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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Technology: I Know It When I See It

Technology. We live with it every day. It creates our life experiences as much as we create technology. We can't pick up a publication without reading about what is hot in "tech" (the shortened version of hi-tech which is itself the shortened version of high technology). Our current list of what wears the "tech" accolade consists of biotech, nanotech, infotech, and other esoteric topics. Carl Sagan once remarked,

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology,in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.


I am trying to do my little bit to remedy that. I have started planning a short course on the history of technology. It seems that a practical place to start such a history is to define the word "technology". The word is used so frequently and so casually that surely a good definition would be easy to find. Not so. The word has its roots in the Greek words "techne" and "logos". For the Greeks, techne related to the arts and crafts and contrasted with "episteme" which usually referred to the sciences. More specifically, techne referred to the skills that were needed to make or build something. The term "logos" meant "word" and has been broadened to mean "knowledge". So, techne+logos has been interpreted to mean the knowledge of skill and crafts.

It's not clear who first used the word "technology" in its modern form. One candidate whom has been suggested is Jacob Bigelow, a professor at Harvard who wrote a book in 1829 entitled The Elements of Technology. This book was intended to be a catalog of technologies from ancient to modern. Bigelow was the first to hold the Rumford Chair at Harvard, a chair endowed by Count Rumford (Sir Benjamin Thompson) who had been born in Massachusetts in 1753 and who died in Paris in 1814. Thompson, a loyalist, fled the colonies for England during the American Revolution. He was named Count Rumford in 1792 while working for the Bavarian Government (the name he took, Rumford, was the early name of Concord, New Hampshire where he taught school). But Rumford would have been very much in tune with Bigelow's book.

Bigelow wrote extensively in the introduction of his book about the "arts and sciences" (the same as the Greek techne and epsiteme). This is an older pairing than our more current "science and technology". In Bigelow's world, the arts included all of the practical arts embodied in the Greek word "techne". Technology was part of the arts and separate from the sciences, which focused more on discovery than on crafts. As technology has become evermore based on science, we have coined the phrase "applied sciences" to represent the intersection between pure science and the more pragmatic technologies. The boundaries between these domains get ever blurrier and we probably will never have something that is pure technology.

But I still am looking for a good definition of technology. Perhaps a good working definition is:

The systematic knowledge and the methods and procedures which can be used in a specific area in order to resolve practical problems.(ref)

What makes up what we call technology changes with every generation and often much more often than that. A century ago it was airplanes, automobiles, electric power distribution, motion pictures, and a host of other things that have since receded into the background fabric of our lives.


The late Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy gave a great tongue-in-cheek description of the evolving stages of technology in a 1999 essay on the internet:

1) Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) Anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.


I love this description because it not only helps to define the "newness" angle on technology but also our ambivalence about the new dimensions of tech that threaten our status quo. The New New Thing is still trying to solve some practical problem in our lives. It seems to often happen that the original target for the technology proves to be unworkable but technology is amazingly resilient and seeks an application as surely as water seeking its own level. The reservoir of technology, of knowledge of the practical arts, keeps rising.

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