Of Machines and Metaphors

In a recent lecture, Professor Alistair Macdonald posed to us the question “Does technology define humanity?”

In order to explore this we must first define the two terms.  Technology is defined as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, particularly in industry.  Humanity, on the other hand is much harder to define and throughout history this definition has definitely changed in society’s point of view. One reason for this is the adoption of certain human characteristics into technology, but more on that later.  Personally, I think of being human as the ability to think for the sake of thinking and create for the sake of creating.  I think that our drive to create art purely for the sake of pleasure is what sets us apart from the rest of nature but will technology one day hold these abilities too?

Portrait of Edmund Bellamy, generated by an AI algorithm and sold at Christie’s for $432,500 in 2018.


An interesting way of breaking the question down is by asking: does what we make define how we think?  There are examples throughout history of discoveries about ourselves and our surroundings that have been made based on other technological advances.  For example, it was the invention of clocks that sparked the idea that the planets might operate in concentric orbits and it wasn’t until fire pumps were developed that humanity understood the function of the human heart.  These examples suggest that we often require metaphors based the technology that we create in order to understand ourselves or the world around us therefore suggesting that technology defines our human understanding.

As well as this, we can see technology taking on more and more characteristics that we previously thought could only be attributed to human. For example, reason, logic, language and learning.  Not only the adoption of these characteristics but the rate at which they are developed in comparison to human evolution definitely raises questions about how developed technology will become and whether one day, the line between ourselves and technology may become very blurred. Along this train of thought we could, eventually, get to a stage where technology begins re-engineering humanity rather than the other way round.  The pace of technological advancements definitely has it’s pros and cons, benefits to us now are obvious however the negative side of this is that we increasingly don’t have time to adjust our culture and institutions to this advanced technology creating a potentially unstable society.  Without the time to work out how to safely manage and monitor the extent to which technology influences our lives, the more dangerous it could become. For example, I can definitely envision a world where conflict occurs over the views of whether or not we should be genetically engineering our babies to escape illnesses or whether we should all be constantly watched and recorded to reduce the hassle of the justice system in the case of crime.

In a previous blog post I discussed the topic of biohacking which I think is incredibly relevant here. Biohacking is a very broad term however it often entails modifying the human body with the use of technology.  Individuals who have altered their senses of perception through technology such as a magnet in their chest that allows them to constantly detect magnetic north are definitely at the current forefront of how humans and technology can interact with each other. In these cases I think it would be very easy to argue either side of the question are they defining their technology? or is their technology defining them?

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

This quote from Marshall McLuhan sums up this discussion really well.  I think that our ability to think consciously and therefore create technology means that we are intrinsically intertwined.  Although sometimes technology defines us, we ultimately create and define technology (in today’s world at least).  I don’t think that being defined by technology necessarily is a negative thing but at the point we are at now in technological advancements, I think it is important for us to be creating technology that builds better lives and environments for ourselves rather than trying to turn ourselves into computers or vice versa.






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