Defining “Technology”

by on April 29, 2014 · 2 comments

I spend a lot of time reading books and essays about technology; more specifically, books and essays about technology history and criticism. Yet, I am often struck by how few of the authors of these works even bother defining what they mean by “technology.” I find that frustrating because, if you are going to make an attempt to either study or critique a particular technology or technological practice or development, then you probably should take the time to tell us how broadly or narrowly you are defining the term “technology” or “technological process.”

Photo: David HartsteinOf course, it’s not easy. “In fact, technology is a word we use all of the time, and ordinarily it seems to work well enough as a shorthand, catch-all sort of word,” notes the always-insightful Michael Sacasas in his essay “Traditions of Technological Criticism.” “That same sometimes useful quality, however, makes it inadequate and counter-productive in situations that call for more precise terminology,” he says.

Quite right, and for a more detailed and critical discussion of how earlier scholars, historians, and intellectuals have defined or thought about the term “technology,” you’ll want to check out Michael’s other recent essay, “What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Technology?” which preceded the one cited above. We don’t always agree on things — in fact, I am quite certain that most of my comparatively amateurish work must make his blood boil at times! — but you won’t find a more thoughtful technology scholar alive today than Michael Sacasas. If you’re serious about studying technology history and criticism, you should follow his blog and check out his book, The Tourist and The Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age, which is a collection of some of his finest essays.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I figured I would create this post to list some of the more interesting definitions of “technology” that I have uncovered in my own research. I suspect I will add to it in coming months and years, so please feel free to suggest other additions since I would like this to be a useful resource to others.

I figure the easiest thing to do is to just list the definitions by author. There’s no particular order here, although that might change in the future since I could arrange this chronologically and push the inquiry all the way back to how the Greeks thought about the term (the root term techne,” that is). But for now this collection is a bit random and incorporates mostly modern conceptions of “technology” since the term didn’t really gain traction until relatively recent times.

Also, I’ve not bothered critiquing any particular definition or conception of the term, although that may change in the future, too. (I did, however, go after a few modern tech critics briefly in my recent booklet, “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom.” So, you might want to check that out for more on how I feel, as well as my old essays, “What Does It Mean to ‘Have a Conversation’ about a New Technology?” and, “On the Line between Technology Ethics vs. Technology Policy.”)

So, I’ll begin with two straight-forward definitions from the Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries and then bring in the definitions from various historians and critics.


Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Technology (noun):

1)     (a): the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area; (b): a capability given by the practical application of knowledge

2)      a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.

3)      the specialized aspects of a particular field of endeavor.

Oxford Dictionary

Technology (noun):

1)      The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.

2)      Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.

3)      The branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences.

 

Thomas P. Hughes

I have always loved the opening passage from Thomas Hughes’s 2004 book, Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture:

“Technology is messy and complex. It is difficult to define and to understand. In its variety, it is full of contradictions, laden with human folly, saved by occasional benign deeds, and rich with unintended consequences.” (p. 1) “Defining technology in its complexity,” he continued, “is as difficult as grasping the essence of politics.” (p. 2)

So true! Nonetheless, Hughes went on to offer his own definition of technology as:

“a creativity process involving human ingenuity.” (p. 3)

Interestingly, in another book, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970, he offered a somewhat different definition:

“Technology is the effort to organize the world for problem solving so that goods and services can be invented, developed, produced, and used.” (p. 6, 2004 ed., emphasis in original.)

 

W. Brian Arthur

In his 2009 book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, W. Brian Arthur sketched out three conceptions of technology.

1)      “The first and most basic one is a technology is a means to fulfill a human purpose. … As a means, a technology may be a method or process or device… Or it may be complicated… Or it may be material… Or it may be nonmaterial. Whichever it is, it is always a means to carry out a human purpose.”

2)      “The second definition is a plural one: technology as an assemblage of practices and components.”

3)      “I will also allow a third meaning. This technology as the entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture.” (p. 28, emphasis in original.)

 

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation / Richard Rhodes

In his 1999 book, Visions of Technology: A Century Of Vital Debate About Machines Systems And The Human World, Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes assembled a wonderful collection of essays about technology that spanned the entire 20th century. It’s a terrific volume to have on your bookshelf if want a quick overview of how over a hundred leading scholars, critics, historians, scientists, and authors thought about technology and technological advances.

The collection kicked off with a brief preface from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (no specific Foundation author was listed) that included one of the most succinct definitions of the term you’ll ever read:

“Technology is the application of science, engineering and industrial organization to create a human-build world.” (p. 19)

Just a few pages later, however, Rhodes notes that is probably too simplistic:

“Ask a friend today to define technology and you might hear words like ‘machines,’ ‘engineering,’ ‘science.’ Most of us aren’t even sure where science leaves off and technology begins. Neither are the experts.”

Again, so true!

 

Joel Mokyr

Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress(1990) by Joel Mokyr is one of the most readable and enjoyable histories of technology you’ll ever come across. I highly recommend it. [My thanks to my friend William Rinehart for bringing the book to my attention.]  In Lever of Riches, Mokyr defines “technological progress” as follows:

“By technological progress I mean any change in the application of information to the production process in such a way as to increase efficiency, resulting either in the production of a given output with fewer resources (i.e., lower costs), or the production of better or new products.” (p. 6)

 

Edwin Mansfield

You’ll find definitions of both “technology” and “technological change” in Edwin Mansfield’s Technological Change: An Introduction to a Vital Area of Modern Economics (1968, 1971):

“Technology is society’s pool of knowledge regarding the industrial arts. It consists of knowledge used by industry regarding the principles of physical and social phenomena… knowledge regarding the application of these principles to production… and knowledge regarding the day-to-day operations of production…”

“Technological change is the advance of technology, such advance often taking the form of new methods of producing existing products, new designs which enable the production of products with important new characteristics, and new techniques of organization, marketing, and management.” (p. 9-10)

 

Read Bain

In his December 1937 essay in Vol. 2, Issue No. 6 of the American Sociological Review, “Technology and State Government,” Read Bain said:

 “technology includes all tools, machines, utensils, weapons, instruments, housing, clothing, communicating and transporting devices and the skills by which we produce and use them.” (p. 860)

[My thanks to Jasmine McNealy for bringing this one to my attention.]

 

David M. Kaplan

Found this one thanks to Sacasas. It’s from David M. Kaplan, Ricoeur’s Critical Theory (2003), which I have not yet had the chance to read:

“Technologies are best seen as systems that combine technique and activities with implements and artifacts, within a social context of organization in which the technologies are developed, employed, and administered. They alter patterns of human activity and institutions by making worlds that shape our culture and our environment. If technology consists of not only tools, implements, and artifacts, but also whole networks of social relations that structure, limit, and enable social life, then we can say that a circle exists between humanity and technology, each shaping and affecting the other. Technologies are fashioned to reflect and extend human interests, activities, and social arrangements, which are, in turn, conditioned, structured, and transformed by technological systems.”

I liked Michael’s comment on this beefy definition: “This definitional bloat is a symptom of the technological complexity of modern societies. It is also a consequence of our growing awareness of the significance of what we make.”

 

Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul, a French theologian and sociologist, penned a massive, 440-plus page work of technological criticism in 1954, La Technique ou L’enjeu du Siècle (1954), which was later translated in English as, The Technological Society(New York: Vintage Books, 1964). In setting forth his critique of modern technological society, he used the term “technique” repeatedly and contrasted with “technology.” He defined technique as follows:

“The term technique, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given state of development) in every field of human activity. […]

Technique is not an isolated fact in society (as the term technology would lead us to believe) but is related to every factor in the life of modern man; it affects social facts as well as all others. Thus technique itself is a sociological phenomenon…” (p. xxvi, emphasis in original.)

 

Bernard Stiegler

In La technique et le temps, 1: La faute d’Épiméthée, or translated, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (1998), French philosopher Bernard Stiegler defines technology as:

“the pursuit of life by means other than life”

[I found that one here.]

 

Peter Thiel

In Zero to One: Notes on How to Build the Future (2014), Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel says,

“Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.”

 


Again, please feel free to suggest additions to this compendium that future students and scholars might find useful. I hope that this can become a resource to them.

Additional Reading:

 

  • Evan Selinger

    Kudos to you, Adam, for trying to get clear on a definition. I must admit, I rarely go through the motions, as ‘technology’ is an inherently contested concept, and the pragmatic value of different definitions usually emerges in the context of debates. But to add to your list, I’ll quickly recall a few points my grad school adviser, Don Ihde — a leading principal in the Philosophy of Technology – used to make. Coming from a phenomenological perspective, Ihde insisted that technology is inextricably linked to practice. Technology, in other words, fundamentally has meaning, and meaning is derived from use. If aliens transported everyone on earth (and every animal capable of using tools) to another planet, leaving all of our tools, devices, artifacts, and infrastructure behind, none of that stuff would count any longer as technology, as it no longer would be integrated into meaningful activities. In essence, everything would transform to junk– a term that obviously is semantic placeholder that indicates rather than directly expresses the empty state of affairs. Ihde insisted on defining technology this way for two reasons. First, he maintained an intentionality-centered view of meaning, and his account of technology is derivative of this ontology. Second, he wanted to propose an account of technology that is ‘relativistic’ and ‘multi-stable’. Relativistic entails that the meaning of what a technology is can change from practice to practice. Objects, therefore, don’t have essential properties, just material limitations that do exert some influence on how they can be used and interpreted. Multi-stable entails the idea that different actors can invest objects with different meaning.

    Ihde also insisted that technology has some material component. This is because if materiality isn’t construed as a necessary condition, then, Ihde worried, it would not be possible to demarcate ‘technology’ from ‘technique,’ or related input-output systems.

    Finally, Ihde believed it is possible to articulate general structural relationships that humans can have with technology. In works like Technology and the Lifeworld, he defends a basic taxonomy that persists throughout his later work and which has influenced much post-phenomenological inquiry.

    –Evan Selinger

  • Chuck Cosson

    Adam – what a great exercise! I like the observations from Evan (and from David Kaplan) emphasizing the interrelationship of tool to context or practice. In a world with no nails, a hammer might be a very strange or at least much less useful object.

    I think my contribution here would be to parse the Greek roots of technology slightly differently – thinking of technology as the “logos” of “techne.” Roughly translated, that means technology is the understanding of craftsmanship – not simply the way (or ways) in which a thing is done (see Brian Arthur), but the study of the ways things are done. A technologist, therefore, not only knows how to do things but knows how to invent new ways to do things, and has skills and knowledge related to how designs, methods, and tools are developed.

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