> technology : definition : active/passive

passive/active tech

the binary categorization active or passive applied to technology illustrates broadly the interactions between peoples and their devices. this general taxonomy, while imminently fallible (as isaiah berlin says in the hedgehog and the fox: "the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic, and ultimately absurd." page 2), it might prompt exploration of arguements and relationships between people and machines, and machines and machines.

active technology - the technology itself is encased in an object symbolic of, or actualizing that technology. users can tangibly identify active technolgies. active technologies require the infrastructure of passive technologies; active technologies are often the tangible articulation of principles distributed by passive technologies. active technologies tend to be smaller, or more portable than passive technologies. active technologies can be individually owned.

passive technology - the user is not immediately aware of the choice to use it; the technology is encased in another product. passive technologies might not have any use of themselves - the user doesn't interact directly with them, but rather their active actualizers. passive technologies often approach the scale of infrastructure - more than one person is typically required to construct, operate and maintain them, and perhaps these technologies are beyond people's power to manage at all. passive technologies are embedded technologies.

example: telephone: while the physical properties of a phone might be comprised of a bell, buttons, and wires, together they comprise the primary function of the telephone. the unit itself is the technology of the phone, and the user grasps a phone. the phone is an active technology the phone is, however, intimately wedded to passive technologies like fiber optic wires, electrical power, satellites, global telecommunications companies. without these, the phone would be an object, perhaps art. so the phone is the interface between the user and the less tangible technologies of phone lines.

the distinction between active and passive can depend largely on your distance from society. for example questions of identity could render certain active technologies a social necessity, and hence passive to the environment where the user has no choice. the distinction between active and passive can exist largely in the mind of the beholder, and in fact there exists a sliding scale, adjustable according to factors other than the shape of the technology itself.

in fact the breach of a technology's position as passive or active is often the site of illumination. health warnings make olestra, a food additive (normally hidden), an active choice of consumers. societal pressure to be thin makes diet/mood pills, an active technology, more passive, or societally determined.

specific technologies explored in this thesis, and their preliminary position in this binary:


diet pills

electronic babysitting


food fortification
food distribution


the use of the passive voice, in speaking of vaccination, and when i first started writing. technology is done things by unidentified agents.

reading this "passive/active" distinction as a range, rather than a binary, provides different illumination. when the technologies are arranged in a prelimary sweep of user involvement level, a few other qualifying factors come to light. so, this passive to active scale might also be a measurement of the number of people involved in the exercise of the moment of that technology (as technologies are most all of them interwoven, especially chronologically advanced technologies, "moment of that technology" refers to the specific instances of technology i have studied here; instances, moments, being little more than their own enframing.) - passive being the greatest number of people involved in a given technology, and active being the fewest number of people. or we might observe "embeddedness" - how intrinsic to the material of society that given technology is. can specific instances be removed without notice? that's the active side of things. if those technologies removed was to wrest structure from other technologies or society itself (in the case of food distribution), that's toward the passive side of things.

here is a preliminary/rough visual articulation of the passive active scale:

active : vitamins | olestra | diet pills | electronic babysitting | vaccines | msg | food fortification | fluoride | food distribution : passive

locating technologies on this scale, and exploring the nuances of their position (or how they defy it) helps to compare technology side effects and technology choices. when we assess individual and societal relationships to technology and relationships between technologies, we articulate technological dependence and responsibility, critical for survival specieswide at least.


many of the unintended and regretted outcomes of technology stem from the passive infrastructure, rather than the active devices themselves (a noteable exception might be guns). it is the system undergirding these technologies that is large enough to plant itself unnannounced in our front yards:

"We need not be so fascinated with "title" to property as with entitlement, nor with abstract claims of "ownership" so much as real priviledges of use and disposition. A stockholder in AT&T believed himself endowed by his five shares to chop down a telephone pole placed noxiously in front of his picture window."
- Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, page 92

that man's action is a rare display of active antipathy towards passive technologies. most people accept passive technologies as serving to undergird and sustain the actitivities afforded by and taking place with active technologies. this man likely participated in telephones, one imagines most people who own stock use phones, but he felt indivually strong enough to stand against them.

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