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Thinking About Technology

Thinking About Technology
Joseph Pitt

It is often said that in the classroom, there are no stupid questions. While this is no doubt meant to buoy the self-esteem of the inquisitive student, the statement is sadly false. There most certainly are stupid questions. In particular, there are questions which are badly formed or badly directed, such that no possible answer could be of use. This is not to say that no possible answer can be given (for there are always a host of stupid answers available for any given stupid question), just that none of the stupid answers get us any closer to understanding the topic at hand. At best, they waste time and distract us from the issues that matter, and at worst they provide barriers to learning by allowing us to think that we’ve arrived at “the truth of the matter.” An ambitious student of philosophy could rewrite nearly all of the history of philosophical inquiry into a massive multi-volume set entitled A History of Stupid Questions. Volume one could be entitled Definitions: The Blind Persuading the Foolish. It would contain depressing accounts of philosophers engaging in Abbott-and-Costello style verbal slapstick, chasing their tails in pursuit of essential definitions for concepts that have no essential qualities.

In the preface to Thinking About Technology, Joseph Pitt creates the impression that he will engage in no such tomfoolery. He says that there is no sense (and potentially great danger) in talking about “Science” and “Technology” writ large as if they referred to discernible and definable objects; the complexity and diversity of the objects and activities contained within our notions of those two words stymie any attempt to talk about them in broad terms. Pitt advocates instead speaking of particular technologies or particular sciences. So far, so good. This pragmatic inclination is one with which I can agree, and makes an enormous amount of sense.

Sadly, Pitt ends up abandoning what seemed like a perfectly seaworthy ship when he starts asking questions like “What is/are the structure(s) of technological theories?” and “What is the nature of technological change?” He seems to take it as given that these were good questions to ask about science (an assumption which I find profoundly dubious), therefore they must also be good questions to ask about technology. The phrasing of the question seems to imply that there is “a nature” of technological change, or some common structure or set of structures of technological theories. Given the author’s self-professed pragmatism, it seems that it should follow that the consideration of these questions as important should be the result of some requirement that the possible answers have (useful) pragmatic consequences. What these consequences are, we aren’t told; neither can my admittedly practical mind imagine what they might be. If these questions remain unsolved (per Pitt’s own example of the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”), then what will we have lost? Or what will we not have gained that would have served us toward some useful end?

And so my concern might be summarized as follows: Pitt makes a great deal of sense until he starts to sound like a philosopher. While his topic may intuitively interest those afore-mentioned tail-chasing purveyors of verbal slapstick, actual human beings (including scientists and technicians) are given little reason to care. This strikes me as both shameful and needless. There may indeed be a good pragmatic reason to consider questions like “What is the structure of technological explanation?”, but nowhere are we told what that reason might be. There are nuggets of fascinating empirical information here, and brilliant case studies that illustrate specific points quite nicely. Unfortunately, they fall short of providing a sound basis for considering the philosophical thread as a whole, or shedding light upon the “big picture” questions such as those mentioned above. Were Pitt to remain true to his preface, realize that such “big picture” questions are almost always overly-simplistic (and ultimately stupid), and instead provide some other pragmatic justification for the linkage of the anecdotal elements, Thinking About Technology would be a stronger text, and one which would appeal to someone other than the Abbott-and-Costello tail-chasers within the ranks of philosophy.

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