What is technology?


‘Technology’ is one of the keywords of our world, yet it is also one of the most confused. As an analytical category it seems necessary for our understanding of all of humanity’s history, and indeed beyond. We are probably comfortable with asserting that humans have had technologies since the Palaeolithic, and a menagerie of animals, from crows to chimps, have even been identified as tool users. As an actors’ category ‘technology’ is of surprisingly recent vintage, although cognate terms – techne, arts, and so on – have a much longer history. Yet even for a recent English word ‘technology’ has come to embrace often conflicting meanings. In this essay review I have three aims. First, I will offer a summary of Eric Schatzberg’s important new opus Technology, which untangles and clarifies the history of ‘technology’ and its cognates as actors’ categories. Second, I will conduct a critical analysis, arguing that Schatzberg, while helpfully placing past ways of thinking about technology into two camps, ones he calls the ‘cultural’ and ‘instrumental’ approaches, makes a misstep when he favours the former over the latter. Third, I offer an extension of my preferred instrumentalist definition, one which highlights an essential property of technologies – their power to intervene over scales – in a way that, I suggest, offers a new, invigorating direction of study for historians of science and technology.


Eric Schatzberg’s publications have long been invaluable to those who teach the history of technology. His article ‘Technik comes to America: changing meanings of technology before 1930’, which appeared in Technology and Culture in 2006, was essential reading for students and was the best guide to its subject. 1 In Technology: Critical History of a Concept, Schatzberg expands and deepens the overview offered in that paper, and effectively draws upon the best of current historiography, while offering insights of his own. It will be the standard work for many years.

Etymologically, ‘technology’ has its roots in the Indo-European root tek, ‘a term that probably referred to the building of wooden houses by wattling, that is, weaving sticks together’ (p. 19). That is why ‘textile’ and ‘technology’ sound similar. From tek comes the Greek techne, initially skills of working with wood but soon broadened to specialized expertise, ‘know how’, knowledge of how to make things that would otherwise not exist. Techne, therefore, concerned the artificial. Nevertheless, there were already disputes. Medicine was a form of techne, at least to some of the Hippocratic authors. But was, say, rhetoric techne? Plato said no, Aristotle said yes. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle went further: while techne was a form of knowledge (of how to make, an art), it was to be distinguished from phronesis (moral knowledge, knowledge of how to act well) and episteme (knowledge of the eternal). Crucially, these three were set in a hierarchy. Knowledge of how to act was better than knowledge of how to make. This hierarchy led to the separation of means and ends. Ends might be valued, but the mere means of getting there would not be, and in insisting on this point techne became ‘morally neutral’ (p. 22).

Schatzberg is careful to contextualize these arguments. Aristotle was defending an aristocratic hierarchy: those at the top might have had time and independence for the contemplation of the eternal as well as the philosophical reassurance of knowing how to act well, while those lower down who had to labour to make the necessities of life possessed techne. But, as Serafina Cuomo and Pamela Long, amongst others, have argued, there were always tensions within the hierarchy: aristocratic society still needed things to be built, and artisans could, on occasion, contest their lowly status. Nevertheless, contempt for the ‘banausic’ – base, manual – arts was passed from Greek to Roman elite culture.

While Aristotle’s fine distinctions were lost, the hierarchy remained even as techne, or the Latin translation ars, widened to cover all types of learning. Galen in the second century CE included everything from woodworking and handicrafts (at the contemptible end) to medicine, philosophy and arithmetic (at the honourable end, the ‘liberal arts’). In early Medieval Europe, flattened hierarchies necessitated more contact between clerical elites and craft workers, encouraging deeper reflection by the former on the latter. The result was a new category: the ‘mechanical arts’. Like Lynn White and Elspeth Whitney, Schatzberg credits the twelfth-century theologian Hugh of St Victor with influentially wielding this category, although unlike White he emphasizes that the mechanical arts were still subordinate to the liberal arts.

From the fifteenth century the dependence of expanding political, military and commercial power on artisanal skills, which Schatzberg, again following Long, calls the ‘new alliance of techne and praxis’, fostered a ‘surge in authorship about the mechanical arts’, some by a humanist elite and some by artisans themselves (pp. 43–4). Yet this was not an alliance of equals, and the ‘trouble with techne’ – that it had the potential to upset the social order – remained. The mechanical arts remained subordinated, even as their status was somewhat revised. Francis Bacon’s works, such as The New Organon and New Atlantis, exemplified the turn by scholars to ‘reject the categorical separation of science and material practice [ … ] without rejecting the existing hierarchy of head over hand’ (pp. 48, 50). Technicians, as we know from the arguments of Steven Shapin, were written out of visibility.

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