One of the common themes in modern anthropological theory, or what passes for theory in anthropology, is the issue of praxis. Building in a praxis element into a theory seems to signal that there are really practical effects of knowledge upon lives, upon social relations and upon the physical world. But the trouble is, if you don't split the mind off from the body -- the mental from the physical, the cultural from the natural, nurture from nature -- there is really no need to accentuate praxis at all.

As should be abundantly clear by now in the course of these discussions, biogenetic structuralism refuses to split the mind off from the body, and has gone to great extremes to counter the pernicious effects of mind-body dualism on anthropological theory. I want to carry this further now by discussing the issue of technology relative to neurophenomenology and anthropology. In order to do this effectively, I want to review for you our earlier discussion in Day Two of the role of behavior relative to experience. This is important, because as will become clear, technology may best be understood as an extension of action in the world, rather than as processes apart from human experience and neurocognitive processes.


According to the view by William T. Powers in his book, Behavior: The Control of Perception , behavior is an integral part of a feedback loop by which we affect changes in the world so that the experiences we desire occur and the experiences we want to avoid go away. Behavior thus produces negative and positive feedback which operates to attain, and then to perpetuate the object of perception and to control responses to disturbances that might otherwise detract from that object. Behavior is thus a phase of intentionality and is an exercise of motor control over the state of consciousness. I turn my head and body so that I see what I want to see. And I maintain the muscle tone, orientation, posture and activity required to keep what I want to happen in my sensorium happening.

This feedback loop is not passive, but rather feeds forward into the world so that the world that arises in my sensorium is the world I anticipate. I act beforehand in anticipation of the world I expect to be there. In this way, behavior participates in a feedback test of my models of the world. The intentional nature of the cognized environment is anticipatory in its function, and feedback from the world completes the cycle of confirmation or disconfirmation of my models.

And just as is the case with causation discussed in an earlier Tangent , people will adumbrate behavior and conceptualize it and then reify the concept of behavior as though it were distinct from its phenomenologically real context. Disassociating behavior from the neurocognitive models that direct the motor processes of the body is just one more manifestation of mind-body dualism.


What I want to show you here is that technology is essentially a special case of the symbolic function involving both activity in the operational environment ("praxis," or physiological fulfilment and expression) and feedback about effects upon the operational environment (physiological evocation; remember our discussion of the fulfilling, expressive and evocative aspects of the symbolic function in Day Five ?).

This should be a fairly straightforward task, considering the root meaning of the term "technology." After all, the word derives from the Greek root for the "art," "skill" and "method" involved in doing something -- a meaning that is obviously focused upon knowledge. Through this root, technology is related to other words in English like tectonic, architect, technician, technicism, all of which involve method or knowledge about accomplishing something.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion over the proper meaning of "technology" in the anthropological literature of today. In its most restricted and commonplace usage, the term technology simply refers to tools and tool-use. In its broadest sense the term, and its concomitant terms "technique" and "technical," may refer to any attention to procedure in accomplishing some practical end. Robert Spier, while acknowledging its broader sense, chooses in his book, From the Hand of Man (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), to restrict himself to the most narrow and materialist usage of the term: "Technology" is used in this study to refer to the means by which man seeks to modify or control his natural environment. Excluded are the magico-religious means by which he may seek the same ends. It is tempting to confine technology to "rational" means, but this is best avoided when we are unable to examine others' rationalities. It should be noted here that technological pursuits may have their magico-religious aspects, but these are auxiliary to an avowedly technical approach. (Spier 1970:2)

For Spier, as for many anthropologists, a clear distinction between things physical (or natural) and things having no clear physical nature seems to make perfect sense. By way of contrast, A.F.C. Wallace in his classic text, Religion: An Anthropological View (New York: Random House, 1966), uses a much broader meaning of technology to include aspects Spier would consider as "magico-religious;" for example: Technological rituals are rituals intended to control various aspects of nature, other than man himself, for the purpose of human exploitation. There are two obvious and ubiquitous kinds of technological ritual: divination and hunting and agricultural rites of intensification. Ritual that aims to extract useful information from nature is called divination. Ritual that purports directly or indirectly to control the availability and fertility of game..., of flocks and herds, or of wild and cultivated vegetable crops is called rites of intensification. We may also add a third category: protective rituals, intended to prevent or avoid a diversity of ills or disasters.... (Wallace 1966: 107-108)

Yet even in Wallace's account there is a taxonomic distinction being made between those things of a physical nature and those of a non-physical nature.


As Martin Heidegger (1977; see also Ellul 1980, Ihde 1983) has pointed out, restricting our understanding of the concept "technology" to tools, tool-use, or even practical, tool-like rituals, will result in our failing to get at the full essence of technology.

In biogenetic structural theory this essence has to do with the relationship between the respective organizations of the cognized and operational environments -- the latter including both the being producing the cognized environment and that being's world. Because they are two aspects of the same organism, both have evolved through time, as have the relations between them.

And this co-evolution of the cognized and operational environments is evidenced in artifacts that are the material transformations of the external operational environment used to open up, control, exploit, fertilize and otherwise extend the explorations and adaptations possible given the limitations of the unaided motor and sensory facilities of the human body. These artifacts -- these material transformations -- are the artifacts of knowledge, the material fulfilment and expression of cognized environments of individuals in various societies and at various points along the course of hominid evolution.

In the fulfilling mode an artifact may facilitate the occurrence of desired sensory events; for example, a spear brings down a deer. In the expressive mode an artifact may operate as a symbolic mechanism; for example, a signal flag is used to send a message. The same artifact may operate in both modes simultaneously; e.g., a physician's stethoscope may fulfil the physician's desire to hear the heartbeat, and be a symbol of the physician's status for the patient. And in every case there is an evocative mode to the interaction in that the artifact is perceived and is meaningful prior to and during its use. It is this technical interaction between the cognized and operational environments (both internal and external) that is facilitated and expressed by material transformations in the external operational environment -- transformations that we normally refer to as technology.

Orientation toward the processes of interaction -- the processes of technically augmented behavior-perceptual feedback we call technics -- rather than merely toward the material artifacts per se, will allow us to show:

That treating artifacts as if they are the essence of culture is an exercise in misplaced concreteness,
That artifacts are both the fulfilment and the expression of cognitive competence,
That language and technology evolved in tandem as two media for the manipulation and control of the operational environment,
That technology through much of human evolution has been an existentially empowering process, but for much of modern humanity has become a disempowering process,
That technologies also exist to produce transformations in the being, and
That the technological process influences the way in which individuals come to cognize themselves.

A crucial point made by Don Ihde in his book, Existential Technics , is that it is not possible to reorganize our world without transforming our own being as well. This is because we interpret ourselves in our interaction with the world. Let us recall once again that a principal role of behavior is the control of perception such that the desired aspects of the cognized environment do in fact arise within the sensorium. Thus, an important dimension of self-interpretation is the sense of power, or mastery, that we develop in matching sensorial events against anticipated outcomes of our actions. Humans have s central need for mastery. And technics is on about extending our sense of mastery in the world.

Of course, insofar as we interact with the world through the medium of technology, and insofar as we dwell within the context of an operational environment that has been transformed by technology, we thereby technologize ourselves. Central to my understanding and use of technics is the sense of human action engaged with, through, among concrete artifacts or material entities. I wish to retain a "hardware" reference for technology and yet not as some objectified realm apart from human action and interaction. ...I wish to underline even more clearly an aspect of the human response to our use of artifacts, hence existential technics. Existential technics, then, is the focus upon our experiential involvement with our own creation, technology. (Ihde 1983: 1)

There are both developmental and transcendental repercussions to any technology -- developmental in the feedback effects upon our neurocognitive growth, as well as how the culture reproduces itself in its young, and transcendental in the fact that there are always unintended consequences of the application of technologies. [Click here for a Tangent exploring the nature and the evolution of cyborg consciousness .]

Both the developmental and the transcendental repercussions of technological adaptations are evident enough in the ethnographic literature of preindustrial peoples. Hunter- gatherers are quite different in personality type and social identity than among horticultural peoples. They view themselves differently, organize their societies differently, view the cosmos differently. So too are pastoral peoples distinct. As Ihde suggests, the technological stance taken by a people will influence the way they interpret both themselves as agents in the world and events in which they become involved in the world.

The overwhelming sense one gets from reading many ethnographies is that technology is largely empowering in the experience of traditional peoples. The canoe building technology of the Trobriand Islanders gives them a sense of mastery over the multitudinous forces in the world so as to assure a successful expedition across the sea.


Considering our own Euroamerican cultural tradition, the dual aspects (development and transcendence) of technological intervention in the operational environment have become very dramatic during the past couple of centuries with the industrial revolution and its consequences. Indeed, so prevalent has technology become in our lives that most of us live within a thoroughly "technological world," and via reflexive feedback into our cognized environment, within a "technological society" and "technological conception of self."

Yet technology is not very empowering for many of us in the sense it has been for preindustrial peoples. In fact it is generally disempowering for the common man, and this influence of modern technology upon our society and our consciousness has raised alarm in certain quarters. Jacques Ellul (1980) has taught that the condition is not merely one of mind relating to machine, but rather a human developing within a technological world already in place. Much of this enculturation centers upon values and skills requisite to serving a world and society that has come to evaluate effort solely upon the criteria of efficiency and material practicality.

Education for "technological humanity" is oriented towards producing technicians who are becoming ever more specialized in their occupations. Such individuals come to perceive themselves as competent only within the narrow confines of their specialties, but as disenfranchised, ignorant and helpless within the greater sphere of their lives. Technicians come to rely upon other technicians whose proficiencies are outside the limited purview of their own sense of competence to carry out the technologically loaded interactions requisite to their life styles. This dependence upon technical expertise pervades every realm of experience.

Though it may seem to you pretty cynical on my part (but read Robbie E. Davis-Floyd, Birth as an American Rite of Passage . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), we are born by the grace of obstetrics and die in the hands of palliative care and mortuary science, and in the interim we are conditioned to adapt to a pervasive technological world. In Ellul's own words: This influence is a lot greater than that of school or work. The technological system contains its own agents of adjustment. Advertising, mass media entertainment, political propaganda, human and public relations -- all these things, with superficial divergences, have one single function: to adapt man to technology; to furnish him with psychological satisfactions, motivations that will allow him to live and work efficiently in this universe. The entire mental panorama in which man is situated is produced by technicians and shapes man to a technological universe, the only one reflected toward him by anything represented to him. Not only does he live spontaneously in the technological environment, but advertising and entertainment offer the image, the reflection, the hypostasis of that environment. (Ellul 1980: 213)

Accepting Ellul's depiction of the essentially disempowering effects of technological society, George Grant (1969, 1980) -- arguably Canada's greatest modern philosopher -- carries the alarm further with specific reference to English- speaking culture: For those who stay within the central stream of our society and are therefore dominant in its institutions, the effect of nihilism is the narrowing to an unmitigated reliance on technique. Nietzsche's equivocation about the relation between the highest will to power and the will to technology has never been a part of the English speaking tradition. With us the identity was securely thought from the very beginning of our modernity. Therefore as our liberal horizons fade in the winter of nihilism, and as the dominating amongst us see themselves within no horizon except their own creating of the world, the pure will to technology (whether personal or public) more and more gives sole content to that creating. In the official intellectual community this process has been called "the end of ideology." What that phrase flatteringly covers is the closing down of willing to all content except the desire to make the future by mastery, and the closing down of all thinking which transcends calculation. Within the practical liberalism of our past, techniques could be set within some context other than themselves -- even if that context was shallow. We now move towards the position where technological progress becomes itself the sole context within which all that is other to it must attempt to be present.

We live then in the most realized technological society which has yet been; one which is, moreover, the chief imperial centre from which technique is spread around the world. It might seem then that because we are destined so to be, we might also be the people best able to comprehend what it is to be so. Because we are first and most fully there, the need might seem to press upon us to try to know where we are in this new found land which is so obviously a "terra incognita." Yet the very substance of our existing which has made us the leaders in technique, stands as a barrier to any thinking which might be able to comprehend technique from beyond its own dynamism. (Grant 1969:40)

Grant argues that the influence of modern technology upon the consciousness, and culture that conditions it, is transformative (i.e., is a positive feedback loop) in a way that is antithetical to the tacit values that made the original social consciousness requisite to science and democracy possible.

In particular it is the distinctive sense of justice that has marked English-speaking culture for centuries, and that is in peril from the unintended effects of technological society. The same system of values produced both this sense of justice (essentially the attitude that human rights are ontologically prior to culturally conditioned or ideological points of view), and the free and individuated scientific intellect. Yet the modern byproducts of science, such as mechanistic conceptions of the world and of ourselves, heavily technologized life-styles, automated production processes, vast depersonalized data bases and bureaucratized social institutions, produce transcendental changes in that system of values in service of those byproducts and against our traditional sense of freedom of inquiry and political justice.

As both Ellul and Grant have noted, these unintended consequences of the process of technologizing culture only operate in a detrimental way so long as they remain unconscious to us as actors in the play. The values and other components of social consciousness at risk are so basic that they are largely tacit to awareness. They are thus vulnerable to change without our being aware that they are changing. Indeed, we may well become aware of these components only when they have eroded away beyond recovery.

However, relevating the essential processes of technics into consciousness may ameliorate their more negative influence upon our cultural values. Of course awareness of the transcendental and developmental consequences of modern technics will not stop the culture change, nor will it cause us to technologically regress. But awareness may allow facilitation of an alternative organization of social consciousness and social relations so as to retain both the unique level of individuation upon which optimal science depends and the realization of freedom and empowerment upon which justice depends.

What is necessary in part to increase this self-awareness is an educational curriculum geared as much to the development of awareness of fundamental values as it is to the inculcation of technological/bureaucratic skills. At the core of this curriculum should be training in self-awareness and the empowering effects of an active exploration of our own way of life. My impression over the years has been that it takes but a slight elevation of awareness to see that there are many, and perhaps better ways to evaluate events and projects than whether or not they are efficient, lucrative and practical.

To end this session on a positive note, there are encouraging signs that our modern society seems to be entering an era of greater self-reflection and environmental awareness, and it is hoped that by exercising this enhanced and critical awareness we may yet conserve those values upon which future generations will depend for a continuation of scientific exploration and personal freedom.

We have reached the end of another session. There are some references you might want to consult below. You may wish to carry on to Day Ten of the tutorial, or return to the tutorial index .


Ellul, Jacques (1980) The Technological System. New York: Continuum.

Grant, George (1969) Technology and Empire. Toronto, Canada: House of Anansi.

_____ (1980) English-Speaking Justice. Toronto: Anansi.

Heidegger, Martin (1977) "The Question Concerning Technology." in Basic Writings (trans. by D. Krell). New York: Harper and Row.

Ihde, Don (1983) Existential Technics. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.