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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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.