Defining the Word “Technology” … Four Times

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.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

9 thoughts on “Defining the Word “Technology” … Four Times”

  1. Point 0 seems a little broad – or, at least, your example of an orchestra as technology doesn’t seem quite right to me. “Technology” seems to be a narrower concept than “culture” and an orchestra seems to fit more in the category of cultural artifact (or perhaps aesthetic artifact) than technology.

    I’d say something similar to point 1. Technology is something narrower than those things that are not “natural.” The “Mona Lisa” and a hammer both fall in that category but only the later is technology.

    1. Eric, I agree that there is some overlap with concepts like culture and art. Also there is a need to define “technology” in such a way that separates it from things animals make such as beaver dams and bees’ nests.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I had been trying to come up with my own definition of technology for a little while. I was in the ballpark but this definition really puts into words a lot of the ideas I couldn’t formulate.

  3. Perhaps this cuts across your categories a bit.

    McLuhan, of course, talks of technology as extensions of man (mostly your “hardware). Lance Strate points out that some technologies are “container technologies” more than they are extensions. The pop can, canteen, and molten steel vat are these types.

    Strate further describes cities as container technologies, and likens computers to cities in this way. He cites Mumford who calls the ancient city “a container of containers.” And indeed, connected computers have enabled a diffusion of the metroplis so that we can now telecommute and work from the suburbs or the other side of the country. (The computer then makes the city obsolete for many things, mostly work related. But this explains why cities are being rebirthed as hubs for culture and arts instead of commerce, social networking notwithstanding.)

    In this sense, a 5th type of technology is as environment.

    I enjoy your blog.

    1. Thanks for adding the description of “containers.” I’d like to do another post on some of the various ways that the hardware category can be further such as the containers you mention (though I think you’re right about classifying them as ‘environment’) and Borgmann’s device paradigm. I’d love to hear any additional classifications of which you’re aware.

      Also, thanks for pointing out those video from Dr. Schuchardt on your blog. I’d like to repost those soon.

  4. Absolutely true!Technology is driving a lot of things in our lives. It has influenced a lot of people and has helped to make things better, easier and safer.Nobody can deny that technology has brought comfort to our lives, but almost all of us confess this fact that technology by itself has got a lot of deficits that in long term will cause a lot of side effects either physically or emotionally.

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