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Morton Winston's "Children of Invention, Revisited"

Our series of seven formal writing assignments is a developmental exercise designed to improve your analytical reading, writing, and thinking skills. For your first essay, please write a two- to three-page (600-900 word) response to the following questions:

In his final paragraph, Winston lays out an optimistic vision of how individuals in democratic societies can exercise their political rights in ways that help societies to make wise technological assessments and decisions. Your paper should address the first question listed below and--depending on your answer to that question--either the second or the third question:
1.Do you agree with Winston's optimistic political vision? Why or why not?
2.If you disagree with Winston, please explain exactly where Winston gets it wrong – for example, is his optimism naïve or does he fail to consider important issues?
3.If you agree with Winston, please discuss whether--and, if so, to what extent--this sort of constructive political deliberation already occurs in our society?


Children of Invention Revisited
Morton Winston

IF NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER of invention, who is the father, and who, or what,
are invention’s children? Necessity, of course, is a matter of degree: We actually only
need air, water, and food to survive. Shelter, clothing, and a few material possessions are
also nice, as are companionship, affection, security, and several other psychological
goods that we crave as social animals. But we humans learned how to satisfy these basic
biological needs millions of years ago. Why then did we embark on the long journey that
transformed us from cavemen into cosmonauts? What was it that made possible the
ascent from the Stone Age to our present global technological civilization?
Clearly, the leading answer to these questions is superior intelligence. But in what
specific respects is human intelligence superior to that found in other species? Is it our
capacity to learn from observation and experience and to transmit what we learn to
others? Is it our ability to create and use language? Or might it be these two general
cognitive capacities for culture and language, together with our unique ability to
discover new solutions to old problems, better ways of making and doing things? In
short, is it our unique capacity as a species to form science and technology? Coupled
with our needs and desires, which provide the motives that propel us to discover and
invent, our scientific and technological creativity has guided the development of civilization through the development of theories, tools, inventions, and technologies that
have transformed the ways that we live and work.1
For most of us, a world without technology is inconceivable. The inventions that
it has given us are all around us. In fact, most of us spend most of our lives in
completely artificial environments, wrapped in a technological cocoon that provides
us with much more than merely food and protection from the elements. We are so
wrapped up in our technological culture, in fact, that it takes an effort to distance
ourselves from it in order to understand how technology has transformed human
existence from its natural state. Such a historical perspective also helps us see how
contemporary technologies, such as genetic engineering and the Internet, are now
changing us in even more dramatic ways, creating new opportunities for humans to
flourish, new ways of life, and also, in some cases, new social and ethical problems.
These social and ethical issues arising from technological innovation are the ‘‘children
of invention” that this book is about. To understand these issues, however, it is first
necessary to get a clear view of their source—technology.

2 INTRODUCTION • Society, Ethics, and Technology

The word technology is itself of fairly recent coinage; Johann Beckman of Gottingen
first used it in 1789. Its root, techne, is the ancient Greek word for “art,” “craft,” or
“skill,” which itself is derived from an earlier Indo-European root, teks, which means
“to weave” or “to fabricate” (teks is also the root of the word textile). Recent archeological evidence suggests that the weaving of cloth predates the birth of agriculture
and the dawn of civilization, going back to about 35,000 BCE, making it one of the
first technologies. As the etymology suggests, a techne is a method, craft, or skill used
in making things, not the things themselves, which are called artifacts. For instance, a
woven object made from animal hairs that have been twisted together into long
strands, dyed with vegetable colors, and interlaced by a weaver is an artifact. Let’s
say that this object functions primarily as a blanket; a person wraps her- or himself in it
to stay warm. A typical use, or function, of an artifact is called its purpose or end, and
the knowledge of how to gather the fibers, twist them, dye them, and weave them are
the individual techniques that comprise this particular technology. Thus, the core
meaning of the word technology refers to the ensembles of techniques by which humans make artifacts that serve certain useful ends. However, this original meaning is
too restrictive for the contemporary context in which we think about the relationship
between technology and modern society.
As Rosalind Williams (Selection 1.1.4) notes, in recent years there has been an
unfortunate tendency to narrow the definition of technology to contemporary
information-communications technologies (ICTs) such as personal computers, the
Internet, and the digital gadgets advertised in Wired. This way of thinking about
technology is clearly too restrictive; it ignores other areas of contemporary technological innovation, such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, as well as the technologies
of earlier periods, such as the automobile, the steam engine, or the water wheel. When
one ordinarily thinks of technology, what most likely comes to mind are technological
artifacts—the objects, machines, structures, and devices that are the useful end products of technological design. Then, perhaps, one thinks of the less familiar but potentially more impressive machines and industrial processes tucked away in the
factories that manufacture the various gadgets and widgets that we use. Finally, one
might visualize the scientists, engineers, and technicians in white laboratory coats,
hard at work in the laboratories of the Research and Development Division, designing
the next generation of technological devices and processes.
Although it is true that each context through which artifacts come into being—
design, manufacturing, and end use—is a technological context, it is still too narrow a
view to identify technology with only the material culture of designed or manufactured physical objects. We take an even broader view: Technology consists of not only
useful artifacts and the tools and processes needed to produce them but also the entire
social organization of people and materials that permits the acquisition of the knowledge and skills needed to design, manufacture, distribute, use, repair, and eventually
dispose of these artifacts. Technology is not a collection of things but is a systematic
and rational way of doing things; it is, in general, the organization of knowledge, people,
and things to accomplish specific practical goals. 2
Technology includes not only the obvious candidates—the mechanical, structural,
and electronic know-how that directs the purposeful organization of materials—but
also the less obvious invisible technologies that control the purposeful organization of

MORTON WINSTON • Children of Invention Revisited

people and their labor. The mechanical clocks described by David Landes (Selection
1.1.1), for instance, enabled people to coordinate their activities and thus made possible a more productive use of human labor. But clocks and calendars are useful as ways
of measuring units of time—the minutes, days, weeks, months, and the like—that
comprise the invisible technology of time. The monetary system, the banks, and the
stock and commodity markets are technologies for the distribution of economic value
that was once associated with gold coins, then with pieces of paper, currency notes, or
stock certificates, and is nowadays represented by encrypted bits of digital data. The
ideologies of free-market capitalism and centralized planned economies are competing
economic theories about how best to organize social production. Even governmental
systems, ranging from varieties of representative democracy to theocracy and dictatorship, are competing political technologies for managing concerted societal action and
resolving political conflicts. People ask, “Is there a better way to run the government?”
no less frequently than “Is there a better way to design a mousetrap?” Both questions
are requests to find a better technology—that is, to acquire knowledge that enables
one to solve a practical problem.
Contemporary writers often speak of technology as consisting of systems; for
instance, Ruth Schwartz Cowan (Selection 1.1.2) describes the telegraph and telephone, the railroad, the petroleum, and the electrical systems that came about in
the later half of the nineteenth century. Large-scale technological systems are linked
with one another, often in relationships of mutual interdependence; for instance, telegraph wires were strung along railroad rights of way, and railroads came to depend on
the telegraph for scheduling and signaling. Similarly, contemporary ICT systems, such
as the Internet, depend on a great many other technological systems for their creation
and use but then are used by them, creating a matrix of complex interdependencies.
One might think of the entire technosphere—that is, the sum total of all human-created
artifacts together with the enabling knowledge that created it and sustains it—as constituting one giant technological system. However, this definition of the scope of
technology is too broad to be of much practical use. Instead, we will think of technologies as consisting of several distinguishable but interacting aspects: (1) skills, techniques, human activity-forms, or sociotechnical practices; (2) resources, tools, and
materials; (3) technological products, or artifacts; (4) ends, intentions, or functions;
(5) background knowledge; and (6) the social contexts in which the technology is
designed, developed, used, and disposed of. These six aspects are present in every
The first aspect of technology is the human activity-form—that is, the particular
skills, techniques, methods, practices, or ways of doing things. We know that animals
other than humans can make and use tools; for instance, chimpanzees strip branches
off tree limbs to make sticks that can be used for gathering insects. For the purposes of
our characterization of the technological system, we restrict activity-forms or techniques to those employed by human beings. Some human activity-forms employ natural
objects rather than tools to achieve ends; for instance, if one throws a spear in order to
try to kill an animal for food, one is employing a particular technique. But throwing
spears is a primitive and not very useful hunting technique; our technologies for providing our food have improved considerably. Today, there are complex ensembles of
techniques for doing just about everything from planting and harvesting crops to
figuring out the orbit of a moon of Jupiter, from designing a house to conducting a
leveraged hostile takeover, from cooking lasagna to programming a computer to sort


4 INTRODUCTION • Society, Ethics, and Technology
sales data. Such complex techniques represent what is called procedural knowledge, or
more commonly “know-how,” and is contrasted with propositional knowledge, or
“know-that.” Both of these types of knowledge are necessary aspects of technological
systems, but techniques are its essence. Procedural knowledge forms the basis of technology because it provides the patterns for the sociotechnical practices or human
activity-forms that we use to create artifacts of all kinds and to build and maintain
our complex technological systems.
One of the main consequences of technology is to increase our capacity to do
things. Technologies, techniques, and tools extend, enhance, and sometimes even
replace our natural powers such as sight, hearing, muscle, and even memory and
thought. By using tools, we can accomplish things that we could not otherwise achieve
and to do things that we could not otherwise do, thus increasing our repertoire of
human activity-forms. Tools are artifacts at our disposal that can be used to make
other artifacts, but tools, even the dawn stones used by our distant ancestors, are
themselves artifacts that have been transformed from their natural states in some
way by means of human action.
Earth itself is of course not an artifact but has for many centuries been viewed as a
resource well into which we can dip at will in order to satisfy our needs and desires.
Technology requires resources of various kinds as inputs to technological processes,
and by employing specific techniques or human activity-forms, we act on and transform these resources from their original or natural states. Once a built environment has
been created, however, everything in it can serve as a resource to further technological
development. The term infrastructure describes elements of the built environment
that are available to be used to create or apply new technologies. We live on an
increasingly anthropogenic planet, one in which the evidence of the built environment
can be seen from outer space in the form of clusters of light emanating from our major
cities. In fact, if we include the unintended effects on Earth’s atmosphere and climate
caused by anthropogenic global warming, there are very few things on Earth that are
unaffected by human activity.
By acting on either natural or artificial resources, through techniques, we alter
them in various ways and thus create artifacts, which form the third aspect of technologies. A clay pot is an example of a material artifact, which, although transformed by
human activity, is not all that far removed from its natural state. A plastic cup, a
contact lens, and a computer chip, on the other hand, are examples of artifacts that
are far removed from the original states of the natural resources needed to create
them. Artifacts can serve as resources in other technological processes. This is one of
the important interaction effects within the technological system: Each new technology increases the stock of available tools and resources that can be employed by other
technologies to produce new artifacts, forming what Deborah Johnson and Thomas
Powers (Selection 1.3.4) call the artifactual platform.
The fourth aspect concerns the ends or functions of an artifact or technique. Most
artifacts have typical or intended uses, but artifacts can in fact be embedded in multiple
contexts of use or can serve multiple ends, a property that Richard Sclove (Selection
1.2.1) calls polypotency. However, most artifacts have an intended use, or focal function; a toaster, for instance, is designed to lightly burn slices of bread, but it is also
polypotent and can be used as hand warmer or as a murder weapon. There is a double
ambiguity in the relations between artifacts and practices and between ends and practices; the same artifacts can be used to achieve different ends, and different practices

MORTON WINSTON • Children of Invention Revisited

and their associated artifacts can be used to accomplish the same ends. For instance, I
could have written this sentence with a quill pen, a pencil, a ballpoint pen, a typewriter, or a personal computer (PC) running text-editing software (although I used
the last). And I could have used my PC to play an adventure game or calculate my
income tax instead of writing this sentence. Because artifacts are designed and created
to serve certain functions, it is possible to talk about the ends of these objects—that is,
their intended purposes or focal functions even though the objects themselves may
often also be used in ways that were not intended. The term valence is sometimes used
to refer to the typical or conventional uses of artifacts, which may or may not match
their intended purposes.3
The fifth aspect of technological systems is knowledge-that, or factual knowledge
about what the universe consists of and how it operates. To employ our technologies,
we need background knowledge of various kinds: what resources to use and where to
find them, what techniques to employ to fabricate various artifacts, the ends and
purposes that are typically served by various techniques and objects, and how all these
elements fit together in a systematic way. Both knowledge-how and knowledge-that
have always been an important aspect of technologies. However, since the scientific
revolution of the seventeenth century, scientific knowledge—that is, both factual and
theoretical knowledge about the universe and the way it works—has come to play an
increasingly important role in technological development.
The sixth aspect of technology is the social context or organization in which technologies are developed, distributed, and employed. A division of labor in which different individuals perform different tasks or occupy different roles to accomplish
common or coordinated ends characterizes technological societies. The schemes
that we use for organizing human labor represent a kind of technology that can be
applied to the most important resource of all—ourselves. Complex schemes for organizing human activities that have become more or less institutionalized can be called
social artifacts. Examples of social artifacts include the stock market, battalions or
divisions in an army, baseball teams, hospitals, schools, and corporations. In each
case, human resources are organized in a particular way according to a plan or technique involving a division of labor in which different persons occupy different roles,
and their labor is coordinated to accomplish specific sorts of goals. It is important to
understand that technology encompasses not only material artifacts but also social and
organizational forms and even the cognitive techniques that produce the material and
social infrastructure of human civilization. These invisible technologies frequently consist of formal, mathematical, or analytical techniques—for instance, the scientific
method, statistical analysis, or procedures for creating a balance sheet—and many
other specific, high-order thinking skills, which are the content of higher education.
Becoming a scientifically or technologically educated person consists mainly in the
acquisition of a fairly extensive repertoire of such cognitive techniques.
The social and psychological aspects of technological systems are the least obvious
but also the most important. Technology is a human social construction. This is true
in an obvious and straightforward sense when we speak of large technological structures—such as bridges, buildings, or dams, which obviously came into existence only
by the coordination of the activities of numerous individuals—but it is equally true in
the case of the lonely amateur inventor toiling in the attic. Inventions today are rarely
the result of such solitary creativity, but even when they are, the resources and techniques employed and the knowledge by which they are put to use by the inventor are


6 INTRODUCTION • Society, Ethics, and Technology
themselves the products of prior social processes. Even the inventor’s own knowledge
and abilities have been shaped by her education and by the repertoire of cognitive
techniques that she has acquired through education. So, there is really very little, only
the raw materials and the laws of nature, that has not in some way resulted from a
process of social production. Even when an inventor succeeds in inventing something
new, it is still unlikely to be brought into production and placed on the market unless
it has some social value or is of use to other people. So, all technologies must be seen
as embedded in social contexts of development, deployment, and use.
To summarize this discussion, we can define technological systems as the complex
of techniques, knowledge, and resources that are employed by human beings in the creation of material and social artifacts that typically serve certain functions perceived as
useful or desirable in relation to human interests in various social contexts.

The use of technologies to satisfy our needs is a fundamental feature of human nature.
All human societies we know of, both those presently existing and those that existed
hundreds of thousands of years before the dawn of civilization, were technological to
some degree. For almost all of our species’ evolution, we lived in small, nomadic bands
whose main means of livelihood were hunting, gathering, and scavenging. But we
were also toolmakers and tool-users during this long period of human evolution,
and tools were the principal means by which we satisfied our physiological needs for
food, warmth, and shelter. Our hominid ancestors first began chipping stones to make
simple hand tools about 2.5 million years ago. Fire was used as early as 1.5 million
years ago. If Homo sapiens (literally, “man the wise”) is now the dominant species on
the planet, it is in large part because he is also Homo faber (“man the maker”).
Early human societies were organized as hunter-gatherer groups, gathering edible
plants in season and supplementing their diet with the meat or marrow of hunted
animals. Quite likely, these bands of hunter-gatherers were nomadic, following animal
migrations and seasonal food-plant distributions. As with present-day huntergatherers, ancient nomadic societies were severely limited to only those objects that
they could take with them; thus, they tended to develop simple portable technologies
for hunting, gathering, cooking, transportation, and defense. Perhaps surprisingly, life
does not seem to have been especially hard for hunter-gatherers. The secrets of their
success seem to have been populations that did not exceed the food supply, simple and
limited material needs, and the ability to move to another area when the local food
supply ran out. Nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have persisted into the twentieth
century in such diverse environments as the African desert, the tropical rain forest, and
the Arctic tundra. Remoteness might be the key to avoiding conversion to more
technologically intensive ways of life. For the rest of us, our lives now deeply depend
on far-flung and complex technological systems.
About 10,000 years ago, the first great technological revolution occurred in several fertile river valleys of Asia Minor and North Africa. During the agricultural revolution, humans learned how to domesticate animals and to plant, grow, and harvest
crops to sustain their existence. This enabled humans to give up the nomadic lifestyle
and to build permanent cities. Civilization, which means the building of cities, originates at this time, as do morality, law, religion, record keeping, mathematics, astronomy, class structures, patriarchy, and other social institutions that have since come to

MORTON WINSTON • Children of Invention Revisited

characterize the human condition. With the adoption of settled agriculture in the
fertile river valleys, the history of humankind begins. Permanent houses could be built,
tools and objects could be accumulated from year to year, and so humanity began the
long climb toward the collections of miscellany and junk that now clutter people’s
closets, attics, and garages.
Settled agriculture had many advantages and a few disadvantages. The quantity of
food that could be produced per acre was much higher, so population densities could
also be much greater. With permanent dwellings, creature comforts could be made
that did not have to be portable. With larger numbers of people living together,
specialization of activities could take place, and specialists were more likely to find
better ways to do things. Larger concentrations of people could better share and
perpetuate knowledge and band together to cooperate on projects that smaller groups
could not attempt. Thus, we see that even at this early stage of technological development, the organization of people, information, and accumulated resources were
essential aspects of emerging technological societies.
In regions with insufficient rainfall to sustain many crops, it was necessary to
design, construct, and maintain either irrigation canals or aqueducts. There is evidence
of canal irrigation in both Mesopotamia and Egypt as early as the sixth millennium
BCE, and in areas where the topography posed challenges various devices were developed to raise water above its natural level. Some of these devices, such as the noria
used with flowing water, were sophisticated; others, such as the chain-pump used with
still water, were simple, being powered either by animals or humans. Devices of the
latter type are still being used today in some parts of the world. Even with the Nile
River’s normally adequate supply of water for irrigation in Egypt, it was usually necessary to employ technology to direct and control its distribution, making agriculture a
more complex undertaking than originally might be thought.
The disadvantages of settled agriculture sprang from the fact that society had “put
all its eggs in one basket” and had committed itself to living in one place. A settled
society is prey to flood, drought, and insects. Persistent weeds must be removed from
fields before they displace crops. Houses and farm implements must be maintained.
Crop seeds must be gathered and sown. The final product, food, must be harvested,
stored, and distributed. In short, the settled farmer has more but must work hard...

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I do agree Winston’s optimistic political vision because after reading the Children of
Invention it gave me a thought to pounder upon various issues. As Paul says the “Everything
is permissible...

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