So I’m auditing this class on the intellectual history of the term technology. As a result, I’ve been thinking a bunch lately about the ways in which people apply the term today. Over beers at the Thirsty Scholar last night, I asked Scott for his definition, and he produced — without hesitation — the following:

Technology is science applied in the form of tools that solve practical problems.

I laughed at how quickly he was able to give a concise definition, as he quipped, “Technology is not creating a smaller MP3 player.”
“I guess it hinges on how you define your problems,” I replied.
We talked about it a bit more, and the discussion also produced the following delineation, which I found interesting:

Science is in books; technology is in our lives.

Now let’s have a brief history lesson here. The word technology did not appear in English until around the 1830s, when a fellow named James Bigelow (of Harvard, I believe) first used it to refer to the body of books and literature relating to the study of the mechanic arts. (Indicentally, the term scientist also emerges around this time. Science, of course, had been around for ages, but scientist as a professional category simply didn’t exist until this point.) When MIT was founded in 1861, the T in its name referred to technology in Bigelow’s original sense. At some point, though, the term took on a vastly broader and more intricate meaning — this transition is what we’re studying in this class.
I’m interested to hear people’s definitions of technology, so lay ’em on me if you’ve got ’em. Scott’s definition is a good one, but I suspect that it’s more considered and carefully used in his case than it is by most people — which is to say that Scott tends to be, um, a bit particular about technical things, probably to his credit. Of course, the way people define the term when asked may result in something different than the way they use it casually, but both are revealing.
I’ll leave you with the inscription around the interior of the Lobby 7 dome:

Established for advancement and development of science, its application to industry, the arts, agriculture, and commerce.


5 thoughts on “Technology.

  1. — so says I.
    I think this may well be considered to include bodily limbs, although I am more satisfied when the concept reaches beyond the immediate brain and body; however, I am personally committed to “hand/eyes/brain” coordination as the basic expression of technology, although I suppose that this most usually includes ‘reach” beyond the hand to grasp an external object/animal to achieve the end sought. Some birds and the chimpanzee have been observed and recorded as using sticks to reach food sources. Primates use sticks (and i think stones) to model persuasive threats (doubtless the source of murder and war). Men used the same objects and then fashioned tools (this word must be understood to include weapons) from them. Beginning with stone chipping, then the appearance of raw metallurgy, and then sophisticated chemical materials research and application) the state of technology became so increasingly rarified that the average person became a consumer (first by barter and theft) rather than a manu-as in hand-facturer-as in maker. This distance is now so pronounced that we have the appearance in society of persons like The Mighty Johnston who abhor the easy use of words like “technology” to describe they know not what, when he knows very well.
    This is why we admire folks like Henry David Thoreau — inventer of the clenched graphite pencilfrom the produce of his father’s graphite mine — who kept his ear and his outstretched body “to the ground,” despite his ever-increasing personal advance of understanding; and artist (paiinter) Samuel Morse, inventer of the telegraph, who despite his artistry did not separate himself from the science of his day but carried it forward to the benefit of humankind. it is this last phrase that may be the dividiing line between those who comprehend “technology” and those who simply “want” rahter than aspire to or need. And what is it they want? “Things.”
    Loving you for yourself!

  2. I should never have used those weighty, self-eliminating karats! in the previous message! They embraced “Technology is what one uses to achieve the imaginings of the brain.” — so says I.

  3. Quasi-Luddite that I am, technology is meaningful to me insofar as it is indicative of our understanding of the world: it is the residue left behind when science has done its job, and it is improved based on a combination of improvements in scientific understanding and simple ingenuity.
    I’d definitely accord it more importance than that statement might indicate — hell, what would I do without a computer (well, other than be a pencil-and-paper theorist, which would be delightful but no longer sufficient these days in my field) or a stove or a toothbrush or a zipper? — but I still find that I have to accord science pride of place.
    The quote about science being in books doesn’t sit well with me because I find that it is impossible to see the world in the same light as before after gaining a little scientific knowledge: it has irrevocably altered my “lived experience” to the point that I would say that science is in the fabric of my being and colors all that I do, whereas technology is all too easily blackboxed. I don’t think an engineer’s sentiment would be the mirror image, so perhaps that simply indicates how circumscribed my intellectual curiosity can be.
    But, in any case, a thought or two, and poor ones at that.

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