Artefacts, technology and nature

Field in Norfolk: This is an artefact that we casually think of as natural.


Thinking of value and significance as qualities deriving from human appreciation, we realize that there is a difference in the way we appreciate natural and man-made things. There is also an intrinsic difference between natural and man made things and an acknowledgement and an understanding of this difference is fundamental to our exploration of design quality.

Considering natural phenomena, whether we believe in God or not, we must accept the evidence that science has laid before us, which tells us that the natural world we currently experience is the result of physical law and evolutionary process acting over millions of years. These, science tells us, are the two fundamental generators of natural phenomena. The scientific voyage of discovery that got going in Europe in the thirteenth century and took off in the seventeenth, driven in no small part by the demands of commerce and a rapidly developing technology, came upon the laws of physics first.

These describe the origin and dynamics of the primeval forces that are manifest in the activity of the cosmos and the mechanisms of atoms. Biology, the study of living things, was effectively a separate endeavour and it took two to three hundred years for the new scientific mentality to fully appreciate the delicately balanced, interrelated and fragile nature of the earth’s biological and physical systems.

Field in Norfolk: This is an artefact that we casually think of as natural.
Field in Norfolk: This is an artefact that we casually think of as natural.

An understanding gradually emerged of the way that our environment was created by the interaction of life forms with each other and the inanimate forces of the earth’s meteorological, hydrological and geological systems that have slowly evolved over countless millennia. Biological evolution, the iteration of the generative process of life, has in a sense, set itself in opposition to the thermodynamic laws of the inanimate world. Technology is a further opposing move against the two other systems, deployed by a few highly developed life forms, but mostly now the province of Homo Sapiens. Whereas evolution, by an almost infinite succession of infinitesimal interdependent adaptations, moves forward in an interlocked and cohesive way, technology seeks a calculated effect with an appreciated advantage or good.

The process loop includes the human mind and will. Since technology is the product of cognition and we can never simultaneously know everything, in relation to evolutionary process, it will always be partial. It will also always be, to a greater or lesser degree, in opposition to and/or out of sync with nature.

Evolution is a process that does not need to plan or even understand itself since it has no purposes, only relationships and apparent advantages that only we can see and interpret with a human intellect. The notion of purpose is a wholly human one, derived from an evolutionary development in higher primates of a brain that allows us to make plans and solve problems, ultimately in a conscious way*.

Purpose is the abstraction of such plans, just as curiosity is a function of an omnivorous primate’s brain. The notion of purpose is so closely tied to the emergence of the consciousness that defines us as human beings that we find it almost impossible to contemplate a universe ultimately without purpose. There is thus an inevitable conflict between technology and nature that lies not only in its principle purposes, to adapt, alleviate or destroy some aspect of human experience that is undesirable or painful or to turn natural systems into a source of, at best, sustenance or delight, but at worst, power and oppression, but also in its partiality, its characteristic of fewer, more strident adaptations, brought about by a conception of purpose. Also the speed and development of technology often far outstrips the capacity of earth systems and the biota to adapt. Additionally, there has been a long standing human desire to get to grips with an apparently cruel, aggressive and seemingly chaotic world by imposing a human order on it. There are elements of these themes in everything we make from vacuum cleaners to landscape gardens.

In spite of this, in many ways, technology can still be benign in its interaction with the biota and earth systems, but only where it does not involve a scale or speed of operation or irreversibility of process that triggers wider reaching and more potent ecological and environmental effects. Like technology, in the normal course of our lives, nature is appreciated for the way it contributes to our enjoyment of life experience or for the way it can serve our purposes. For it to flourish however it must be given sufficient space and be left sufficiently unhampered to take its own course. In our relationship with nature, ENJOYMENT and PURPOSE are the principal areas of value and significance, but nature is almost always modified in some way to satisfy our will or to bring it more effectively within our perception and consciousness. It is absorbed into, or effectively becomes, an artefact. Thus when we come to think about artefacts, whether they are simple or complex adaptations, other considerations enter in. Among these are the obligations implicit in the creation of artefacts. These obligations relate to our individual or institutional social, ecological and environmental debit. Because the creation of artefacts invariably draws on nature as a resource, there is an implicit obligation upon us to respect and conserve that resource. This reinforces the view that the principal sources of value and significance in an artefact are not only ENJOYMENT and PURPOSE but also OBLIGATION.

Obligation grows out of a prudent, social, compassionate and moral critique of enjoyment and purpose. What this means is that our evaluation of the quality of any artefact has to be based on a holistic understanding that takes account of the interaction of the artefact with the natural order as well as its immediate value to an individual or community. And because of the scale effect we have to understand the multiplier effect on a global scale. Ideas about aesthetic sensibility and design quality are essentially to do with how we compare and judge the contribution of both artefacts and nature to human enjoyment. But, with design quality, notions of purpose also enter in, since they determine the particular facet of human experience an artefact is intended to enhance, adapt or negate. The success or failure in meeting purpose has to contribute to design quality. Furthermore, ideas about obligation, relating as they do to providence, compassion, justice, equality and stewardship, importantly, inform the values of an individual person or institution and consequently enter into the notion of design quality.

Thinking of the activities of humankind as a whole, as I have argued above, obligation must be extended towards the natural (more than human) world. In normal discourse it is often quite hard to separate this trinity of values/motives (obligation, enjoyment, purpose). The broad range of artefacts and different types of natural system need to be seen in the context of all human activities, most of which either depend on or support some specialist kind of technology.

*But read what Thomas Nagel has to say about teleological or materialist views of nature in his most interesting book “Mind and Cosmos–Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”

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