Scholars & Rogues wants to know: what do you think is the greatest technology in human history?
Before you answer, what do we mean by “technology”? I think we all have sort of an operational idea in our heads of what we mean by the term, but if you’re like most people, odds are pretty good that you’ve never sat down and tried to articulate a real definition. A couple pretty smart thinkers had some thoughts on the subject that you might find helpful. Or challenging. Let’s see.
First, Arnold Pacey, a British scholar whose Culture of Technology helps us understand that technology is a lot more than just the machine itself, which Pacey calls the “restricted” sense of the term. The machine – the technical dimension, is only a part of the whole picture.
Have a look at this diagram:
The bottom point is what Pacey calls the “technical aspect,” which includes “knowledge, skill and technique; tools, machines, chemicals, liveware; resources, products, and wastes.” This lower third of the equation, the “restricted meaning,” is what most people – probably you included – mean when they use the term “technology.”
However, the “general meaning” incorporates the top two corners of the triangle, the “cultural aspect” and the “organizational aspect.” The cultural includes “goals, values and ethical codes, belief in progress, awareness and creativity.” The organizational signifies “economic and industrial activity, professional activity, users and consumers, trade unions.” Put another way, the cultural is what people think about it, how they use it, what they believe about it, and so on. The organizational has to do with official laws and policies governing its development and use.
Consider Pacey’s example of the snowmobile. It’s one machine, one technical apparatus. However, in some parts of the world it’s a recreational vehicle. In other places it’s used to hunt. In still others it’s a work vehicle (imagine that you’re working on an oil pipeline in the far north). And if you’re just west of where I live, in Colorado’s ski country, it can even be an emergency rescue device. These distinctions matter when talking about a machine and help explain the difference between technical and technological.
As for the organizational dimension, think about all the ways in official policies (governmental, corporate, etc.) dictate how devices are used – or even ban their use (or existence). Right now you’re using the Internet. In the early 1990s the government made some important decisions about the Net, decisions that spurred its development as a commercial, social, educational and entertainment technology. If the government had instead restricted its use for anything but, say, defense and intelligence gathering, we’d have a very different Internet today. That is, the Internet would be, wires and routers and protocols notwithstanding – a very different technology.
Next, let’s broaden our understanding just a bit more. In Technopoly, Neil Postman made clear that technologies aren’t always physical things. One example was education – broadly considered, education is a tool that humans developed to serve a purpose. (If we get just a little bit cynical, we might decide that education is a tool that can be used for a number of purposes, not all of them necessarily noble.)
So, with these things in mind, we here at Scholars & Rogues want to ask our readers: what do you believe is the greatest technology in human history?
Feel free to nominate, debate, argue, debunk, whatever.We look forward to hearing what you have to say.
Pacey, Arnold. The Culture of Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1983.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.