I have always loved history. There is a deep seeded belief in me that it is vitally important to know where we came from in order to know where we are going. As a person who calls himself a technologist I wanted to understand where the word technology comes from in order to better to understand where technology is going. In this post I examine the origin of the word technology in a hope of better understanding its evolution and thus purpose in my practice as a technologist.
It’s Greek to Me
Technology is not an old word in English. The ancient Greeks used the word techne which meant skill with art, or craft. In fact Plato and Plotinus had an entire hierarchy of knowledge that expanded in an ascending scale from crafts to science and it moved from the physical to the intellectual. Technical art ranked somewhere in the middle of this schema.
Aristotle had a more neutral, simpler and far less value-laden concept of techne, which he described in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6, Chapters 3 and 4, where he used architecture as his example. He defined techne as a “rational faculty exercised in making something…a productive quality exercised in combo with true reason.” Aristotle believed that the business of techne is to “bring something into existence which has its efficient cause in the maker and not in itself.” It is also important to note that Aristotle related techne to the crafts and sciences, most notably through mathematics.
To the Greeks, work with the hands was inferior to philosophical speculation and techne was a more restricted term than the capacious modern term of technology that we use today. Since the Greeks use of the word techne was more focused, many classical thinkers believed that the Greeks were just as mistrustful of technological change as they were with political and social change.
When in Rome
By contrast the Romans had a much deeper appreciation for techne than their Greek counterparts. In De Natura Deorum the Roman philosopher Cicero praised the human ability to transform the environment and create a “second nature”. Other Roman poets praised techne as well with the construction of roads and the conveniences of well-built villas.
The Roman poet Statius devoted an entire poem to praising techne and technological progress. The Roman writer Plity the Elder too often praised techne and technological progress with his writings of the skilled laborers of the day.
The term technology did not exist in the Middle Ages. Writers of the time instead used the word mechanical arts when referencing crafts and art with a physical aspect such as architecture, weaponry, agriculture, commerce and theatre. What we would call technological innovation during the Middle Ages typically took place with little reference to scientific knowledge or information.
It is during this time period that a full expression of the modern attitude toward technology appeared. In his 1627 book New Atlantis, Francis Bacon imagined a perfect society whose king was advised by scientists and who’s engineers were organized into research groups at an institution that was called Salomon’s House. These scientists and engineers could predict the weather, had invented refrigeration, submarines, flying machines, loudspeakers and conducted amazing medical procedures. Bacon’s vision later served as the inspiration to others to form the Royal Society in London in 1662,
We own thanks to Germany for their broader definition of words like teknologie and the even broader technik. In fact in the early 20th century the word technik was translated into English as technics. Teknologie, from 1775 , meant a system of classification for the practical arts until it was abandoned in 1840.
In the 1800’s, German engineers made the word technik a central part of their self-definition and elaborated on a discourse that related the word to philosophy, economics and higher culture. In fact the word technik meant the “totality of tools, machines, systems and processes used in the practice arts and engineering.”
It was somewhere between 1820 and 1910 that the word technology acquired its present meaning. The word, however, remained unstable until the later half of the 20th century where it evolved into vague abstraction that was further complicated in the 1990’s when newspapers, stock traders and bookstores made technology a synonym for computers, telephones and ancillary devices as David Nye argues in his book Technology Matters: Questions to Live With.
The word technology has only be part of the English language for a little over 100 years where it has come to reference all of the skills, machines and systems one might study at a technical university, or a term for complex systems of machines and the techniques in which we use to operate them.
Why This Matters?
Technology empowerment relies on the understanding that the word holds many different meanings to many different people. In some respects the word holds cultural and societal attitudes deeply towards it, its uses and its teachings. In modern times the word is so abstract that if you were to Google “What is Technology?” you would receive over 3 billion results.
It is my belief that the culture in which the technology is going to be used, served and taught should be the one to clearly define it. In order to accomplish this we must look to the past to see how the word’s meaning has evolved over time and then look towards the future to understand how the word will continue to evolve and then prepare ourselves and our learners for those inevitable shifts that are most likely to occur.
Nye, D. E. (2006). Technology matters: Questions to live with. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Whitney, E. (2004). Medieval Science and Technology. Greenwood Publishing Group.