Traditions of Technological Criticism

Given how the word technology gets used and abused, we might sometimes be tempted to respond this way.

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. That same sometimes useful quality, however, makes it inadequate and counter-productive in situations that call for more precise terminology. See yesterday’s post for more on that.

The challenge lies in the difficulty of precisely defining what we mean by technology, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the word wasn’t commonly used at all until roughly the mid-20th century. See, for example, this Google ngram charting the use of the word technology from 1800 – 2000:

Google_Ngram technology

Ngrams aren’t perfect, for one thing they are limited to the books Google has managed to scan, but in this case I think it may give us a pretty good picture of what was actually the case. It certainly supports Langdon Winner’s claim that by the late ’70s “technology” had become a ubiquitous concern in a way it had not been before, say, World War II. Of course, this doesn’t mean that no one was talking about technology until roughly 1920 or so. There were other words or phrases that named the sort of stuff we would just dump in the category of technology. If you’re interested, Leo Marx’s article on the word technology gives a helpful summary of the semantic history of the concept.

Long before the word got both popular and complicated, though, it had a fairly straightforward sense. You can probably guess it by thinking of some similar words that we use with less ambiguity, words like biology, geology, and theology. The words are derived from Greek roots suggesting the study of a field or subject. In these three cases, the study of life, the earth, and God respectively.

Likewise, the word technology, derived from the Greek root techne meaning “craft” or “art,” originally suggested not the technical or mechanical artifacts themselves, but rather their study or the knowledge involved in their making. Winner, for example, cites Webster’s Second International dictionary published in 1909, which defines technology as “industrial science, the science of systematic knowledge of the industrial arts, especially of the more important manufactures.”

By 1961, however, Webster’s was defining technology as “the totality of means employed by a people to provide itself with the objects of material culture.”

One of the most comprehensive definitions I’ve seen lately comes from David Kaplan and runs to paragraph length:

“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.”

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.

One interesting, somewhat whimsical way at getting at this complexity and at the pervasive place that technology occupies in modern societies might be to imagine that the earliest sense of the word technology persisted and that their existed a disciplined called Technology.

It would, I suggest, occupy the same place in our universities that Theology occupied in the medieval schools. It might even give substance to the claim implicit in the etymology of the word university by unifying the disparate disciplines and organizing the human experience around what we make rather than what we know, driven by material rather spiritual aims.

If we imagine that medieval society envisioned Theology as the pinnacle of a pyramid of human knowledge, unifying human experience by providing a transcendental goal from above, we might consider Technology instead as the base of the pyramid, the foundation upon which all else rested, providing unity from below.

Theology took as its object of study an unseen reality that permeated and ordered human experience and yet could never be fully understood. Analogously, Technology would take as its object of study a mostly seen reality that permeates and orders our experience which also resists our understanding. As St. Paul said of God, so we might say of technology: in it we move and breathe and have our being.

In fact, there is no one master discipline called Technology. While matters technological are threaded through every discipline to greater and lesser extents, these are never woven into any coherent theoretical fabric. Approaches to the study of technology also mirror the diversity of disciplines: historical, sociological, philosophical, economic, etc.

I’ve been thinking lately of laying out a taxonomy of sorts for the many approaches to technology, or the question concerning technology if you like. This would be mostly for my benefit, although I imagine others might find it useful. Consider it a heuristic that might introduce one to the field of technology studies (not that there is something quite so coherent that encompasses all of the theorists/thinkers/writers I have in mind).

I’m struggling to find the best organizational schema. Academic disciplines or fields of study might work, but I’m leaning toward loosely defined schools or traditions of thought that may not necessarily overlap with disciplinary boundaries. The richest explorations of technology, after all, tend not to abide traditional disciplinary boundaries. Take someone like N. Katherine Hayles, for example, who’s background includes both computer science and literary studies and ranges in her work from deep readings of cyberpunk fiction to in-depth discussions of mid-20th century cybernetic theory.

Eventually, I’d like to identify the leading representatives of these schools of tech criticism, along with their key ideas and concepts, a history of their development, etc., but to wrap up this meandering post I’m going to list a few of the schools of tech criticism that I’ve been toying around with and leave it to you, if you are so inclined, to help me refine my categories, fill in my blind spots, and otherwise improve my organizational schema.

Again, the object here is to find a useful way of grouping, for purely heuristic purposes, a diverse field of scholars and writers that includes Martin Heidegger, Albert Borgmann, Langdon Winner, Jacques Ellul, Walter Ong, David Nye, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault,  Walter Benjamin, Neil Postman, Katherine Hayles, Lewis Mumford, Leo Marx, Donna Haraway, Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, Carl Mitcham, Don Ihde, Bruno Latour, Andrew Feenberg, David Noble, and the list could go on. It is, to say the least, an eclectic field.

So here is my first attempt with a few examples to give you an idea of what I’m thinking with each grouping:

Media-critical tradition including Ong, Postman, and McLuhan.

Critical-theoretical tradition including Frankfurt Schoolers (better than Frankfurters, no?) and their heirs such as Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and Feenberg.

Phenomenological tradition including Heidegger, Borgmann, and Ihde.

Autonomous Technology tradition including Winner and Ellul.

Posthumanist tradition including Hayles and Haraway.

Social Constructivist tradition including Nye and Thomas Hughes.

I can see a lot of problems with this first offering, but it’s a start. Here are some questions to consider for take two: Does Actor-Network Theory get its own category? What about the journalistic critics (and I don’t mean that disparagingly) such as Nicholas Carr or Alexis Madrigal? What about someone like Sherry Turkle? Is there grounds for a psycho-analytic tradition? Where does someone like Mumford fit in? Or Leo Marx? Could there be a French tradition that might include both Foucault and Ellul? What about a literary-poetic tradition?

Suggestions welcome.

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7 thoughts on “Traditions of Technological Criticism

  1. First, let me say these last 2 posts are first rate. Secondly, I’m profoundly unqualified to respond. That said, I’ll forge ahead.

    I’ve been reading Code/Space (Kitchin & Dodge) and, responding to your previous post, perhaps a more explicit discussion of code will help expand the technology conceptual quiver.

    That said, I’m guessing that how one defines technology goes a long way in determining what will seem to be an appropriate taxonomy. So to some extent you probably need to just dive in – which you clearly have. I look forward to future posts.

  2. David L. Schindler offers insights on the ontology undergriding a technocratic or positivist view of technology and human action. Echoing McLuhan, he proposes that technology, including any instrument or tool, is never neutral and rather carries its own ontology that reflects a moral or immoral meaning, purpose, and end.

  3. I have a somewhat vague comment, that I hope might speak to this topic.
    I wonder if something that might be missing here is a sort of internal view of technology- a view of technology from the perspective of those who develop it. From a scientist’s perspective, technology is applied science. Most scientists have some motivation relating to the technologies that can develop from the understanding that his/her science accrues.

    When I think of literary criticism, it seems to me that the aspect of creation is an important part- the motivations and intentions of the creator can be central elements in trying to understand literature.
    While writers are often not literary critics, they can be, and their perspective is an important part in understanding literature.

    I don’t necessarily have a lot of specific people in mind here. One could take some of the obviously critical critics such as Jaron Lanier, or maybe Bill Joy with respect to computer technology. And maybe Catherine Hayles- who you mention has a computer science background. But one might also consider those scientists who seek understanding of the world, and technology can be an embodying of some of the newly developed understanding.

    In any case, perhaps this perspective is already contained in the categories/traditions you propose, but it did strike me that this might be somehow missing. Certainly those who make tools, and scientists who seek to understand and develop knowledge can be very blind to the effects of their work, but I don’t think their perspective should be ignored in trying to get a comprehensive view of technology. Maybe its not exactly technology criticism, but it is a group of people with a certain perspective on technology.

  4. Very nice post. I think it helpful to try to delineate some different projects or approaches, as you have here. I would favor the addition of a more journalistic approach that would include Turkle and Carr. I think more recent work tends in this direction anyway. I’d probably add John Harris and Kurzweil to the posthumanist category. Mumford is an interesting case–I lean toward media-critical with him, but definitely debatable.

  5. Any classification scheme is going to be fraught with problems. I see basically two solutions – one is a kind of object oriented perspective where people from different perspectives discuss the same phenomenon – addiction to devices for example. It is probably possible but would take some considerable work. The easier approach is to start with the classification provided by our current schools of thought which are influenced by the university faculty / discipline structures. Problematically modern academia promotes the proliferation of branding in the social sciences and the slicing and dicing of concepts, all slightly different but with many similarities.

    However, from this perspective a tree of related tools for thinking about technology is at least possible:

    Philosophy
    Socio-cultural (communications/media/anthropology/ethnography etc….)
    Engineering
    Economics/business and Innovation studies
    ….

    Within each of these clusters of thought there are different tools where there can be cross over and thinkers appearing in multiple places. Perhaps a network of related ideas might be possible eventually.

    So for example the anthropological approach to technology studies is to watch how people engage with games, what is the social setting etc. ANT takes a separate vantage point looking for who are the players leveraging their positions. All broadly adopt social constructivitst positions.

    Similiarly in the economics/business/ innovation studies complex different tools and hidden background assumptions exist. The economics of technology if said by a neo-classical economist is all about the incentive structures for business to engage in R&D or like activities. The business/management of technology is focused on how particular businesses can profit from technologies/ while innovation studies can adopt either position or indeed more of an anthropological toolset – asking businesses what technologies they develop – tracking developments and interdependencies.

    My observation is that too few in the ‘critical’ group have historically known about actual technologies or the ways in which they get developed or adopted. Too many in the econ/business and innovation studies camp are uncritical of technologies.

    Best wishes as you think on this topic..

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