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The human race's use of technology began with the conversion of natural resources into simple tools. The prehistorical discovery of the ability to control fire increased the available sources of food and the invention of the wheel helped humans in travelling in and controlling their environment. Recent technological developments, including the printing press, the telephone, and the Internet, have lessened physical barriers to communication and allowed humans to interact on a global scale. However, not all technology has been used for peaceful purposes; the development of weapons of ever-increasing destructive power has progressed throughout history, from clubs to nuclear weapons.
Technology has affected society and its surroundings in a number of ways. In many societies, technology has helped develop more advanced economies (including today's global economy) and has allowed the rise of a leisure class. Many technological processes produce unwanted by-products, known as pollution, and deplete natural resources, to the detriment of the Earth and its environment. Various implementations of technology influence the values of a society and new technology often raises new ethical questions. Examples include the rise of the notion of efficiency in terms of human productivity, a term originally applied only to machines, and the challenge of traditional norms.
Philosophical debates have arisen over the present and future use of technology in society, with disagreements over whether technology improves the human condition or worsens it. Neo-Luddism, anarcho-primitivism, and similar movements criticise the pervasiveness of technology in the modern world, claiming that it harms the environment and alienates people; proponents of ideologies such as transhumanism and techno-progressivism view continued technological progress as beneficial to society and the human condition. Indeed, until recently, it was believed that the development of technology was restricted only to human beings, but recent scientific studies indicate that other primates and certain dolphin communities have developed simple tools and learned to pass their knowledge to other generations.
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In general technology is the relationship that society has with its tools and crafts, and to what extent society can control its environment. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a definition of the term: "the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area" and "a capability given by the practical application of knowledge". Ursula Franklin, in her 1989 "Real World of Technology" lecture, gave another definition of the concept; it is "practice, the way we do things around here". The term is often used to imply a specific field of technology, or to refer to high technology or just consumer electronics, rather than technology as a whole. Bernard Stiegler, in Technics and Time, 1, defines technology in two ways: as "the pursuit of life by means other than life", and as "organized inorganic matter."
Technology can be most broadly defined as the entities, both material and immaterial, created by the application of mental and physical effort in order to achieve some value. In this usage, technology refers to tools and machines that may be used to solve real-world problems. It is a far-reaching term that may include simple tools, such as a crowbar or wooden spoon, or more complex machines, such as a space station or particle accelerator. Tools and machines need not be material; virtual technology, such as computer software and business methods, fall under this definition of technology.
The word "technology" can also be used to refer to a collection of techniques. In this context, it is the current state of humanity's knowledge of how to combine resources to produce desired products, to solve problems, fulfill needs, or satisfy wants; it includes technical methods, skills, processes, techniques, tools and raw materials. When combined with another term, such as "medical technology" or "space technology", it refers to the state of the respective field's knowledge and tools. "State-of-the-art technology" refers to the high technology available to humanity in any field.
Technology can be viewed as an activity that forms or changes culture. Additionally, technology is the application of math, science, and the arts for the benefit of life as it is known. A modern example is the rise of communication technology, which has lessened barriers to human interaction and, as a result, has helped spawn new subcultures; the rise of cyberculture has, at its basis, the development of the Internet and the computer. Not all technology enhances culture in a creative way; technology can also help facilitate political oppression and war via tools such as guns. As a cultural activity, technology predates both science and engineering, each of which formalize some aspects of technological endeavor.
The distinction between science, engineering and technology is not always clear. Science is the reasoned investigation or study of phenomena, aimed at discovering enduring principles among elements of the phenomenal world by employing formal techniques such as the scientific method. Technologies are not usually exclusively products of science, because they have to satisfy requirements such as utility, usability and safety.
Engineering is the goal-oriented process of designing and making tools and systems to exploit natural phenomena for practical human means, often (but not always) using results and techniques from science. The development of technology may draw upon many fields of knowledge, including scientific, engineering, mathematical, linguistic, and historical knowledge, to achieve some practical result.
Technology is often a consequence of science and engineering — although technology as a human activity precedes the two fields. For example, science might study the flow of electrons in electrical conductors, by using already-existing tools and knowledge. This new-found knowledge may then be used by engineers to create new tools and machines, such as semiconductors, computers, and other forms of advanced technology. In this sense, scientists and engineers may both be considered technologists; the three fields are often considered as one for the purposes of research and reference.
Generally, technicism is an over reliance or overconfidence in technology as a benefactor of society.
Taken to extreme, some argue that technicism is the belief that humanity will ultimately be able to control the entirety of existence using technology. In other words, human beings will someday be able to master all problems and possibly even control the future using technology. Some, such as Monsma, connect these ideas to the abdication of religion as a higher moral authority.
More commonly, technicism is a criticism of the commonly held belief that newer, more recently-developed technology is "better." For example, more recently-developed computers are faster than older computers, and more recently-developed cars have greater gas efficiency and more features than older cars. Because current technologies are generally accepted as good, future technological developments are not considered circumspectly, resulting in what seems to be a blind acceptance of technological development.
Optimistic assumptions are made by proponents of ideologies such as transhumanism and singularitarianism, which view technological development as generally having beneficial effects for the society and the human condition. In these ideologies, technological development is morally good. Some critics see these ideologies as examples of scientism and techno-utopianism and fear the notion of human enhancement and technological singularity which they support. Some have described Karl Marx as a techno-optimist.
On the somewhat pessimistic side are certain philosophers like the Herbert Marcuse and John Zerzan, who believe that technological societies are inherently flawed a priori. They suggest that the result of such a society is to become evermore technological at the cost of freedom and psychological health (and probably physical health in general, as pollution from technological products is dispersed).
Many, such as the Luddites and prominent philosopher Martin Heidegger, hold serious reservations, although not a priori flawed reservations, about technology. Heidegger presents such a view in "The Question Concerning Technology": "Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it."
Some of the most poignant criticisms of technology are found in what are now considered to be dystopian literary classics, for example Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and other writings, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. And, in Faust by Goethe, Faust's selling his soul to the devil in return for power over the physical world, is also often interpreted as a metaphor for the adoption of industrial technology.
An overtly anti-technological treatise is Industrial Society and Its Future, written by Theodore Kaczynski (aka The Unabomber) and printed in several major newspapers (and later books) as part of an effort to end his bombing campaign of the techno-industrial infrastructure.
The notion of appropriate technology, however, was developed in the 20th century (e.g., see the work of Jacques Ellul) to describe situations where it was not desirable to use very new technologies or those that required access to some centralized infrastructure or parts or skills imported from elsewhere. The eco-village movement emerged in part due to this concern.