Technology Embodied

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee February 28, 2017
Making stuff, or doing stuff, is only an outcome, however important that might be: it’s what a culture’s “technology” enables. Salesforce's Peter Coffee gets up a head of STEAM.

Peter Coffee
Peter Coffee

The word “technology” comes from roots meaning “means of gain” and “expression of thought.” Roll that around in your head for a moment, and realize what that implies: our technology is not the objects that we make, or the tools with which we make them, but the knowledge that we find ways to express—and to share—about transforming the natural world to create human value. Making stuff, or doing stuff, is only an outcome, however important that might be: it’s what a culture’s “technology” enables.

Consequently, in the same way that a mere invention requires adoption to become an “innovation”—thank you, Peter Drucker—mere knowledge requires both effective teachers and able students to bring it forth as impactful “technology.” For that reason, the talent pipeline must be the primary consideration, not a side issue, for anyone who is tasked with turning the potential of new science and new practice into a world that we’ll be proud to pass along.

The talent pipeline is especially high on my list of concerns at this time every year, as this is the season when many U.S. high schools hold their “college fairs”: events aimed at answering the questions, and focusing the energies, of teenagers (and their parents) contemplating options for university educations and subsequent careers. As a member of an active alumni network, I often participate in these programs as both a representative of a particular school, and a guest speaker on the general questions of “What should I study? What can I expect to do with what I’ll learn?”

When given a chance to talk with high schools’ soon-to-be-graduates, I often take the position that many college course catalogs function more like a rear-view mirror than an over-the-horizon radar. There’s an entire industry built around the model of picking a course of study like “Mechanical Engineering” out of a catalog, taking the prescribed combination of classes, collecting a credential, and expecting it to define (or even guarantee) a career path.

Today, that seems like a dreadfully obsolete approach, because it’s difficult to find any domain that is not being overwhelmed by accelerating flows of new knowledge and new means of applying it. At best, a college degree today can only provide a foundation and context for a lifetime of seeking out and incorporating new knowledge into a continually evolving definition of competency.

One might object that there are domains, such as history or art, that are defined as the accumulation and compilation of past events and accomplishments. These are not shielded, however, from the disruption I’m describing. Even in areas like these, we’re seeing practitioners look at familiar surroundings through new lenses: at history viewed as quantitative trends unveiled by literary analysis, or at art viewed as neural nets’ deconstructions of a painting into “activation networks” separately representing content and style.


Farther down a spectrum of misconceptions, I find another common mistake of thinking that today it’s all about computers and software. The acronym STEM, we should recall, comes from a broadly conceived range of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Personally, I’m in the camp that prefers STEAM with its addition of “Arts” to that enumeration.) Breakthroughs are being made at breathtaking pace in the domains of doing things with atoms, as well as (perhaps even more than) with bits.

In my most recent round of talks to next year’s cohort of university freshmen, I’ve therefore added new emphasis on some of our oldest technology fields and their extraordinary progress. The builder, the blacksmith, and the alchemist are long-standing icons of human advancement from caveman to city dweller and space voyager – so much so that at MIT, for example, Civil Engineering is quite literally department number 1, Materials Science number 3, and Chemistry number 5 out of more than thirty recognized disciplines. The seniority of these established subjects, though, should not be misperceived as stagnation:

  • In structures, the heights of the world’s tallest buildings are describing an exponential curve that looks like any Moore’s-Law hockey-stick graph from the world of microprocessors.
  • In materials, additive manufacturing (a more powerful and illuminating label than “3D printing”) is forming metals and other substances into components and mechanisms of extraordinary capability and efficiency.
  • In chemistry, new understanding of matter’s behavior at the most fundamental level is bringing forth new kinds of material (topological semi-metals?) that may open new pathways for building more robust quantum devices and superconductors.

All of these advancements depend, of course, on mastery of digital tools and processes: for example, on simulation of structures; precise control of machines; and sophisticated modeling of matter and energy interactions. What concerns many observers, therefore, is the seduction of crucial digital expertise by the short-range rewards of creating entertainment apps and performing financial legerdemain.

As archetyped by actor Zachary Quinto in the Wall Street drama “Margin Call”. there are perhaps far too many science and engineering degree recipients concluding “It's all just numbers really, just changing what you are adding up – and to speak freely, the money here is considerably more attractive.”

The current generation of STEAMers must accept, as their personal charge, a mandate to convey the excitement of remaking the physical world to the young people who embody—quite literally—the technology of tomorrow.

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