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.

First was the definition of technology as industrial arts.  This meaning arose in the early 20th century.  It began when American social scientists started using technology to refer not to the science of the arts but rather to the arts themselves, especially the methods used in industrial production.  At the time, such methods were termed industrial arts.

Used in this way, technology gained an expansive meaning.  The concept was not restricted to any particular period in human history.  It covered the activity of making everything from prehistoric stone tools to electronic computers.  Through a process of concretization, this meaning also expanded to cover not just the activity of making but also the things made, physical artifacts like stone tools and computers.  Thus when people today use technology to refer to digital devices, they are using a variant of the industrial-arts definition.

The second definition, technology as applied science, also emerged in the early 20th century.  This definition drew on the 19-century concept of applied science.  This concept was often contrasted with pure science, that is, science untainted by external motives.  The applied-science meaning of technology first became common in the expression science and technology, a phrase that meant either “pure and applied science” or “science and its practical applications.”  Defining technology in this way appealed to many natural and social scientists.  It helped them claim practical utility for their work without subordinating pure science to practical ends.  After World War II, the definition of technology as applied science became much stronger, in part because of the atomic bomb, whose success was attributed to science, not technology.

The third principal meaning, technology as technique, is the least recognized of the three.  This meaning first appeared in the 1930s but did not become common until the 1960s.  In this usage, technology refers to the procedures, methods, and skills of human action in general, immaterial as well as material.  Examples of technology as technique include “literary technology,” “organizational technology,” and Foucault’s “technology of the self.”  This usage has roots among European philosophers and critics who viewed technology as a dehumanizing, mechanistic worldview that subordinates ends to means.

These distinct (though clearly related) definitions might not be a problem if writers clearly distinguished among them.  But rather than recognizing these definitions, scholars regularly confounded them.  When, for example, historians of technology insist that technology cannot be reduced to the application of science, they are arguing against a straw man.  This argument did not arise from a fundamental disagreement among scholars about the nature of technology, that is, disagreement about the role of natural science in the industrial arts.  Instead, the dispute resulted from confusion between two distinct definitions of technology.

How can scholars today makes sense of modernity without a shared definition of one of its fundamental components, in fact, without even being aware that they lack a shared definition?  They can’t, of course.  The perverse contradictions that I discussed in my last post have their origins in precisely this lack of awareness of the multiple meanings of technology.  With a better understanding of the historical roots of these meaning, perhaps we can dispel some of the confusion that bedevils this concept.

I’ll address the origins of each of these three meanings in later posts.  In the meantime, I’d like feedback from my readers on these definitions.  Do they adequately capture the meanings technology that you have encountered?


One thought on “Three meanings of “technology”

  1. Thanks for starting this blog, it’s definitely an interesting topic. I think you’ve captured the definitions I’ve seen, though I’ve hardly ever seen the third in a non-academic setting.

    One topic that’s always interested me, and might make for a good blog post, is the distinction between “high-tech” and “low-tech.” When/how did it come about and how has it changed over time?

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