#70 Abstract thinking for non-philosophers of psychedelic technology
Teaching about Technology: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Technology for Non-philosophers by Marc J. de Vries
I’m researching technological concepts, ways to relate technology matters to readers illiterate or formerly uninterested in such matters for a chapter in my own book. De Vries’s book is written for the non-philosopher technology educator. Since I will teach my future readers a bit about thinking about psychedelic technology, I wanted to know what topics and issues De Vries thought most important to present to educators, that they should be aware of or even teach in their classrooms. He doesn’t cover all possible topics and philosophers of technology and their works (see his great Annotated Bibliography at the back of the book), rather, gives a semi-structured presentation on (1) philosophy of technology in general, and (2) contemporary concerns for teaching about technology in (say) junior high and high school. (I assume technology educators at the bachelor’s degree level would have sufficient education in technology matters if that’s what they’re teaching.)
De Vries brought my attention back to Carl Mitcham’s book, Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. Mitcham has been on my reading list for years, however, I’m not ready to comb through his work until my research goes in that direction of design/engineering philosophy of technology. Anyways, De Vries (2016, 6) uses Mitcham’s system/philosophy for thinking about technology in the first two thirds of the book: technology as objects (finding the essence of artifacts), technology as knowledge (gathering knowledge through technology creation and by using technology), technology as actions (methodological, social, and cultural concerns), and technology as volition (ethics and aesthetics of designing and using technology).
I’ll mention here a couple things that stood out to me when reading the chapters on teaching about technology in the last third of the book. In Chapter 7, De Vries discusses the attitudes toward technology when it comes to boys and girls. Both boys and girls think about technology in an artifact-oriented way, so by the time girls are of age to choose a degree, they are less interested in STEM-focused education tracks. I agree with De Vries that although technology is first and foremost thought about in terms of physical artifacts one can see and touch, what students don’t realize is that there’s more to technology than its structure and function; there are many social issues and impacts directly tied to technology use. Girls in particular, and the women they will become, are not made aware at a young age that there’s more to technology than the design, engineering, and maths of a thing; there are also human and social factors that are directly tied to the thing’s use that they might be interested in studying. Related to my own projects, I noticed that Spotify and other analytics tell me that males are more interested in my podcast and website over women by two to one, especially from the age range mid 20s to early 30s. I would love to know whether social scientists have looked at what gender and age range is more interested in psychedelics and why.
Another De Vries (2016, 106-110) comment that caught my attention was when he said it’s difficult to teach abstract concepts to students unless they had already been exposed to abstract thinking. Teaching students abstract concepts directly or slowly introducing concrete concepts and then transferring that knowledge to abstract concepts doesn’t seem to work, according to De Vries. He suggests “to make pupils encounter one and the same concept in different contexts, so that they can gradually develop the abstract notion by differentiating between the context-independent and the context-dependent properties (as in the chameleon analogy).” Just as a chameleon changes color depending on its environment, students could be taught to take an artifactual concept, and place it in different scenarios to develop abstract notions of the same thing in different contexts. Educators can start with technologies children already use and are familiar with like bicycles, computers, home gaming consoles, or eating utensils. (Sidenote: the first course paper I wrote within the context of philosophy of technology was about something most people take for granted: the fork!) The educator could make a whole course just on the topics of bicycles using Mitcham’s conceptualization of technology that children can understand, discussing the history of bicycle innovation, what bicycles are used for (playing, cruising, delivering newspapers, transportation, etc.), what bicycles might be used for, planning cities around different modes of transportation, bicycles used in warfare, etc., etc. (The reader might consider looking at Pinch & Bijker’s  analysis of the social construction of bicycles, for example.)
The reason I bring this up, and one of the points I’m going to speak about in my book, is how might we conceptualize psychedelics within the context of technology. By teaching children and young adults how to consider a technology in different contexts, they begin to think more abstractly which has a trickle-down effect in considering the spectrum of possibility for whatever field they enter. I love the abstract exactly because it’s fuzzy, there’s room to think of something new, make a new connection, or re-mix (like a sort of conceptual DJ) two different ideas to see what the mind bears. Many years ago, for example, I read a classic book on screenwriting called Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. I’m reminded of one particular ah-hah moment when McKee (1997, 186-189) speaks about the film Alien (1979): the film is indeed about aliens, but what the screenwriter does is fuse seemingly two impossible-to-connect ideas, namely, space and truckers. Yes, 18-wheel-driving truckers, but in space. Crew members have the same conversations at the beginning of the film as would any terrestrial trucker. Watch the film (again) and you’ll see what I mean.
The point I’m making is that in order to make sense of the abstract, to give it form that we can understand, we often have to make new connections by comparing one thing to another through metaphor or analogy. Additionally, one would have to want to do this kind of thinking and in my opinion few people want to or enjoy it. I think it takes a philosophical personality or some other personality trait that finds abstract thinking fun. In sum, I really enjoyed De Vries’s book because it made me think what basics a non-philosopher technology educator would need to know, according to a practicing philosopher professor of technology, and how his example/author choices might inform my own work.
De Vries, M. J. (2016). Teaching about Technology: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Technology for Non-philosophers (2nd ed.). Springer.
McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. ReaganBooks.
Mitcham, C. (1994). Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. The University of Chicago Press.
Pinch, T. J., & Bijker, W. E. (1984). The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other. Social Studies of Science, 14(3), 399-441.