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The Story Of Technology

2015 September 20

Every age is defined by its technology.  The stories of Dickens wouldn’t have been possible without the steam engine and the industrial revolution it brought about.  For that matter, neither would the those of Vanderbilt or Carnegie. And what would the 20th century have been like without the internal combustion engine and electricity?

Yet we often miss the fact that stories drive technology as well.  Steve Jobs, quite famously but not uniquely, believed that the humanities and technology are deeply intertwined and the power of story has a lot to do with it.  Technology, after all, doesn’t live in a vacuum but co-evolves with mankind.

That’s why can’t truly understand technology without thinking about the stories embedded in it and those of people who use it.  Also, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, innovation often relies on our ability to tell those stories well. Technology, when properly understood, is far more than a collection of soulless artifacts.

Revealing The Potential Of Technology

World War II made clear the destructive potential of technology.  As deadly machines ravaged Europe and bombs of unimaginable power exploded in Asia, the whole planet was engulfed in a maelstrom of human design.  It seemed that the technology we had built had become a global version of the Frankenstein monster, ready and able to turn on its master.

Yet the German philosopher Martin Heidegger saw things differently,  In his 1954 essay, The Question Concerning Technology he described technology as akin to art, in that it reveals truths about the nature of the world, brings them forth and puts them to some specific use. In the process, human nature and its capacity for good and evil is also revealed.

He gives the example of a hydroelectric dam, which uncovers the energy of a river and puts it to use making electricity.  In much the same sense, Mark Zuckerberg did not “build” a social network at Facebook, but took natural human tendencies and channeled them in a particular way.  After all, we go online not for bits or electrons, but to connect with each other.

I’ve always found this an incredibly useful way to approach technology and innovation because it highlights the importance of understanding not just the mechanisms of technology, but the basic forces that it brings forth.  To truly internalize those forces, we must first unlock the stories embedded in technology.

Unlocking The Stories Embedded In An iPhone

The story of Steve Jobs cannot be separated from that of the iPhone.  Just as anthropologists dig up artifacts to understand ancient civilizations long lost to history, to comprehend the true nature of Steve Jobs you would have to know something of iPhones.  It would also be hard to fully appreciate an iPhone without knowing anything about Steve Jobs.

Yet it is not just the Steve Jobs story that is embedded in the iPhone, but countless others as well.  There is, for instance, the stories of Maxwell and Faraday, who revealed the forces of electricity and that of Claude Shannon who uncovered the nature of information. There is also von Neumann, Shockley, Engelbart and on and on.  Far too many stories to tell here.

These stories bring forth others.  Von Neumann’s love for parties and reckless driving. Shannon’s financial acumen, Engelbart’s Mother Of All Demos, Shockley’s repulsive personality and beliefs which led, albeit indirectly, to the ascendance of Silicon Valley as a tech mecca.  It’s a rich tapestry and we all carry it around in our iPhones without thinking very much about it.

Of course, you don’t need to know these stories to use an iPhone and get along perfectly well. But as you weave your way through the maze of stories embedded in an iPhone, you gain new appreciation and begin to see new possibilities.  It is through learning the stories of technology that new chapters are written.

Theories of The Case

While the iPhone tells stories of things that have already happened, other types of stories represent “theories of the case” that can change the future.  As an immunologist, James Allison was fascinated by the story of how our immune system fights infection and spent his career learning its nuances.  Yet he also imagined possibilities to write new chapters.

It seemed to him that if there are molecules that trigger the immune response to switch on, there may be others that switch it off.  If so, he reasoned, cancer cells might shutting off the immune response, rendering our bodies incapable of fighting the disease.  Allison had lost many family members to cancer, so this story was an intensely personal one.

Allison found the hero of his story when French researchers discovered a protein receptor on the surface of T-cells called CTLA-4, which Allison soon identified as the “off switch” he was looking for.  He used the story to devise a strategy called “checkpoint blockade” that has become one of the most promising forms of cancer immunotherapy.

In 2013, Science magazine designated cancer immunotherapy as its breakthrough of the year, but the story is still incomplete.  Although there have been some truly miraculous results from the work of Allison and other researchers, extending the life of some of the most terminal patients seemingly indefinitely, many patients receive little or no benefit from it.

Yet that just means that some parts of the story have yet to be revealed.  As Mario Livio explains in Brilliant Blunders, even the stories of our greatest geniuses are sometimes found wanting, yet there is still enormous value in telling them clearly and well. That’s how we find our way to better stories that reveal greater truths.

The Intersection Of Humanity And Technology

The relationship between technology and story can seem strained and esoteric, the kind of thing you tell a kid that can’t do his math homework to make him feel better about himself. Yet as Walter Isaacson explained in his Jefferson lecture, the theme is a recurring one in a long line of innovators ranging from Ben Franklin to Ada Lovelace to, yes, Steve Jobs.

We don’t revere Steve Jobs because he “made” technology, but for what he revealed that no one else saw. While others would see features, he saw stories about the people who use technology. His story about “1000 songs in your pocket,” for example, became the iPod and changed the fate of Apple.  For him, the power of story was central, not ancillary.

We can further understand the relationship between technology and story through another Heidegger essay called Building Dwelling Thinking, where he makes the almost tautological—but not quite obvious—point that to build for the world you must first understand what it means to live in it.  Stories are how we make sense of what we encounter in the world.

And that, I think gets to the heart of the matter.  Technology, when properly understood, is far more than the product of algorithms, microscopes, test tubes and other apparatus, but the revealing of truths in the service of human life.  And so, the endeavor can only reach its highest level with humans—and their stories—at its center.

That is the true story of technology.

– Greg

6 Responses leave one →
  1. September 20, 2015

    Thank you Greg. Yes, it takes a story because this is how most people learn or accept. Not everyone wants to know, or can understand the technical. Stories help in decision, or to differentiate. Stories are what we tell ourselves and each other to validate our decisions. This is why marketing needs to focus on storytelling now more than ever. This is also why thinking of the story needs to start along with the development of the idea, product or service.

  2. September 20, 2015

    Good points. Thanks Robert.

    – Greg

  3. Adam permalink
    September 28, 2015

    Surprised at how many typographical errors made it through to publication of an article on technology and humanities :). I counted four..

  4. September 28, 2015

    It’s helpful when you point them out. When you don’t, it’s just snarky.

  5. September 30, 2015

    Great piece, Greg. Just a note, that it’s “Ada” Lovelace, not “Ava.” Ada Lovelace day is coming up in a couple weeks – as is her 200th birthday in December.

  6. September 30, 2015

    Thanks Steve. Fixed now:-)

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