Why Technology Isn’t Just Applied Science

Image from the British Library's collection on Flickr

Image from the British Library’s collection on Flickr

Do you love the nuances of a subtle definition, or do technicalities often strike you as trifling details? In case it’s the latter, please bear with this post, as defining what is (and isn’t) meant by technology is important for the early stages of a blog about tech and people!

Anyway, here’s Chambers’ (21st C) attempt as an opening example:

technology noun (technologies) 1 the practical use of scientific knowledge in industry and everyday life. 2 practical sciences as a group. 3 the technical skills and achievements of a particular time in history, of civilization or a group of people.

Chambers’ broad definition is typical of other sources. Is technology the application of science; an activity or practice; a specific branch of knowledge; the study of certain techniques; or something else? Is it one or more – or even all of – the above?

In The Nature of Technology, economist W Brian Arthur describes such definitions as “badly fused together and possibly even contradictory”. He offers a definition that seems thoughtful and precise, as well as representing the word’s common usage.

There are three parts to his definition:

1. Technology is always a “means to fulfill a human purpose”.

As a means, a technology might be a device (like an engine), or a process (filtration), or a method (like an algorithm). It might be complicated (like artificial intelligence) or simple (like a pulley), it could be something you could touch, or something intangible.

2. Technology is an “assemblage of practices and components”.

Some technologies (e.g. biotech or electronics) are also assemblies of other technologies. Later in the book. Arthur writes at some length about the recursive structure of technologies, each comprising assemblies or components which are technologies in their own right.

3. Technology is the “entire collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture”.

This is the collective meaning of technology, used when we talk about technology as ‘the solution for climate change’, or as the reason for ‘the pace of modern life’, for example. Arthur notes it’s the same idea that technologist Kevin Kelly refers to with his term the technium.

Arthur’s book is well worth reading for more on technology, not so much on the opportunities or risks of new tech, but on what technology actually is. He aims to set out what he thinks is missing: a theory – or “-ology” – of technology.

Let’s end with the common idea that technology is simply the application of science. Arthur thinks it’s more complicated – powered flight emerged with no need for science, and it’s only since the mid 1800s that tech has borrowed scientific knowledge.

Modern technology does use scientific ideas, but so does science rely on technology. The telescope enabled modern astronomy as much as Copernicus, and Watson and Crick (and Franklin) relied on X-ray diffraction methods to discover the structure of DNA.

The reality, Arthur argues, is that science is deeply woven into technology, as technology is into science.

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