TCS Daily

What Does 'Technology' Mean?

By Eugene Miller - June 11, 2003 12:00 AM

If we are to discuss technology intelligibly, we must define it, but this requires some care. Overly broad definitions are apt to obscure technology's distinctive character as well as its philosophic origins. Also, they tend to conceal the reasons technology remains controversial and, for many, problematic.

Toward a Definition

Suppose we define technology as "human making or doing that exhibits some degree of skill." A definition of this sort is broad enough to encompass humankind's earliest tool-making activities as well as the latest products of modern engineering. It fails to take account, however, of fundamental ways in which technology, as it has emerged in recent centuries, differs from primitive techniques and from the highly developed arts that would follow. Whether there is technology, properly speaking, in the Stone Age, or in Greek and Roman times, or in the middle ages, is doubtful, although the term is often applied retrospectively to those epochs.

The term "technology" did not appear until around the turn of the seventeenth century, and its initial meanings were quite different from the one that it commonly has today. "Technology" derives from the combination of two Greek words - techne (commonly used for an art or craft) and legein (to speak, calculate, collect) or logos (a word, speech, reasoning). Quite literally, then, technology is reasoned discourse on an art or arts or else the terminology of a particular art, and this is what the term designated in its early but infrequent uses (see the Oxford English Dictionary). Technology as thus defined - speaking or reasoning about the arts - is as old as the arts themselves.

By the nineteenth century, technology came to mean the application of scientific principles to the useful arts, or rather a new way of making and doing whose basis is experimental or theoretical science. Here the emphasis is on the activity itself, along with its rational grounding and its products, and not on what we might say or think about it. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was founded in 1861, for example, to promote this new endeavor, and other such institutes would follow later in the century.

From this point forward "technology" would be used widely in its present sense of science based invention and production. Over the past century it has typically referred to a form of making and doing that depends on or derives from natural science, and not to the arts as independent activities. This is the technology that is distinctive to the modern world.

Technics and Technology

These etymological details offer clues for constructing a history of technology. One should recognize, first of all, that technology is not the same thing as the arts, whose own history is much longer. Donald Cardwell captures this difference by distinguishing between "technology" and "technics." The history of technics, as Cardwell describes it, encompasses the development of the arts and crafts and the inventions they have produced. This history begins with the first appearance of human beings on earth as tool makers and tool users, and it continues to the present day, since technics is "as important, or more important, than ever."

The history of technology is distinct from, but related to, that of technics. Cardwell dates it from the eighteenth century, when the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions took off in England and France. We note that this emerging reality required a name, and it is hardly accidental that "technology" took on its present day meaning not so long after these revolutions began to have an impact. Cardwell does point out that sometime earlier - he supposes at the beginning of the middle ages in Europe - "a remarkable change took place in humanity's perception of and attitude to Nature," and he holds that technology is rooted in this change.

This new stance toward nature is captured well in the definition of "technology" advanced by Joel Mokyr. Technology, according to Mokyr, is "the manipulation of nature for human material gain," or else the kind of knowledge that is useful in such manipulation. Technology "describes the equipment we use in our game against nature."

Mokyr is acknowledging here that technology must be understood not just in terms of its method, but also with a view to how it positions itself with respect to nature and why it assumes such a position. Implicitly his definition excludes - or at least reinterprets - those modes of making and doing that would appear to take a non-manipulative stance, as might be required, for example, by a belief that the earth is a mother to be revered, or that nature bestows its benefits upon us generously, or that we must accommodate ourselves to the order of divine creation as it is given to us.

Once technology is defined this way, its history becomes incomprehensible apart from the history of ideas. The industrial and scientific revolutions must have been preceded by a revolution in the way people thought about nature, so that it now appeared to them as an object for manipulation through a new kind of science. Mokyr himself recognizes that the way for technology was opened by a revolution in early modern philosophy, associated particularly with the writings of Francis Bacon. The beginnings of technology must in some sense be dated from this point.

The Philosophic History of Technology

As we see, the meaning of technology and thus the boundaries of its history are issues that require philosophical reflection as well as empirical investigation.

Let us divide the history of human making and doing, as Cardwell does, into two broad streams.

First, there is the history of the arts (technai) or of what Cardwell calls "technics." This history could not have originated with philosophy, since philosophical inquiry made its appearance much later than the arts. In fact, how the arts began, and what they meant to people at first, is shrouded in mystery, since their origin predates all historical records. These matters are the subject of mythology, as retold by the poets (for example, Hesiod's and Aeschylus' adaptations of the Prometheus myth) and of revelation (for example, the Genesis account of the Garden, of Cain and Abel, and of Babel). Of course, philosophers also have speculated about the origin and significance of the arts (for example, Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and Rousseau's Second Discourse), as have today's archeologists and historical anthropologists. There is much to learn from these sources, despite their largely conjectural character.

Technology has a separate but overlapping history. This history differs from that of the arts, insofar as it grows out of distinctive ideas about nature and our relationship to it. These ideas were formulated in a particularly influential way by leading early modern philosophers such as Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes. Whether the new conception of nature or being had emerged before they wrote is a question worth exploring.

The point might be stated in this rather Hegelian way: the history of technology consists of both an idea and the actualization of that idea. The idea of technology took shape around the beginning of the seventeenth century, but its actualization - truly basing invention and production on a new understanding of nature and a new scientific method - began to occur about 150 years later. Mokyr points out that even in the 18th century, technological progress "was essentially empirical and nonscience based." The most important advances "were not based on a deep understanding of the physical or chemical principles involved." Technology's dual origins - the idea and the actualization of the idea - is implied also by Mokyr's comment that Bacon's ideas were "more normative than positive in the early seventeenth century." Technology emerged full blown when the new ideas were both normative and positive.

In sum, technology itself is a philosophical undertaking or project. It is a highly self conscious form of making and doing whose genesis lies in distinctive but contested philosophic teachings. Close attention to the unfolding of modern philosophy is thus required to understand how the history of technology originated and developed and, of course, how it has been received.


1. The Norton History of Technology, p. 6. See pp. 3-11.

2. The Norton History of Technology, p. 11.

3. The Gifts of Athena, pp. 2-3, 284.

4. "Are We Living in the Middle of an Industrial Revolution?" Economic Review (Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City), Second Quarter 1997, p. 34. Downloadable in PDF.

5. The Gifts of Athena, p. 41.

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