.”

It wasn’t until after the horrors of World War I and World War II that mainstream thought began to consider that technology might not be a universally positive force, Dusek told the 40 or so of those attending the conference. Notable exceptions, he said, were the English Romantic poets who celebrated a return to nature, and American thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who urged the same, both during the 19th century.

Even Karl Marx, who wrote in England during the era when mills clouded the sky with soot and saw workers as victims of the factory owners, believed that in the long run, technology could help those workers.

The tear gas used in World War I, the explosion of atomic weapons in Japan in 1945 and the rise of the environmental movement, especially after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, began to turn the tide, he said.

Dusek suggested the relationship between science and technology is misunderstood. The scientific method, with experiments and rules, is only about 400 years old, he said. Technology, he argued, “goes back to the caves, chipping flint and making fire.”

The “planned application” of science began in the German chemical industry in the 1870s, Dusek said, when scientists were told to work at solving specific problems.

In fact, most technological advances came through “tinkering” or happenstance. The Post-it was invented after an effort to produce a “super glue” failed, Dusek said, and the leftover product was applied to scraps of paper to mark places in a church hymnal.

Scotchgard was invented when a chemist accidentally spilled a compound on her sneaker and found that it resisted stains. Safety glass was developed when another chemist spilled a mixture on a beaker; when the beaker fell off a bench and didn’t shatter, a new product was launched.

And Viagra, Dusek said to chuckles in the audience, was initially developed to treat heart patients, “then it was found to have an interesting side effect, and so it was redeployed.”

Figuring out just what technology is, then, is not easy, he said. Is hardware, such as the computer or cellphone, technology? Are the systems that make such devices work also technology? And what about the people who make it work?

Three views have emerged in recent philosophical inquiries into technology, Dusek said.

One is that the idea of a system explains it best. An electricity grid illustrates that view, with hardware, plans and humans all integral parts. Another way to understand technology is as tools; “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” Dusek said articulates that view.

And a third view, espoused by contemporary French philosopher Jacques Ellul, is that technology is autonomous with its own internal logic, and not necessarily under the control of people.

To illustrate different ways to understand technology, Dusek related that when U.S. airplanes would drop supplies in remote areas of the South American rainforest, the natives began to worship the planes, even building a crude replica of one to attract more planes and more drops. When one crashed, it became a shrine of sorts.

In response to a question, Dusek talked about yet another view of technology, that of the Luddites of the early 19th century who, fearing the loss of their livelihoods as weavers, destroyed mechanized mills doing the same work. The word “saboteur,” one man attending the conference said, comes from the French word “sabot,” wooden shoes that Luddites would throw into mill machinery to destroy it.

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