In Fall 2005 I took a class with Prof. Chip Bruce on Pragmatic Technology. One of our assignments was to:
Produce an analysis of one keyword of your choice (see Raymond Williams, Keywords A vocabulary of culture and society. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press) for examples. This keyword is not just an index term as in the bibliography, but a core concept for the field. The analysis is a short essay (1-2 pp.) on the definition, history, and multiple uses of a term, which is central to understanding a text or a field of study.
I chose “technology.” This assignment represented 10% of our grade.
I found this little piece the other day while poking around my hard drive and decided I was going to put it here for assorted reasons, if only primarily for myself so I might find it easier in the future.
LIS590PT Fall 2005 Keywords Assignment Mark Lindner 14 Sep 2005
“Technology,” definition, history, and multiple uses of a term
Plato distinguished Techne (art) from empiriae (knack) as having a logos, a rationale which “necessarily includes a reference to the good served by the art” while knack consists of “rules of thumb based on experience but without any underlying rationale” (Feenberg).
Feenberg argues that we moderns have lost the connection between techne and the good. “We can still relate to Plato’s emphasis on the need for a rationale, a logos, but we’re not so sure it includes an idea of the good. In fact, we tend to think of technologies as normless, as serving subjective purposes very much as did Plato’s knacks” (Feenberg).
What is the history of technology in between, and is Feenberg correct? The OED lists several senses of technology that are of relevance to us:
1. a. A discourse or treatise on an art or arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts. (1615 BUCK Third Univ. Eng. xlviii)
b. transf. Practical arts collectively. (1859 R. F. BURTON Centr. Afr. in Jrnl. Geog. Soc. XXIX. 437)
c. With a and pl. A particular practical or industrial art. (1957 Technology Apr. 56/1)
2. The terminology of a particular art or subject; technical nomenclature. (1658 SIR T. BROWNE Gard. Cyrus v.)
Oxford American lists the etymology of technology as from the Greek, tekhnologia systematic treatment, from tekhnê art.
Thus, as far as standard English usage goes technology was earliest applied to language about, or the language of, the practical or industrial arts. Over time this meaning shifted to the practical arts collectively, and then finally as a referent to any of the individual practical arts.
It seems to me that in American usage that technology has come to shift meaning over the last half-century or so from referring primarily to technoscience or applied science to the machines produced and used by such to primarily refer to the electronic gadgetry of everyday life; personal computers, iPods, DVD players, etc. Most “normal” Americans think of technology as normless, as Feenberg said. Atomic bombs, depleted uranium shells, land mines—it all depends on what you do with them. Their development and existence is morally neutral according to this view.
Philosophers of technology use technology differently than in standard usage, but even there the meaning has shifted over the last sixty or so years. Classical philosophers of technology (Ellul, Mumford, Heidegger; et al.) thought that technology “…must not be thought of as applied natural science, that is less an instrument than a form of life, and that it must be understood as a “system” (in Ellul’s word) or as a “megamachine” (Mumford)” (Achterhuis, 3). Ellul uses the French word technique specifically due to the narrower connotation of technology with machines. For Ellul, “technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity” (xxv).
Newer philosophers of technology (Noble, Hughes, Scwartz and Thompson; et. Al.) have pointed out the intertwining of technology and society as “technosociety,” “technoculture,” “network of technological affairs,” and as a “social process that is extraordinarily inaccessible to us because we are so much a part of it” (Achterhuis, 6-7).
Pacey points out in Meaning in Technology that technology has both social and individual meanings. He also points to the difference between the “political economy” of the use and development of technology and its wider role in society and, the “social construction” of technology through a “variety of “actors” responding to a complex of social pressures” (4). Pacey’s point about the shift from the “political economy” of technology to its “social construction” is similar to the shift from the early focus on the material and historical conditions for the rise of Technology as a system to the more recent focus on technologies that impact society while being influenced by the same society. Pacey’s book is an attempt to redirect some of the focus back onto the meaning of technology created by the individual’s experience of technology, not just of society’s experience.
Achterhuis, Hans, ed. American Philosophy of Technology: The Empirical Turn. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
Feenberg, Andrew. “Can Technology Incorporate Values? Marcuse’s Answer to the Question of the Age.” Paper presented at the conference on The Legacy of Herbert Marcuse, University of California, Berkeley, November 7, 1998.
Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. online, 1999.
Pacey, Arnold. Meaning in Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.
“Technology.” Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.