Defining Technology: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Recently I made a comment about healthcare and technology that I thought was clever. But it turned out I had to explain it. My comment was a takeoff on the question: "If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Dan Formosa

My version went something like "If technology is unusable, is it technology?" Meaning, what good is technology if no one uses it?

Maybe my comment was unclear because the recipient was reading it, as opposed to hearing me say it in person. A sarcastic tone of voice was probably an important element. Maybe the fact that I had to explain it points to the root of the problem. Not everyone puts people at the basis of their technological thinking. In my mind, technology needs to include people. They need to be placed in the definition -- or at least in our interpretation. Technology isn't about the physical device; it's about the ultimate effect it has on the person using it.

In the mid-2000s I helped someone I know analyze results of a survey on design. More than 700 people took part in the study. The single most important discovery in the analysis was that people more closely associated the word "design" with the experience of using a product than with visual qualities. It was something designers had been touting for a very long time, but this was the first indication to our design group that finally, in people's minds, the actual meaning of the word "design" was changing.

Can we now do this with technology?
How long will it be before that word becomes more closely associated with the eventual effect -- not just that a device may work technically, but that it works in actual practice?

My experience is that people's love affair with technology has long been over. When faced with something new many people react cynically as opposed to becoming excited. We've all been disappointed with new technology before, many times over. Maybe it's time for the definition of the word "technology" to change. Or maybe it already has. We just need a new survey.

Focused on medical packaging design and technology?

Dan Formosa, Ph.D.

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