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.