What does working on technology mean?

It used to be clear to me. My computer was technology, my desk was not. My cell phone was technology, group meetings were not. Technology was this grand intellectual pursuit that led to new ways to manipulate and control nature. If humanity was on a journey to a better tomorrow, technology literally designed the vehicle that took it there. To me, the epitome of working on technology was writing computer programs, and it was totally unambiguous what “technology” meant. However, that confidence has weakened over the years.

Imagine a programmer leaning back at his desk, cracking open the first can of Mountain Dew for the night. He is trying to decide what he wants his next program to do. He could write a website to organize an online community about his favorite video game. Or, he could explore some fractal geometry by generating the Mandelbrot set. Perhaps, he would settle on a malicious piece of software to satisfy his desire for mischief. If he were living in Silicon Valley, he would make the next great Facebook-killing-gamified-location-based-social-photo-sharing app.

Clearly, the act of being a technologist in this case is not a linear pursuit. That is, there isn’t some scale of progress that is incrementally added to. Furthermore, the values of the technology’s creator guide design; technology reflects the values of its creator.

Is it possible to draw a line between the value-driven part of technology and the objective part of it? Programming is just the process of manipulating symbols to structure a calculation. But is programming working on technology? You can’t do it without first deciding what you’re programming in the first place. What I mean is, it’s impossible to engage in the objective part of technology without first making a decision on the subjective part of it. Technology affords varying degrees of virtue. A bigger bomb kills more people. While a better water filter saves more lives. An optimized machine learning algorithm could be used to find terrorists or help those same terrorists plan their attacks. “innovation is not, of itself, virtuous. The carbon economy is the result of innovation. The financial crisis is the consequence of innovation. The parlous condition of global food systems is the result of innovation.” (Change Observer)

Where does this leave us, the technologists? Are we obligated to get into these questions? Or are we expected to be completely objective puzzle solvers? I suppose every engineer has to come up with their own answer to this. To me, the answer is about opportunity. The understanding that working on technology means more than just making things work reveals that engineers can embed meaning into the world’s mechanical, digital, and built structure.

“Making… an art out of your technological life is the way to solve the problem of technology.”
Robert M. Pirsig, NPR Interview (1974)


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