Technology is often defined as the use of scientific knowledge to solve problems.1 In such a way technology refers to the development of systematic methods for solving some given constraint. The physical technology is then the embodiment of these systematic solutions within a physical form that can then perform the set of stages required to resolve the constraints whenever required. The economist W. Brian Arthur defines technology in a similarly very broad way, as “a means to fulfill a human purpose.”
A technology may be understood as a type of system. In this model, we have a current state A and future desired state B. This could be anything from being on one side of a river (state A), and wanting to get to the other side (state B), or being cold and wanting to be warm, etc. We then have some kind of environmental constraints between states A & B. These environmental constraints generate the problem space that we need to resolve in order to get to state B. Engineering then is the development of an algorithmic process to resolve this problem space, that is to say, a set of steps that need to be performed in order to get to our desired state. Technology is the actual system that performs this process taking us from A to B. In this way, we can then think about technologies as systems, in that they have some input of resources and they perform a function on these inputs in order to produce some desired output.
Although technologies are different from natural systems, as we have noted, we can only properly give them context by understanding them as also an extension of natural processes. Technologies are both a very organic part of human beings and an extension of us. Almost all technologies can be traced back to some initial process that was performed by our unaided natural physiology, whether we are talking about transportation performed originally by walking or telecommunications performed originally by our vocal system.
Through endless iteration of these natural processes and innovation, we have rationalized these processes and embodied them in external automated systems that can typically perform the process more efficiently and effectively. By automated, we mean that through having rationalized this process, we no longer have to look for a solution to it every time. The technology is the solution. We just have to operate it. The word automated means acting by itself, in other words, the technology has automated part of the process. I don’t need to think about how I am going to get to work each day. I simply get in my car and drive. I don’t even need to know how it actually converts the input to the system, that is liquid fuel, into the functional output, that is the function of personal mobility. And I don’t even need to think about it because the technology was designed specifically to automate this process.
All systems operate at some degree of efficiency, and efficiency is a central concept within engineering. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that in this processing of energy or resources, there will always be an increase in entropy. That is to say, whenever we run this technology system it will produce some waste product that either remains in the system, degrading its functionality over time, or gets exported to its environment. When we use a car, only about 14%–30% of the energy from the fuel one puts in a conventional vehicle is used to move it down the road.2 The vast majority is rejected as heat without being turned into useful work, and this entropy must be exported from the system or else it will damage its functioning. This entropy, of course, does not just disappear. The heat, along with other forms of waste such as noise and gas emissions, goes into the system’s environment. From this, we can define the system’s efficiency and begin to reason about its sustainability.
Sustainability is a very abstract concept, but in its essence it describes the relationship between a system and its environment. It is essentially a function of, on the one hand, the volume of resources the system requires coupled with the environment’s stock of resources accessible to the system, and on the other hand, the amount of entropy the system produces combined with its environment’s capacity to absorb that entropy without degrading its capacity to continue providing the system with a future supply of resources.
In trying to overcome some environmental constraint, we also manipulate the environment. We alter it according to our set of instructions. An artificial system is one that is designed according to some set of principles that do not integrate with natural processes, and thus work to disintegrate the natural environment. This might also be called hacking, the re-engineering of a subsystem within a larger integrated system in order to optimize it according to a set of principles that do not integrate with the overall pattern of organization, and thus work to disintegrate the macro system and reduce its sustainability. Optimizing a computer’s processing unit for speed, what is called overclocking, is another example of hacking. We are optimizing a subcomponent and thus breaking or disintegrating the computer’s overall design pattern, which will ultimately work to reduce its long-term functionality and sustainability.
When we talk about sustainability and a technical system within its environment, we are no longer just dealing with the quantitative technical efficiency of the technology. We have to also ask the qualitative question of why we use the technology in the first place. When we run a system, it produces some output. If this output is immediately consumed without becoming the input to a new process, then we can refer to this as dissipation, meaning that the energy is dispersed or scattered, thus increasing entropy and decreasing its capacity to do work. The resource has been used up and is no longer available for work, at least not at the same level of functionality as before. If I use my iPhone to play computer games, the output to this process cannot be used to enable another function. The resources inputted to enable the operation of that technology have been dissipated. Dissipative processes generate entropy and are typically time irreversible. We cannot take the output and go back to feed it in as the input again because it has been degraded during the operation.3 Inversely, the output to this system might be used to fuel another. For example, the processing of crude petroleum within a refinery is required in order to produce the input for a vehicle to transform. This is an example of an anabolic process, that is, one that requires an input of energy in order to refine or synthesize basic resources into resources of a higher quality. The assembly of parts on a production line into a finished product is another example. It requires work to be done, that is to say, the system performing a function in order to produce some throughput of a higher value. The conversion of coal into electricity is another example, as electricity is a much higher quality energy than coal.
With functionality and throughput we get what we call emergence. When we are supported by a system of technologies that are working effectively they enable us to function at a new level of organization. Technology offers the possibility for us to be more productive and live a better quality of life. Infrastructure systems are a good example of this. Unlike consumer goods, the throughput to infrastructure systems like transportation and electrical power networks enables other technologies to function more efficiently. In this way, we get emergence as we move up the different levels to our technological substrate, and thus infrastructure systems that form the base of this can have a powerful leveraging effect, where when you invest one dollar in infrastructure you can get 3 dollars worth of overall economic value back.
New levels of organization to our systems of technology emerge as we go from basic tools to industrial machines to information technologies. When these systems work properly and are abstracted away through encapsulation, we can sit on a high-speed train sipping our coffe, and surfing the web completely oblivious to the many layers of technology that are required to enable this to happen. When we get functionality, throughput and emergence of a multilevel system with everything being properly abstracted away, we can get the smoothly running infrastructure systems like that of Hong Kong or Switzerland. Consumer goods like iPhones and sports cars may be the celebrities of technology, but they are enabled by a multi-tiered infrastructure that makes our globalized world go round.