Technology, like “art,” is not a terribly easy word to define. It turns out that some philosophers have already done a decent job of parceling out categories, and I think they are helpful enough to list them out here. These definitions come from Stephen J. Kline’s 1985 article “What is Technology” found in the Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society.
1. Technology as Hardware – this is the basic level that most of us mean when we use the word “technology.” As a piece of hardware (or an “artifact” for the anthropologist or “cultural good” for the sociologist), “technology” could be a clock, a shovel, a laptop, a belt, a thermometer, a can of root beer, a canteen, a tank, or a fake duck decoy. These are basically things do not occur “naturally” – which, for theists, are things God himself did not make. [As commenter Eric pointed out, this is a very broad definition which overlaps with things we would normally call art. I would also point out that this definition encompasses things that animals might make like bees’ hives and beavers’ dams.]
2. Technology as Manufacturing – taking a step back from the devices in our pockets and on our desks (and the desk itself) are the things that are used to make all these other things. Technology as manufacturing includes not just about the vat holding the molten steel for our next car or the robot putting together our next computer, but also the entire process (or “sociotechnical system,” as the philosophers say) from the people running the machines to the electrical grid powering the plant to the legislation passed that regulates the industry. This conception of technology was largely non-existent before the Industrial Revolution.
3. Technology as Methodology – If technology as manufacturing encompasses all the physical goods and people involved in making hardware, this third usage is the knowledge and knowhow – or in Jaques Ellul’s terminology La Technique – behind all of these processes. This usage of technology does not refer to a physical product or even the physical machines used to make the product, but the routines, methods, and skills used to make modern hardware. Consulting firms make billions of dollars refining and streamlining the methods (or “business processes”) that companies use to make their hardware. Methodological thinking trickles into our lives every time we say, “Let’s try to standardize that” whether it be a recipe, a Bible study, or a parenting method. In doing so, we are putting together a set of actions, and making it a way of doing things – a technique. Ellul criticized this aspect of modern technological society because it makes efficiency the highest good above humanity, community, fellowship, and other values central to a Christian conception of God’s purpose for human life.
0. Technology as Social Usage – I label this one zero because it is the top level of how we as a society use technology. Our rules for driving are a kind of social technology imposed on top of the hardware of the car. The simultaneous actions of 45 people forming an orchestra are also a kind of technology that binds together instruments, people, and music (again, there is an overlap with art and technology). The way that you are reading this blog post (on a website, in a feed reader, etc.) and the idea that you might comment and I might reply are all social processes built on top of and intimately connected to the hardware, the underlying manufacturing, and even the technological knowledge of blogging.
The point to all of this is that “technology” is not just the phones in our pockets and the laptops in our bags. When we use these pieces of hardware we are taking part in something much bigger than ourselves, something that affects us individually and socially. Ultimately, having a deeper more nuanced understanding of technology can make us more careful in our usage and more cognizant of the humanity (God’s most precious creation) underneath it all.