Defining “Technology”

by on April 29, 2014 · 2 comments

[Last updated July 2017.]

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.

Emmanuel Mesthene

My personal favorite definition of the term comes from Emmanuel G. Mesthene’s terrific little 1970 book, Technological Change: Its Impact on Man and Society:

“we define technology as the organization of knowledge for the achievement of practical purposes.”

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.”

Frederick Ferré

Frederick Ferré’s Philosophy Of Technology (1988) is a wonderful introduction to the study of this subject and has become a widely assigned textbook used in many college courses. In Chapter 2, “Defining Technology,” Ferré provided a remarkably concise definition of “technologies” as:

“practical implementations of intelligence” (with the caveat that “‘Practical’ requires that they not be wholly ends in themselves; ‘implementations’ entails that a technology be somehow concretely embodied, normally in implements or artifacts, sometimes simply in social organization…”)

Importantly, Ferré arrived at this definition by carefully detailing what should and should not be considered “technological.” In an attempt to avoid excessive breadth when defining the term, Ferré made four important stipulations:

  1. Technology is implemented, not ’empty-handed’: “[I]t would be wise to resist a definition of technology that includes empty hands as technological implements. The totally naked human body, interacting face-to-face with the environment, unmediated by any artifact, contrivance, invention, or tool, would seem to stand as a paradigm case of the non-technological.”
  2. Technology is practical, not ‘for its own sake’: Where “the notion of the ‘practical’. . . [means] supporting such ends as survival, health, comfort, and material well-being.”
  3. Technology is embodied, non ‘in the head’ alone: “[I]t would be wise to guard against the absorption of all methods and techniques, including wholly mental ones, into the concept of technology.” He uses the examples of natural language and mathematics.
  4. Technology is intelligent, not ‘blind’: “[T]he concept of technology will not usefully be extended to behavior that, among humans, is merely accidental or, among other species, is entirely instinctive. . . . Put positively, it suggests our definition will need to stipulate that technology involves (i) implements used as (ii) means to practical ends that are somehow (iii) manifested in the material world as (iv) expressions of intelligence.”

John Fernald

Compared to philosophers, historians, and social critics, economists tend to define technology in a somewhat more dry fashion. (No surprise there, right?!) That being said, it is surprising how few economists bother defining the term in their articles and textbooks. But here’s a concise definition of the term that I recently heard John Fernald, an economist and Senior Research Adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, articulate at a policy conference. In an October 2014 presentation entitled, “Technology and the American Economy: Or, What’s the New Normal?,” Fernald defined technology as the:

“Ability to convert society’s resources (labor and capital) into output (goods and services that we value).”

Ian Barbour

In Chapter 1 of his 1993 book, Ethics in an Age of Technology, Ian Barbour discussed three  conflicting views of technology: “Technology as Liberator,” “Technology as Threat,” and “Technology as Instrument of Power.” Before discussing each, he defined technology as follows:

“Technology may be defined as the application of organized knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems of people and machines.” (p. 3)

He continued on to note that:

“There are several advantages to such a broad definition. ‘Organized knowledge’ allows us to include technologies based on practical experience and invention as well as those based on scientific theories. The ‘practical tasks’ can include both the production of material goods (in industry and agriculture, for instance) and the provision of services (by computers, communications media, and biotechnologies, among others). Reference to ‘ordered systems of people and machines’ directs attention to social institutions as well as to the hardware of technology. The breadth of the definition also reminds us that there are major differences among technologies.” (p. 3-4)

Robert Friedel

In his 2007 book, A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium, University of Maryland historian Robert Friedel offers a formal definition of technology to kick off the book and then ends with a less formal one:

“By technology we typically mean the knowledge and instruments that humans use to accomplish the purposes of life.” (p. 1)

He also clarifies the definition by explaining what it does not include, namely: “processes that completely mental or biological;” “knowledge of the world … that is purely in the realm of ideas and description;” and “nature.”  He then closes the book by noting that:

“Technology can, indeed, be defined as a pursuit of power over nature.” (p. 543).


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:


Previous post:

Next post: