Technology: Critical History of a Concept

Technology: Critical History of a Concept

by Eric Schatzberg

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In modern life, technology is everywhere. Yet as a concept, technology is a mess. In popular discourse, technology is little more than the latest digital innovations. Scholars do little better, offering up competing definitions that include everything from steelmaking to singing. In Technology: Critical History of a Concept, Eric Schatzberg explains why technology is so difficult to define by examining its three thousand year history, one shaped by persistent tensions between scholars and technical practitioners. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, scholars have tended to hold technicians in low esteem, defining technical practices as mere means toward ends defined by others. Technicians, in contrast, have repeatedly pushed back against this characterization, insisting on the dignity, creativity, and cultural worth of their work. 

​The tension between scholars and technicians continued from Aristotle through Francis Bacon and into the nineteenth century. It was only in the twentieth century that modern meanings of technology arose: technology as the industrial arts, technology as applied science, and technology as technique. Schatzberg traces these three meanings to the present day, when discourse about technology has become pervasive, but confusion among the three principal meanings of technology remains common. He shows that only through a humanistic concept of technology can we understand the complex human choices embedded in our modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226584027
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/12/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Eric Schatzberg is the chair of the School of History and Sociology in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Read an Excerpt


Introduction: An Odd Concept

Technology is everywhere. The word permeates discourse high and low, from television advertisements to postmodern theories. In terms of word frequency, technology ranks on a par with science, right in the middle of other key concepts of modernity (see figure 1). In many ways, technology has displaced science as the main concept for making sense of modern material culture, as seen in phrases such as "information, bio-, and nanotechnology."

But the definition of technology is a mess. Rather than helping us make sense of modernity, the term sows confusion. Its multiple meanings are contradictory. In popular discourse, technology is little more than shorthand for the latest innovation in digital devices. Leading public intellectuals, such as Thomas Friedman, produce an endless stream of shallow prose on this theme in their best-selling books.

Academics do only a bit better. Some scholars define technology as "all the many ways things are in fact done and made." Such definitions are so broad as to be almost useless, covering everything from steelmaking to singing. Other academics define technology narrowly as the application of science, often pointing to technologies like the atomic bomb and the transistor, both of which depended heavily on prior scientific discoveries. Yet historians of technology have spent decades criticizing this definition, arguing that science is at most one factor in technology. Cultural critics and philosophers, in contrast, often view technology as an oppressive system of total control that turns means into ends, seeking only its own perpetuation, what Lewis Mumford called the "megamachine." Poststructuralists use technology in a similar but more positive way to refer to methods and skills in general, as when Michel Foucault writes about "technologies of the self" and "technologies of power." Technology can also refer to material artifacts, from prehistoric stone tools to nuclear power stations. And finally, other scholars, including me, define technology as the set of practices humans use to transform the material world, practices involved in creating and using material things.

Given this welter of contradictory meanings, some scholars have suggested jettisoning the term completely. Yet I believe that a concept like technology is necessary to make sense of human history. Since the beginning of the species, humans have consciously shaped the material world to sustain life and express culture. Without stone tools, woven baskets, and other artifacts, early human civilization would have been impossible. And without the material forms that express our values, dreams, and desires, human culture would barely exist. These diverse material practices lie at the heart of human history, and technology provides the best concept to describe them.

Technology in the sense of material practices is particularly central to modernity, the era that gave birth to the industrial age and all its consequences. "Technology made modernity possible," proclaims the philosopher Philip Brey. Yet as Brey notes, theorists of modernity have done remarkably little to incorporate technology into their theories. One searches in vain for a clearly articulated concept of technology among leading theorists of modernity such as Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Anthony Giddens, Jean-François Lyotard, and others. Even scholars who focus explicitly on technology often treat the concept as unproblematic.

The marginal status of technology as a concept isn't the result of historical accident. Instead, this marginality is rooted in a fundamental problem. In the division of labor that accompanied the rise of human civilization, people who specialized in the use of words, namely scholars, grew distant from people who specialized in the transformation of the material world, that is, technicians. Our present-day concept of technology is the product of such tensions between technicians and scholars. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, technicians have fit uneasily into social hierarchies, especially aristocratic hierarchies based on birth.

This tension between scholars and technicians has produced two sharply divergent traditions about the nature of technology and antecedent concepts. On one side, defenders of technicians view technology as a creative expression of human culture. In this view, technology is imbued with human values and strivings in all their contradictory complexity. I term this position the cultural approach to technology. The cultural approach is epitomized by the American public intellectual Lewis Mumford. In the 1930s, Mumford argued that technology (technics, in his terminology) "exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill." German engineers around the turn of the twentieth century made similar claims, insisting that technology (Technik) was an essential component of culture and a product of the human spirit.

Technologies thus express the spirit of an age, just like works of art. The invention of the mechanical clock in western Europe at the end of the thirteenth century, for example, did not itself create the sense of time. Instead, the mechanical clock reflected a prior consciousness of time, rooted in monasteries and medieval towns, that motivated people to invent, improve, and embrace this new instrument. Chinese craftsmen had created far more sophisticated astronomical clocks in the eleventh century, but these devices failed to spread because they did not reflect a widespread desire for timekeeping.

In contrast to the cultural approach, other scholars take what I term the instrumental approach to technology. Supporters of this approach, often humanist intellectuals, insist that technology is a mere instrument that serves ends defined by others. This vision portrays technology as narrow technical rationality, uncreative and devoid of values. The American sociologist Talcott Parsons, for example, described technology as "the simplest means-end relationship," the choice of the best methods for achieving a specific goal. In this narrow view, even cost becomes irrelevant. For example, an engineer seeking corrosion resistance might choose gold rather than iron for an oil pan. Two millennia earlier, Aristotle had made a similar argument, dividing the practical arts (techne) from both ethical and philosophical knowledge. According to Aristotle, ethics and philosophy were inherently virtuous, while the practical arts acquired virtue only by serving ends external to themselves.

Both these conceptions of technology express fundamental truths. As a set of concrete material practices, technologies are always both cultural and instrumental, similar to what we find in works of fine art. Artistic expression requires both aesthetic sensibility and technique, that is, cultural creativity along with the instrumental means to express this creativity. Although we can distinguish between aesthetic creativity and technique, fine art can never be reduced to either, even though the art world often denigrates technical skill over aesthetic expression.

Discourse about modern technology favors the instrumental over the cultural viewpoint. An entire tradition of philosophical critique is based on precisely this reduction of technology to technique, that is, instrumental rationality. But enthusiasts also embrace the instrumental understanding of technology. For enthusiasts, our modern technological civilization represents the embodiment of reason in the world, with new technologies as the vanguard of progress. In contrast, the cultural understanding of technology is definitely a minority view. It is found, for example, among historians of technology who connect technological choices to specific aspects of culture and society, and among a few thoughtful engineers who seek to defend the dignity and autonomy of their profession.

More than intellectual clarity is at stake here. The tension between the instrumental and the cultural understanding of technology has concrete implications for the role of technology in late modernity. Most fundamentally, the instrumental concept of technology effaces the role of human agency. It focuses on innovation rather than use, treating actual technologies as natural objects, stripped of creativity and craft, subordinate to scientific knowledge, mere means to ends. When the instrumental view grants a role to human agency, it restricts this agency to a narrow technical elite or the rare inventive genius. In contrast, the cultural concept of technology is human centered, stressing use rather than novelty. It views technology as a creative, value-laden human practice, a practice that relies irreducibly on craft skills as well as formal knowledge. In this view, all humans are the rightful heirs to technology, not just technical elites.

Unfortunately, historical amnesia has obscured the tensions between the cultural and instrumental views of technology, even among historians of technology. Because these tensions remain largely unrecognized, they have produced a concept of technology that is, ironically, ill suited for understanding late modernity. Most of the present-day pathologies in the concept of technology are, I argue, rooted in this clash between the cultural and the instrumental approaches. If we ever hope to make sense of modernity, scholars need to acknowledge their unique and at times pernicious role in the history of this concept.

The Marginality of Technology in Scholarly Discourse

This lack of attention to technology is all the more surprising when compared with the massive literature on other central concepts of modernity, such as art, science, culture, and politics. There are two main reasons for this neglect. The first lies in the human propensity to take most technologies for granted. The philosopher Langdon Winner terms this attitude of not-seeing "technological somnambulism," the tendency to sleepwalk through the material processes that constitute much of what it means to be human. Similarly, Paul Edwards describes how everyday technologies disappear in a fog of familiarity, particularly "mature technological systems" like sewers or electric power, which "reside in a naturalized background, as ordinary and unremarkable to us as trees, daylight and dirt." Only when such technologies fail do people become aware of their powerful presence.

As a result of this somnambulism, the technologies that garner the most attention are new devices and processes. Yet as David Edgerton has shown, daily life relies far more on old technologies like cotton fabrics and asphalt roads than on the latest smartphone. The focus on novelty has become embedded in the very concept of technology itself, thus rendering invisible most of what makes technology significant both today and in the past.

But invisibility of the quotidian only partly explains the relative neglect of technology in scholarly discourse. Language is surely less visible than the infrastructures and artifacts of modern technology. Yet since the ancient Greeks, scholars have worked tirelessly to make language visible as an object of inquiry. Why has technology, both in substance and as a concept, not received similar attention in Western intellectual history?

Most scholarship is produced by intellectuals who experience technology primarily from the outside. Since ancient times, much of this discourse has displayed an appalling ignorance if not outright hostility toward the practical arts. In the 1920s, John Dewey criticized this attitude of "profound distrust of the arts" and "disparagement attending the idea of the material," which was expressed philosophically in "the sharp division between theory and practice." (Note that Dewey was using the term arts in its broader meaning, which includes all forms of making, not just the fine arts.) In the Western philosophical tradition, knowing has been consistently ranked higher than making, if making was considered at all. This prejudice continues in our late-modern era, when humanist intellectuals often see technology as a threat, and most natural scientists elevate pure knowledge over practical applications, a bias that also dominates philosophy of science.

Despite the general distrust of the practical arts and the denigration of practice, alternative scholarly traditions have dealt sympathetically with topics that would now be termed technology. One tradition has affirmed the dignity of the mechanical arts and technology, from the twelfth-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor through Francis Bacon and Karl Marx. Another approach, more critical of technology's pervasive role in the culture of modernity, has also been deeply engaged with technological practices and ideas, from Mary Shelley to Lewis Mumford. Some of these thinkers, most important Mumford, played key roles in the history of the concept of technology.

More recently, scholars in science and technology studies (STS) have tried to remedy the scholarly neglect of technology, producing significant theoretical insights in addition to their empirical works. However, STS scholars still tend to collapse technology into science, as demonstrated by the widely used concept of technoscience. Historians of technology also have made major contributions to the discourse of technology, particularly through the Society for the History of Technology and similar academic organizations. And philosophers of technology have generated an impressive body of literature that grapples with fundamental questions of theory. But the history and philosophy of technology have for the most part remained intellectual ghettoes, even within their respective scholarly disciplines. Few papers in these fields are presented at national meetings of historians and philosophers. When scholars outside these subfields discuss technology, they often ignore the contributions of historians and philosophers of technology.

Some historians and philosophers of technology have internalized the prejudices that make them feel marginal. Historians of technology in particular have developed a Rodney Dangerfield complex, plaintively lamenting their lack of respect in the broader scholarly community. Such thinking may explain why this field has failed to clarify the concept of technology itself, a failure directly linked to the lack of historical consciousness about technology the term. If academics who specialize in the study of technology can't figure out what it means, how can we expect others to do so?

This lack of historical consciousness is especially clear when philosophers try to get a handle on the concept of technology. Philosophers tend to prefer prescriptive to descriptive definitions; that is, they make claims about how terms ought to be used. Such claims are usually justified on logical rather than historical grounds. For example, a number of philosophers writing in English have sought to differentiate technology from technique (or technics). One such philosopher is Larry Hickman, a creative thinker who applies insights from John Dewey's pragmatism to the philosophy of technology. Hickman notes that etymologically, technology should refer to the study of technical things, but that instead the term usually refers to the technical things themselves, or "technique." Hickman defines technique rather oddly as "habitualized skills together with tools and artifacts."

Hickman calls for separating these two terms, technique and technology. He ascribes to technology all the higher cognitive qualities involved in using tools and artifacts to solve problems. When a problem is solved, what remains is technique, the stable, largely noncognitive solution. In this schema, technology is "active, reflective and creative," while technique is "for the most part passive, non-reflective and automatic."

Hickman's approach falls short, however, in its lack of any historical basis for his definitions of technique and technology. He seems unaware that almost all continental European languages maintain a distinction between technique and technology, but one that does not deny creativity to technique. Since the 1890s, all attempts to strip away the creative, cognitive components of the Continental concept of technique have been fiercely resisted by technical practitioners and their intellectual allies. In a sense, Hickman has reproduced, in his artificial division between technique and technology, the same historical separation of mind and hand, theory and practice, that Dewey himself sought to overcome.


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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: An Odd Concept
2 “The Trouble with Techne”: Ancient Conceptions of Technical Knowledge
3 The Discourse of Ars in the Latin Middle Ages
4 Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts in the Early Modern Era
5 From Art to Applied Science: Creating a “Semantic Void”
6 Technology in the Nineteenth Century: A Marginal Concept
7 Discourse of Technik: Engineers and Humanists
8 Thorstein Veblen’s Appropriation of Technik
9 Veblen’s Legacy: Culture versus Determinism
10 Technology in the Social Sciences before World War II
11 Science and Technology between the World Wars
12 Suppression and Revival: Technology in World War II and the Cold War
13 Conclusion: Technology as Keyword in the 1960s and Beyond
Rehabilitating Technology: A Manifesto


What People are Saying About This

Thomas J. Misa

“This book is thoroughly researched, thoughtfully conceived, carefully structured, and provides real insight into the conceptual origins and genealogy of the term ‘technology.’  Schatzberg stretches his coverage from the ancient world to the present day.  This immensely satisfying piece of historical scholarship deserves wide readership.”

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