There is a distinction between technical and cultural products. Of course, you could argue that all products are part of the culture, but I want to make the distinction because I believe some types of products are more positive to our culture and some are more negative. In a nutshell, positive products are essentially creative, natural and relatable, whereas negative products are harmful, abstract and alienating.
What are technical products?
Technical products are utilitarian, in other words, they do practical things. They are, or are supposed to be, tools in the broadest sense; they are a means to an ends. Problems arise when they are seen as an ends in themselves.
The simplest technical products have been around for millennia in some shape or form. These are things like shelters, clothes, knives, hand-tools, and cookware. These sorts of artefacts could be called ‘primary’ technical products, because they are extensions of ourselves that are literally just an arms length away from our natural, naked selves. Also, importantly, anybody with basic know-how can make primary technical products, in most cases.
However, technical products have developed significantly in recent centuries, and especially in the past one hundred years. Modern technical products can be extremely complex and require specialised knowledge, techniques and tools to design and produce them, and sometimes to even fix them. Examples include buildings, houses, airplanes, cars, computers, stereos, smartphones, power-tools, kitchen appliances, and all sorts of gadgets.
Marshall McLuhan called technologies (he used the word ‘media’) ‘extensions’ of ourselves. Primary technical products are not at a far remove from our practical understanding. However secondary technologies are much further removed, and the further removed the extension is, the more abstract the product becomes. Complex, modern technical products have interfaces of various sorts that people can understand and use, but ‘under the hood’ there is an abstract reality which people generally can’t relate to, or understand.
What are cultural products?
A cultural economy is where production and consumption involves the processing of ideas, symbols, and emotional experiences rather than the dissipation of energy and the breakdown of matter. In 2009, UNESCO outlined the following six cultural domains:
- Cultural and Natural Heritage
- Performance and Celebration
- Visual Arts and Crafts
- Books and Press
- Audio-Visual and Interactive Media
- Design and Creative Services
As well as these six cultural domains, there are two further ‘related domains’:
- Sports and Recreation, and
Cultural products are anything produced in the cultural economy. Of course, they might not be tangible at all, like a song, a theatre performance or a film.
The difference between cultural and technical products
Cultural products generally require the input of mental energy by the user, whereas most technical products don’t, certainly once the interface and controls are familiar. The interesting thing is that the active use of mental energy is much more satisfying than passive, habitual consumption. I would argue that secondary technical products ‘dumb us down’ whereas cultural products ‘wise us up’. Technical products reduce challenges, cultural products increase challenges.
Technical products are tangible and can therefore be more easily commodified, standardised, and mass-produced for profit. Also, being tangible, material objects in most cases, means technical products use much more resources than cultural products overall.
Cultural products are less tangible, often totally intangible, and are therefore much harder to control. They are more subjective, relatable and not profitable. Whilst cultural products use energy and materials, they tend to be much less resource hungry than technical products.
Where does progress lie
Technical products are the result of technical progress but they do not necessarily enhance individual or social progress, on the contrary, I would argue they often hinder it. Many technical products have a gravitational effect that alter peoples perspectives about reality – and generally not in a positive way.
As a society we are far too enamoured with technical products; we live in a technical age and therefore technology impresses us. Remember that technology is a tool, a means to an end. However in modern times, the tables have turned, instead of technologies being enablers of cultural progress, they become an end in themselves.
“As we distance ourselves further from the natural world, we are increasingly surrounded by and dependent on our own inventions. We become enslaved by the constant demands of technology created to serve us.” ― David Suzuki
The psychologist Erich Fromm also often wrote about the alienating effect of our tools. We become slaves to the things we create to make life convenient.
However, by-and-large, technical products have taken over our lives. What is the answer?
I believe the answer is to produce more cultural products and less technical products. It is true that a wide range of primary technical products are necessary for well-being. It is also true, there are secondary technical products that also provide well-being especially when they are instrumental for producing and delivering cultural products.
This is the key, being instrumental, in other words being a tool, or being a means, is what technology should always be. The tail should never wag the dog.