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:
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?