Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about the links between technology and culture.

Many people see technology as some kind of boring but necessary thing that someone else looks after, and if the truth be told rather look down on those who look after it. As I argue here that view is just plain wrong…

Q: Now
– technology and culture. What is the link between technology and
culture? Are we talking about electronic music?

A: Having
been to the Big Day Out last week, I can tell you that there was a
lot of technology used to make that happen! But the link between
technology and culture goes a lot further than technology being used
to create art, although that’s part of it. All music, expect
perhaps unaccompanied singing, is created with some level of
technology. It doesn’t have to be electronic.

Q: A
piano is a piece of technology I suppose…

A: Yes,
and even something like, say, a violin – that’s technology as
well. It took a lot of development to get violins into their current
shape and it takes technology to build them.

Q: How
do you define technology?

A: That’s
the crux, isn’t it? It’s surprisingly difficult. Webster’s
Dictionary says
practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area.

Q: What
does the Oxford English Dictionary say?

A: I
don’t know, it wouldn’t tell me without me giving it a credit
card number first. But Wiktionary – an online dictionary run along
the same lines as Wikipedia – gives:
study of or a collection of techniques
the body of tools
and other implements produced by a given society.

Q: You
say then that everything we do practically is technology?

A: Yes.
Technology is the way we do stuff. It’s a body of recipes if you
like – directions on how to achieve this that or the other. And
that brings me to culture.

Q: How
do you define culture?

A: According
to Webster again,
integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that
depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to
succeeding generations.
gives us
The arts,
customs, and habits that characterize a particular society or nation

or The
beliefs, values, behavior and material objects that constitute a
people’s way of life

Now, that’s not so very different
to the definition of technology.

Q: Surely
you aren’t saying that technology and culture are the same thing!

A: I
am, sort of. Culture and technology are two facets of the same jewel,
that is how we live together, what we do for survival and
entertainment, and how we pass on our knowledge, values and habits to
successive generations.

Q: Isn’t
technology more aimed at practical ends?

A: Yes,
but then sometimes that end is it itself technology. So if I want to
develop a computer program, say, or build a bridge to use another
example, I’ll use all kinds of technological tools, but my end is
also technological in that it provides something for practical aims.
So I don’t think you can disentangle culture and technology as
easily as that.

Q: Come
on, you aren’t going to tell me that fine art is technology!

A: Painting
materials and techniques have very much influenced the style of art
available through the ages. You can see, for instance, when painters
learned how to use perspective. That’s a practical application of
mathematics and it changed fine art for ever. For me, technology and
culture really are the same thing – and I appreciate art, drama and
music as much as the next person. We seem as a species to be wired up
to like this kind of thing. Why that is, is a fascinating question
and not one I can answer. Perhaps our love of art and music are
by-products of our desire for technology, and it’s our technology
that gets us above the struggle for mere existence, nature red in
tooth and claw, and gives us the opportunity to enjoy what we think
of as the finer things in life.

Q: So
you are saying that everything we do comes down to technology?

A: Yes.
When you walk down the street you are walking on paving slabs made by
technological means, wearing clothes – hopefully – which were
made by someone, and probably on your way to or from things that use
technology. At the most basic level, the food we eat and the houses
we live are created through technology. What we see as the most basic
and obvious things in our lives are mostly created, regulated or
controlled by technology. In a large building like this one, even the
air we breathe is filtered and temperature controlled. It’s not
just aeroplanes and cell phones that would disappear if we could
somehow get rid of technology. It’s everything that supports our


an online dictionary run on the same lines as Wikipedia.

Wikipedia on

An article
by William Gibson

on the
staging of U2’s vertigo tour.



posted by colin at 11:51 am  

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