I recently read a few articles that got me thinking…a lot.
Ken Segall wrote an interesting blog post on the key to Apple’s success — he argues that a key factor is its focus on “humanity.” Instead of designing and marketing its products around the functional technology, Apple pays attention to the relationship between the product and the human user. This does not mean that this relationship is the only factor that is considered when an Apple product is created, or that this factor alone is sufficient in enabling Apple’s success. But the focus on the interaction between the technical product and the user is an important one, particularly when there are so many technological changes occurring at such a rapid speed. The takeaway of Segall’s observation isn’t merely that tech companies need to create products and services with the human user in mind — but more importantly, that the user is human.
Om Malik’s post also speaks to the divide between technology and humanity in his conception of Silicon Valley vs. the real world. He talks of how the rest of the world, aka any place not in Silicon Valley, runs at a “slower speed” — ie, people still use Blackberry. Because technological changes come at a slower rate in the real world than those in Silicon Valley, tech start-ups should consider this difference and orient their products toward the clientele in the real world, not just the “alpha adopter” crowd in Silicon Valley.
Segall and Malik’s arguments on the relationship between technology and people made me think: What does it mean to be human? My initial answer was — it means anything that distinguishes us from being a computer, an iPhone, a car, or an animal. Yet, when I thought about this more, I was perplexed by what it means to be human.
Since I couldn’t quite grasp the distinction between “technology” and “humanity” (and the connection between humanity and “reality”), I explored the etymology of these terms. Technology is derived from the Greek teknologia, meaning “systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique” which also originates from tekhno-, or, “art, skill, craft, method, system.” According to this online etymology dictionary, the usage of technology to refer to the “science of mechanical and industrial arts” was first recorded in 1859.
Having read the works of Plato and Aristotle last year, I wondered whether the “techne” these philosophers refer to in their texts is the same “tekhno” from which technology is derived. That’s something I’ll be doing my homework on, because it would be interesting to assess how the ancient Greek thinkers understood techne in a pre-industrial age, assuming that techne and tekhno are the same. (If you know Greek and are shaking your head right now because they’re not the same, let me know).
Humanity, on the other hand, has a colorful history: it comes from the old French humanité, umanité which means “kindness and graciousness,” as well as the Latin humanitatem which means “human nature, humankind life on Earth, pity,” and humanus. An examination of the etymology of “human” helps to further dispel the origins of the word “humanity”: The Latin humanus is related to homo meaning “man” and to humus meaning “earth,” referring to humans as “earthly beings” as opposed to the gods.
Ok…that makes more sense to me now. It partially explains why the word “human” is in existence, in addition to the term “man.” Why use the word “human” if it means the same thing as “man”? Don’t both describe people like you and me?
As I contemplated this thought more, it occurred to me that even in our everyday, layman usage of human and man, there lies an important yet subtle distinction between the two. At least for me, personally, “human” evokes a more positive connotation, and it seems to be more “right” and “good” than merely using the term “man.” If I am to call someone a “human,” it means that they possess something good and that I am hopeful about the character and capacity of my peer to follow a righteous path. Of course, this can also be used disparagingly, and to cry “Are you even human?!” suggests that the person lacks that positive, good quality. What this quality is exactly, I have no idea. At the same time, if I am to use the term “man,” there seems to be a more belittling tone in this usage in comparison to that of “human” (and no, I’m not talking about describing the masculinity of Channing Tatum- and Ryan Gosling-look-a-likes). It seems, to me, that “man” evokes a far less positive connotation than “human.”
What accounts for this difference? Is it the “hu-” that distinguishes human from man? If the origins of the word human emphasized the earthly aspect of humus, that people dwell in this earthly world and not in the heavens, in order to portray the inferiority of the men to the gods, then why has the humus been dropped from the word man?
These thoughts are rudimentary and merely whimsical wanderings of my mind, barely skimming the surface of the discussion on technology and humanity. For now, my reading list will consist of reading up on the theories of technology, as well as the philosophical debates on man — including rationality and techne.