The Worst Dictionary Definition Ever? The OED on Technology

When the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) revised its definition of technology in 2009, it produced one of the worst dictionary definitions ever for a fundamental scholarly term. In its definition, the OED conflates two fundamentally distinct meanings, technology as applied science and technology as the industrial or mechanical arts.

That the OED would muck up its definition of technology is especially unfortunate. No other dictionary comes close to the OED for authoritative definitions of English words. And technology is no marginal concept, but rather a central keyword of late modernity, a concept that evokes not just rational productive activity but also utopian expectations and dystopian fears.

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Thomas Friedman and the Fallacies of Moore’s Law

[Update: Moore’s Law is dead! See this article from 2016 in Ars Technica.]

Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times column, “If I Had a Hammer,” typifies the stubborn persistence of deterministic thinking about the implications of new technologies. The column is an uncritical gloss on a recent popular book by two MIT business economists, ‪Erik Brynjolfsson and ‪Andrew McAfee, who herald the coming transformation of the “second machine age,” the rise of smart machines, supposedly as a result of something called Moore’s law.

As explained by Friedman, Moore’s law establishes “the relentless doubling of digital computing power every two years.” However, this is not what Moore’s law states. Moore’s law is actually a rather narrow prediction about the exponential growth in density of components (specifically, “gates”) on an integrated circuit. Gordon E. Moore, one of the founders of Intel, came up with this prediction in 1964. In its current form, Moore’s law predicts that chip density will double roughly every two years.

Graph of Moore's law

Graph of Moore’s law, displayed on a semi-log scale to make exponential functions appear linear. Source: Neil J. Gunther, (click on link for original context).

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The struggle for technology: instrumentalism versus culture

An ancient struggle has shaped the meanings of technology, a struggle over the social status of material culture and its creators. (I call these creators technicians for want of a better term.)  Hephaestus with the CyclopesConversation between Philosophers (School of Plato)Since the time of the ancient Greeks, technicians have fit uneasily into social hierarchies, especially aristocratic hierarchies based on birth. In contrast, experts in manipulating language, that is intellectuals, distance themselves from people who create and sustain material culture.  By separating themselves from technicians, intellectuals seek to ally with elites whose authority is based on birth, wealth, violence, or other non-technical qualities. This conflict between intellectuals and technicians does not, however, reflect a difference between mind and hand; all workers use both faculties.

This age-old conflict about social status remains at the heart of present-day struggles over the meanings of technology.  On one side, defenders of technicians view technologies as creative expressions of human culture.  In this view, technology is imbued with human values and strivings in all their contradictory complexity.  I term this position the “cultural” approach to technology.  On the other side are those who see technological action as a narrow form of rationality that seeks only the best means for a given end.  For such people,  technology is something purely technical, essentially uncreative and devoid of values, subordinate to ends given by others.  I call this second position the “instrumental” conception of technology.

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Three meanings of “technology”

I started my last post by asking, “does anyone really know what technology means?”  I didn’t answer the question, but implied that the answer was probably “no.”  In this post, I’ll take a stab at a definition.  I won’t give the definition, because words don’t have essences that scholars can uncover like laws of nature.  I also won’t make claims about what technology should mean.  I’m not the language police, and no one is going do what I say anyway.

Unfortunately, we can’t just look at dictionaries to figure out what technology means.  Dictionaries rarely capture the complexities of higher-level concepts.  Instead, we need to examine how meanings emerge historically.  For technology, these meanings originated mainly in scholarly discourse, works by academics and intellectuals.

These writings show that technology was a relatively obscure word before the 20th century, one that referred mainly to the “science of the arts.”  In this definition, neither science nor arts mean what they do today.  Science was defined not as physical theory but rather as systematic knowledge about a topic.  Art referred not primarily to aesthetically pleasing objects but rather to practical human activity, including crafts like blacksmithing and printing.

In the early 20th century, however, three new meanings of technology emerged, meanings that remain dominant today.  I call these meanings industrial arts, applied science, and technique.  All three are related, but each has a distinct past.

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What is technology?

I’m writing a history of the concept of technology.  (I use the convention of italicizing technology when talking about the term itself rather than what the term refers to in the world.)  Why am I writing a book about one word?  Well, most people would agree it’s a pretty important word, central to the discourse of late modernity.  As this Google Ngram shows, in frequency technology has become as important as science.

Google Ngram image

But frequency doesn’t tell the whole story.  Technology is a word that mystifies as much as it explains.  In the memorable words of the online comic strip character Strong Bad, “the word technology means magic.  It’s basically anything that’s really cool that you don’t know how it works.  And if it breaks, you have to buy a new one.”

This is parody, of course.  It works because Strong Bad captures how most people indeed relate to what we think of as technology.  But this relationship expresses a deep irony.  In one of its core meanings, technology is the epitome of rational human activity, what philosophers call “instrumental action,” use of the most effective means to achieve a given end.  (I’ll be critiquing this definition of technology in my book, but that’s a subject for a future post.)  Yet to most users, the products of this rational action are as mysterious as transubstantiation of the Eucharist into the body of Christ.

That’s just one example of how messed up the concept of technology is.  But it’s not an isolated example.  In both popular and scholarly usage, the meanings of technology are deeply contradictory, almost perversely so.  The concept embraces ideas and things, the recent and the ancient, everything and therefore nothing.  One leading reference work in the 1950s defined technology unhelpfully as “how things are commonly done or made,” a definition that could apply to every form of human activity, from prayer to defecation.  In contrast, popular usage limits technology primarily to digital electronics.  This usage is common in elite discourse too, for example “instructional technology,” which refers almost exclusively to educational use of digital tools.  Similarly, the “technology” web page of the New York Times describes itself as covering “the Internet, telecommunications, wireless applications, electronics, science, computers, e-mail and the Web” (this is in metadata).  But if we limit technology to digital devices,  the term would be useless for explaining the role of machines, tools, skills, practical knowledge, and related theories in shaping human history.

Is this a problem?  It is if we take technology seriously as a concept for understanding our modern world.