What we talk about when we talk about technology

In casual conversation ‘technology’ usually means something like a device, gadget or machine. Your smartphone for instance, or the satellite navigation system in your car; maybe the car itself, why not? But this conception of technology soon collapses if you subject it to a few quick tests.

La mano / fotero / Flickr cc (by-nc 2.0)

For example, try asking: Where is the technology? Is it inside your smartphone? The phone itself is just a lump of plastic, metal and glass, not much use without a network and a service provider – so perhaps the technology resides in the network of receivers, transmitters, cables and satellites through which your phone can exchange data with other phones?

Then again, those phones and networks are not a lot of use without fee-paying service users, app builders and ‘content providers’. And where would all those people and organisations be without the electrical pulse that makes the system work – is that where the technology may be found?

None of these questions lead to satisfactory answers. Yet if you consult an English dictionary you will usually find definitions of technology that focus on the world of artefacts and devices. Often, they reflect the division some English speakers make between pure science on one hand, and applied science, or technology, on the other. For example, the installed dictionary on my Apple laptop offers definitions of technology as science applied to practical purposes; machines and devices developed with scientific knowledge; and the disciplines of engineering and applied sciences.

My copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary (ninth edition, 1995) is a bit better with its definition, which reads ‘the study or use of the mechanical arts and applied sciences’ – I say ‘better’, because the definition emphasises the study of mechanics and scientific applications; yet, still, the focus is on the gadgets and machines that are built using applied scientific knowledge.

Not just machines

French speakers have an easier time understanding that technology is not just machines. The online Larousse Dictionary explains that technologie may be understood in all the following ways: ‘the study of tools, machines, processes and methods employed in diverse branches of industry’; the ‘entirety of tools and materials used in crafts and industry’; the ‘coherent body of knowledge and practice in a certain technical domain, based on scientific principles’; and – this is most significant – the ‘general theory of technique’.

While there is overlap with the English definitions of technology, the meaning of technologie includes a distinctive emphasis on the study of and knowledge about tools, practices and techniques. One might say that, at least in French, technology is to technique as sociology is to society or musicology is to music – that is, not the thing itself but its study, its theory, its concepts, and its associated body of knowledge.

For development, how we understand technology matters

Why does this matter, and what has it got to do with development? It matters because technology is vital to the challenges of development, and if we have a poor grasp of what technology really is, it makes it harder to ensure that technological change supports human emancipation and benefits people.

One problem is that conversations about technology almost always focus on the latest wave of innovations, the so-called cutting edge of ‘modern technology’. In the early 21st century, this often means things like smartphones and tablets, delivery drones and self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

This is not surprising: as well as being attention-grabbing and often jaw-dropping, the most recent technical innovations are always liable to have implications that are potentially dramatic, disruptive, and fundamentally unpredictable. They deserve our attention.

The problem comes if we forget that technology is not really about devices and machines that supposedly change our world, but about people who use tools of many kinds to achieve their purposes. These tools include shiny new gadgets as well as the many simple tools we overlook because they are so ordinary and familiar.

What is a pencil for?


Photo: Pencil / fadderuri / Flickr cc (by-nc-nd 2.0)

Take the example of a pencil. Unless and until someone picks it up, the pencil is just an object, nothing more than a cylinder of wood enclosing a stick of graphite. A visitor from Mars might not know instantly how this object could be used, but human children learn very early in their lives that a pencil can be used to draw lines and make shapes. Optimally, the pencil works best for this application if used on a flat surface with just the right degree of resistance and roughness, such as a sheet of pale-coloured paper resting on a table. It works less well on brick or glass, and not at all on the surface of water.

We might say that a pencil is ‘supposed’ to be used for writing and drawing, but it turns out we can also use it to pierce, stab, gouge or flick, or to retrieve a fallen button from beneath a heavy dresser. In all of these situations, the pencil may be held and manipulated in different ways, with more or less skill and finesse, violence or aggression. And even if you and I both use the same pencil to write with, we find that your handwriting is so different from mine it can be identified, almost uniquely, as yours. In this way, you can use a pencil to leave behind a trace that continues to influence others even when you are no longer present.

The example of the pencil illustrates two critically important points about technology.

First, the user matters at least as much as the object that he or she puts to use, since in fact the object only becomes a tool when this use occurs. Technology comes into existence while tools are in use; outside those moments all you have are objects with potential uses as tools. From this perspective, technology is not a pre-existing entity that people may possess or lack, but something they do or make. It is human agency that makes objects into tools, and so creates technology.

Second, when objects are used as tools they not only allow their users to manipulate the material world, they can create connections between their users and other social actors, including anybody who is affected by the way those tools are employed.

When designed objects are put to use they also create connections between their designers and their users. The users may use the objects as the designer has intended or anticipated, but sometimes they use them in ways the designer has not thought of, or even disapproves of.

Technology and agriculture: more than ‘adoption’

This perspective on technology is relevant to agriculture. It frames farmers and labourers as key agents of technology rather than passive recipients of technology developed elsewhere, or ‘adopters’.

At a certain scale of analysis, an entire farming system can be interpreted as a technology, in which farmers employ all kinds of resources – including living organisms such as crops and livestock – as tools in a technology of livelihood, food security or economic survival. Yes – even a plant or an animal can be a tool in that sense.

Development interventions are often implemented with the explicit goal of getting farmers to ‘adopt’ new technology, but the implicit framing of this process is that the technology is a product that has been fully developed by scientists and engineers, which can now be ‘transferred’ to a target group of users.

In reality, the technology is effectively remade in situ by the new users, who have to adapt the original design to suit their own circumstances. The users are principals in the technology, not merely ‘adopters’ of machines, chemicals, or new seeds. We can think of the technology design as a proposition to which the farmers have the opportunity to respond in various ways.

5 sets of questions on technology & agriculture

Agricultural researchers and engineers can be more effective in their work if they develop better heuristics for engaging with potential users of farming technologies, in order to better understand and anticipate their needs and capacities.

They could start by asking some key questions, including:

Who is expected to deploy or practise this technology? For example, will it be used by an individual farmer him/herself, or by a specialist acting on his/her behalf (such as an extensionist, consultant or field technician)? Or will adoption of this technology require cooperation across a community of farmers? Answers to these questions can help decision makers to develop impact strategies and design extension programmes.

What behaviours or practices are envisaged if this technology is introduced, and which ones might be eliminated or changed? Who might be affected, positively or negatively, by such changes? Answers to these questions will help to identify key intervention points and the stakeholders who need to be involved in decision making.

What material inputs, equipment or tools may be needed in order to take full advantage of the technology? For example, does the new technology depend on additional supplies of fertiliser or water? If so, are these resources readily available? Small-scale producers often farm in unfavourable environments, where desirable inputs are unavailable or inaccessible.

What information, knowledge or skills are required to make the most of the new technology? Who will supply the necessary information and how will farmers be supported to acquire new knowledge and skills they may need to benefit from the technology or avoid possible negative impacts?

In many cases the deployment of new technology implies a redistribution of power, income, employment or other assets. Who are likely to be the winners and losers from this new technology? How might the potential losses be mitigated or how might losers be compensated? Or can policy ensure that the benefits are more evenly distributed?

This blog post is based on an invited talk given by the author during the FAO International Symposium on ‘The Role of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition’, Rome, Italy, 15—17 February 2016. You can watch the video of Dominic’s talk here.

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