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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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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