From the Garden to the City Blog Tour: Definition

from the garden to the city john dyer

[Editor’s Note: This is week five of the From the Garden to the City Blog Tour]

In about two weeks, I’ll be in a room with two women. One of them will be my wife. The other will be the operator of a sophisticated piece of sonar imaging equipment. This sophisticated piece of sonar imaging equipment, which probably has itself thousands of intricate and sophisticated parts put together by machines with equally thousands of intricate and sophisticated parts, will enable me and my wife to find out whether we’ll be having a baby girl in about six months or a baby boy (also in about six months). That baby also has thousands of intricate and sophisticated parts, but I’m not so concerned with her at the moment.

Yes, we’d like a girl.

This operator will share in our deeply intimate moment of joy. Social convention decrees that she will print out a picture from her sophisticated piece of sonar imaging equipment, which we will take gladly, and adhere to our sophisticated food-cooling apparatus. With a magnet. Which isn’t terribly sophisticated, but is terribly useful.

So far, John Dyer, in his chapter on defining technology (helpfully titled “Definition”) will have identified four different levels of technology. Skeptical though you may be, let’s walk though them.

  1. There is “Technology as Hardware.” In our tale, this would be the fact of the machine itself. Generally speaking, though, this would include any man-made object (so, excluding any naturally-occuring objects). E.g., the ultrasound machine is technology; my daughter is not.
  2. There is “Technology as Manufacturing.” For us, these are the thousands of intricate and sophisticated parts, to say nothing of the intricate and sophisticated robots that put those parts together. Since the 17th century, the tools we use, and the tools we use to make tools, have grown increasingly complex. This complexity is inversely proportional to the usefulness of the tool outside of a highly-specialized, vastly inter-connected grid. In isolation, an iPhone would be no more — and in fact a lot less — useful than a simple compass. Connected to global positioning satellites, powered by electricity, and drawing mapping imagery from the Internet, on the other hand, and it’ll tell you where you are, where you’d like to be, and how to get there by car, bicycle, foot, or, one supposes, air balloon (if one so desired).
  3. Then there’s the hidden layer, “Technology as Methodology.” We have to consider the Operator. She, herself, is not technology (see #1 above), but her “knowledge and know-how” (quoting John on p. 62) most certainly is. Were my wife and I to be left alone with the ultrasound, we’d be more likely to go home with a medium-sized chunk of it than a picture.
  4. Finally, there’s “Technology as Social Usage.” Prior to the 1970s, baby showers were not conducted with such an air of inevitability. It is only the advent of the ultrasound that allows a social convention such as finding out the gender of one’s child to develop. That social convention then reinforces the use of the technology itself, but further than simply its use, defines the parameters in which the use is acceptable. And, unacceptable. Surely we all remember the unimaginable faux pas of Tom Cruise purchasing a sonogram for his and his wife’s personal use. No? Let me refresh our memories:

    In a recent television interview for Barbara Walters’ annual show on the year’s most fascinating people, Cruise said he has purchased an ultrasound machine to use during the pregnancy of girlfriend Katie Holmes.

    The horror.

    Ultrasounds, or sonograms, have been widely used during pregnancy since the 1970s. To obtain images of the fetus, obstetricians or technicians — many of whom complete 18 months of training in the practice — use a transducer to send a stream of high-frequency sound waves into the body and detect their echoes as they bounce off internal structures. The sound waves are then converted to electric impulses that are processed to form an image displayed on a computer monitor.

    Sounds complicated.

    In response to Cruise’s personal tech acquisition, the ACR issued a release saying the group supports the view of the FDA that fetal ultrasound be performed only for medical purposes, by certified technologists and with a prescription from a physician.

    And there is the social convention, rearing its ugly head.

In any case, with this more rigorous way of thinking through what technology is, John comes to the definition he will use for the remainder of the book:

The human activity of using tools to transform God’s creation for practical purposes.

So, as John’s chapter closes with an unpacking of the above definition, let my chapter review close with a story illustrating that definition.

You may have heard earlier this week that Facebook introduced a new feature — a new tool — called “Timeline.” The idea being that a static (or mostly static) profile of what job I currently have and where I went to school and who my friends are isn’t nearly a good enough representation of who I am as a person — who I am as God’s creation. Instead, Facebook will aggregate my data into a narrative.

Being that recent scientific research has shown our ability to imagine the future is intimately related to our ability to remember the past, an ability itself determined by the narratives we tell about ourselves, this Timeline tool ought to allow us to transform where and what we imagine for ourselves in the future. Facebook wants nothing less than to illustrate the story of my life with the videos I upload, the updates I type, the albums I create, and the music I listen to.

For what practical purposes?

I deleted my Facebook account yesterday.

[Next week, we review chapter 5: Rebellion]


Tim Ricchuiti

Tim Ricchuiti is ostensibly a writer and educator living in Dallas (he definitely lives in Dallas, so, well, you can do the math). In his spare time, of which he has ever less, he shares his thoughts on tennis, technology, faith, and Apple at The Elaborated.

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    • says


      Thanks for the response! I appreciated your points about how modern technology mostly functions to increase our independence from each other. I’d love to hear what you think of social networks like Facebook and Twitter in light of that phenomenon?


    • says

      I definitely keyed in on the “Tool vs. Product” part of your review. I initially had another section in my review, focusing on the idea of consuming content (cf. this Shawn Blanc post) versus creating content, and what that distinction means in light of things like the iPad. But, you can’t fit everything, I suppose.

      • says

        I totally thought of Shawn’s article too. That’s one of my top favorites.

        Yeah if you don’t choose, you end up with an absurdly long article. And I mean, who would write one of those? Not me… :)

    • says

      Tim: nicely written, btw.

      I guess my issue (and with John as well), is that I’m not a fan of technologies being defined under the “tool” or “practical purposes” rubric. Yes, these are there. But I believe communications technologies (like Facebook), serve a purpose that is remarkably different than a shovel or sonogram. These are Meaning Makers and serve the human function of creating an environment of meaning that involves language, identity, culture, tension, and narrative.

      I’m just saying: you might want to reinstate your Facebook account. (I’ve heard it’s easy). :)

      • says

        Chris, you bring up a good point. I don’t think “meaning making” is restricted to just communication technologies/tools. All human communication serves to negotiate meaning, identity, culture, etc. Thus, I think it’s appropriate to label technologies that aid us in communication as “tools.” They serve the practical purpose of creating and facilitating communication.

      • says

        I don’t think I’ll be re-upping for Facebook. I’m happy enough with my Twitter account. :)

        As far as the distinction between tools, practical purposes, and meaning makers, I guess I just don’t see it. That is, whether we’d like to call Twitter or Facebook something else, there’s no denying that they transform us and our culture, and therefore fall within John’s scope. Now, whether or not John’s scope is too broad is another question. I don’t think it is, particularly for what he’s trying to accomplish, but reasonable people can disagree.

        Thanks for the feedback!

  1. says

    Wow! Great review with an absolutely epic ending! I’ve wanted to delete my FB account for so long but have kept it because it makes communicating with my youth group parents so much easier. Seriously, didn’t see that coming. Excellent. When does the movie come out?

    My much longer and not nearly as epic review is locate here:

    PS: The ending of this post reminded me of this post from earlier today.


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