Humans as Technology

Philosopher Joseph Pitt considers technology. That sounds strange at first, but I think it a decent description of his work. He has a book titled Thinking about Technology, so one might find it rather obvious that he considers technology. The meaning I take from his considerations depends in part on his sometimes maligned definition of technology: humanity at work (see Thinking about Technology for further explication).

His former student, and current colleague Ashley Shew (in her dissertation), quibbled with his definition. She explored nonhuman animal uses of technology–a fascinating topic in its own right. From them both I have learned the usefulness and limitations of broad definitions. From their perspectives, I have begun crafting a definition of technology that also includes elements of posthumanism: technology is life at work.

If you were among those counting “humanity at work” as too vague, broad, inclusive, or unhelpful, thinking of technology as life at work will, at best, cause you to roll your eyes. Pitt and Shew might be right there with you. Even “humanity at work,” however, makes a step in the direction I propose: definitions of technology should be vague.

An initial move in traditional philosophy involves definition and demarcation (see Nicholas Rescher’s Philosophical Dialectics for a condensed introduction to metaphilosophy). Thus, we would need to define human and work for Pitt’s definition (and life for the one I propose, but more on that later). Setting aside work as the least problematic of the two (I could be wrong), humanity becomes the key term to define and demarcate. I find it difficult, however, to separate humans and technologies neatly (hence the title of this post, humans as technology). For that, and a plethora of other reasons, I am likely not a traditional philosopher (of technology). Because of that, my dissertation has focused on what I describe as “un-disciplined” philosophy of technology and what that label entails.

As I mentioned, posthumanism attracts my attention–particularly as Francesca Ferrando uses and explains the term (a wonderful paper by her here).  In her work, she notes that humans and technologies emerge and develop together. Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants makes a similar claim. He describes the evolution of technology and argues that humans could not be what we are today without technologies. We humans rely on technologies. Many other animals do as well. Of course, such claims depend on how permissive you are regarding definitions of technology: language as a technology, for instance. Or, provocatively, as one Ferrando writes, evolution as “a technology of existence” (2013, p. 17).

Saying that humans rely on technology is something of a truism. Thinking of humans as technology, on the other hand, requires much more explication. In doing so, I may even talk myself out this phrase and into another one. I am happy about that. My ideas need refreshing/updating (two words I use deliberately, especially as they are imagined in relation to computers and software).

For now, I continue this dialogue with myself and an invented interlocutor: you (where you could be human or nonhuman–an artificial intelligence scanning/crawling this page and making some sense of the language I use). Of course, I also welcome readers who might wish to comment and/or debate these ideas, and I hope they reach out to me via this page or email: williamdavis@vt.edu. I’ll be back tomorrow.

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