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.


2 thoughts on “What is technology?

  1. As I’m writing a chapter that deals with 19th century anthropology (or the studies that would become that discipline), I immediately think of the strong association between the application of knowledge and level of human progress. This was, of course, a core concept in the 19th century human sciences, but the connection between tech and what it means to be civilized doesn’t seem to have diminished. I’d love to see some treatment on the blog (or in the book) about how technological progress is bound up with a hierarchical idea of culture and concepts of race, which make people outraged, for example, when Native Americans use modern tech.

  2. The relationship between technology and culture is a key theme of the book. However, in the 19th century this relationship was not conceptualized in terms of “technology” but rather other concepts, like “art” or “invention.” I argue that this terminological difference is significant. From my tentative research, it appears that English-language anthropologists actually come rather late to the concept of technology, not really until the late 1930s and early 1940s, for example in the work of people like Leslie White and the archeologist V. Gordon Childe. On the issue of cultural and racial hierarchies based on technology, do you know if there is anything more recent than Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men?

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