Merriam-Webster defines technology as “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area”, “a capability given by the practical application of knowledge”, “a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge”, and “the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor”. There is an inclination to think of technology in terms of physical goods, but such material manifestations are only made possible by immaterial forms of technology. These consist of behaviors, beliefs, and relationships that are used for social organization. This has historically been called social technology, but we will introduce the term immaterial technology to avoid conflation with material technologies that are used for social organization, as has occurred with the former term in recent times.[1,2] Immaterial technologies include (but are not limited to) political power, laws, cultural norms, religions, symbols, decision-taking systems, information transfer mediation, and behavior pattern creation among individuals and groups.[2]

The idea of immaterial technology originated with Charles Richmond Henderson, who referred to it as social science and social art. In his terminology, social science makes predictions, while social art introduces improvements to society.[3] In 1901, he defined social technology as “a system of conscious and purposeful organization of persons in which every actual, natural social organization finds its true place, and all factors in harmony cooperate to realize an increasing aggregate and better proportions of the ‘health, wealth, beauty, knowledge, sociability, and rightness’ desires.”[4] In the 1920s, Ernest Burgess and Thomas D. Eliot broadened this definition to include results from psychology and other social studies.[5,6]

These concepts took on a distinctly Marxist flavor in the 1930s (and have never truly lost it), as both social technology and its intentional use to achieve particular goals, known as social engineering, became associated with the socioeconomic plans of the Soviet Union. The Soviet economist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky defined social technology as “the science of organized production, organized labor, of organized systems of production relations, where the legality of economic existence is expressed in new forms.”[7] Karl Popper criticized the Soviet-Marxist theory and use of social technology. He distinguished piecemeal social engineering, which adopts “the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good,” from utopian social engineering, which seeks “an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship.” According to Popper, the former was democratic while communism and fascism were examples of the latter.[8]

Just like material technology, immaterial technology is often complex. Although immaterial technology can be subject to design, it does not always have a clear inventor, instead being produced by a vast iterative process for which no single person can take credit or blame. In this sense, the development of immaterial technology bears some resemblance to Darwinian natural selection. This necessarily makes it more difficult to understand, but it is vital for any practitioner of statecraft or contributor to political theory to understand the role of immaterial technology because the types available in a particular place or time form part of the boundary conditions within which a civilization located there will develop. Moreover, it is the advance or regress of immaterial technology that determines not only how societies will evolve, but how they can evolve.

To gain a greater understanding of immaterial technology, we will first explore the nature of interaction with technology in general, then apply this to immaterial technology in particular. In Part II, we will examine proper and improper modes of functionality of immaterial technology, explore the concept of social engineering, then consider how to apply immaterial technology toward the purpose of eucivic social engineering.

Levels of Interaction

Let us begin by considering the eight levels of interaction that a subject may have with a particular piece of technology. These can be illustrated by considering various responses to encountering a physical artifact. We will use for this purpose an iconic firearm: the Colt Single Action Army. Designed by William Mason and Charles Brinckerhoff Richards in 1872 and released the following year, it was the United States Army’s service revolver for the next two decades (three decades for the Artillery Model), and has remained popular in the civilian market to this day even though it has been outpaced in terms of performance.[9] Although this is an example of material technology, the same levels apply to the handling of immaterial technology.

First, a technology may be beyond one’s understanding. Consider a snake slithering across the ground who happens upon our revolver. The snake may investigate, but will find no use for it, for a snake is both physically and mentally incapable of using a firearm and understanding its use. Firearms made for humans by humans are simply outside the context of a snake’s ordinary existence. The most primitive response to a technology is to ignore it, and beyond a momentary examination, this is precisely what the snake will do unless it manages to accidentally discharge the firearm.

Second, one may use a technology in a manner inconsistent with its intended purpose. Suppose that our revolver is found by a gorilla. The gorilla will not understand how a firearm is intended to be used, and may not be physically capable of getting its finger into the trigger guard, but it may find that the gun can be smashed into fruits and nuts to crack them open. This is not the function that a revolver is built to perform, but it can serve this purpose. To understand another form of misuse, imagine a small child encountering our revolver. A toddler can fire a gun, but is likely to accidentally kill himself or someone else because he is mentally incapable of handling and using it properly. This form of misuse occurs not because the proper use of the technology is beyond the limits of the user’s abilities, but because the user’s abilities are not yet developed to handle the technology with competence. Misuse in this case is to be understood as inability to understand the proper operation of a technology; technically proper use for evil purposes, such as a criminal using a revolver as a murder weapon, is another matter to be discussed in Part II.

Third, one may be able to use a technology but be unable to repair or replicate it. Suppose our revolver is sent through a time portal to ancient Rome. It is likely that people from this context would figure out how to use the revolver. However, once the ammunition runs out or the gun breaks, they would not be able to keep using it because they did not know how to make gunpowder or manufacture the parts to repair it. Note that one can be at this level in the short-term due to a lack of material resources, in the medium-term due to a lack of knowledge, or in the long-term due to physical or mental limitations.

Fourth, one may be able to repair a technology but not replicate it. Suppose our revolver is sent through a different time portal to a gunsmith of the late 16th century. Matchlock firearms had just been invented[10], but the development of cartridges was still far into the future. A gunsmith from this time could probably repair a Colt SAA if he could figure out the mechanically indexing cylinder, but a user would still be limited by ammunition. Note that the gunsmith of this era may seek to avoid this limitation by re-purposing it as a matchlock revolver rather than a cartridge revolver. Repairs that are technically improper but functionally useful are an important aspect of immaterial technology as well as material technology.

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References:

  1. Leibeseder, Bettina (Jan. 2011). “A Critical Review on the Concept of Social Technology”. Socialines Technologijos/Social Technology: 7–24.
  2. Tamošiūnaitė, Rūta (2018). “Integrated social technologies for citizen participation in modern public governance decision making”, in conference proceedings of The 5th European Interdisciplinary Forum 2017. Bologna, Italy: EDITOGRAFICA s.r.l. p. 28.
  3. Henderson, C. R. (1895). “Review”. Journal of Political Economy, 3(2), 236–8.
  4. Henderson, C. R. (1901). “The Scope of Social Technology”. The American Journal of Sociology, 6(4), 465–86.
  5. Burgess, E. W. (1923). “The Interdependence of Sociology and Social Work”. Journal of Social Forces, 1(4), 366–70.
  6. Eliot, T. D. (1924). “The Social Worker’s Criticisms of Undergraduate Sociology”. Journal of Social Forces, 2(4), 506–12.
  7. Preobrazhensky, E. A. (1926). Novaya Ekonomika. Moscow. Translated by Pierce, Brian (1965); with an introduction by A. Nove, 1st ed. Oxford: Clarendon. p. 55.
  8. Popper, Karl (1945). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Routledge & Kegan Paul. p. 158–9.
  9. “History: The Colt Legend”. Colt’s Manufacturing Company.
  10. 趙士禎 (Zhao Shi-zhen) (1598). 神器譜 (Artifact spectrum).
  11. Walters, Karly (2004). Law, “Terror”, and the Frame-Breaking Act. University of London.
  12. Kiernan, Ben (1997). The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. London: Yale University Press. p. 31–158; 251–310.
  13. Bergin, Sean (2008). The Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide. Rosen. p. 31
  14. Seng Kok Ung (2011). I Survived the Killing Fields: The True Life Story of a Cambodian Refugee. p. 22–6
  15. Niemand, Bastiaan (2018, Nov. 13). “Jugaad Ethics”. Social Matter. https://www.socialmatter.net/2018/11/13/jugaad-ethics/
  16. Polybius (146 BC). The Histories, Book VI.