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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