Tag Archives: etymology

Do Re Mi

Last weekend I attended an engaging conference on technology, culture, and faith down at Laity Lodge in Texas. The primary speakers were Albert Borgmann and Eugene Peterson, but there were also several others who presented their research, or participated in panel discussions grouped around different perspectives (practitioners, pastors, and theologians). It was thoroughly enjoyable, but what struck me as particularly strange was that none of these presenters ever defined what they actually meant by the words ‘technology’ and ‘culture’, much less articulate their understanding of how the two interact.

This was even more surprising given that Borgmann’s definition of ‘technology’ is quite different from the way most people use the word in everyday speech. In his classic philosophical inquiry into technology, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann defines technology as “the characteristic way in which we today take up with the world” (Borgmann 1984, 35). For Borgmann, the word ‘technology’ does not refer to human-built things in general (artifacts), nor does it refer to the general practice of designing and building those artifacts (craft or engineering). For him, the word refers to a particular way of relating to the world, a way that is dominated by what he calls the “device paradigm” (40ff). This paradigm seeks to commodify all things, even those things which we once thought of as sacred, so they can be delivered via devices, about which we have little to no understanding.

One of his classic examples is the distinction between playing music yourself via an instrument like a violin, and playing music via a stereo set. In the former case, the music is something made through participation, and the product is unique and located in both place and time. In the latter case, the music has been commodified into a recording that can be mass-produced, bought and sold, recreated at any time and in any place at the whim of an owner who no longer needs to know anything about how to play an instrument, nor how the stereo set actually works. This example is provocative and appealing, but as I will argue in a later post, somewhat problematic when we consider a historical case that challenges where the distinction between these two cases actually lies.

I say all of this not because I want to critique the conference itself; after all, most of the people there knew the conference revolved around Borgmann’s work, had read him before, and probably knew how he was using the word. But there were some who were new to this conversation and were somewhat confused as to what he really meant. Eugene Peterson then confused these people even more by talking about “pre-technological societies,” a phrase that makes sense only if you use Borgmann’s definition of the term.

After talking with some of these folks, I realized that if we are going to have this discussion in such a way that the rest of the church, and especially technological practitioners, can follow along, we need to define our key terms up front. Only then can we think and communicate clearly about what technology is, how it relates to culture and Christian spirituality, and how we can reshape that relation into something more aligned with the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus.

So as Julie Andrews once taught us, “let’s start at the beginning / a very good place to start.” When we sing we begin with “do-re-mi”, and when we talk about this subject, we must be begin with that slippery word ‘tech-nol-o-gy’! (yes, this is a bad joke, but anyone who knows my sense of humor should expect it!)

Alan Kay, the computer pioneer who developed object-oriented programming, once quipped that for most people, technology is “everything invented after you were born.” That is, most people use the term to refer only to the “stuff” of technological production, and usually restrict its scope to fairly recent innovations (often those involving electronics). Most people readily call an iPhone a piece of technology, but many will hesitate to apply that same term to paper, pencils, ink, or even manual typewriters.
But this colloquial definition clearly won’t do. It’s too subjective and far too limited. It doesn’t capture the rich array of techniques and artifacts that make up our human-built world. It doesn’t acknowledge the creative act of making things that every artisan and engineer tacitly understands. Ultimately, it leads us towards the unhelpful conclusion that everything that existed when we were born is ‘good’ or even ‘natural’, and everything that came later is ‘bad’ or at the very least suspect.

To form a better definition, we need to start with a little etymology. Although the literal meaning of the word bears only a faint resemblance to our anemic use of the word in practice, it does point to a deeper foundational meaning that can provide us with some insights. Those of you who remember your Language Arts classes probably recognize that it has a rather common suffix: ‘-ology’. ‘Biology’ is the study of life (bios), ‘theology’ is the study of God (theos), so it would follow that ‘technology’ in its literal sense means the study of something. But what?

The root of the word ‘technology’ is the Greek word technê, which is commonly translated into English as ‘art’ or ‘craft’. In its most literal sense, the word ‘technology’ simply means “the study of art or craft.” The artist who draws, paints, sculpts or plays a musical instrument employs technê, as does the carpenter, blacksmith, craftsperson, architect, and engineer. In English, we typically use the word ‘artist’ to refer to someone who makes decorative things, and ‘artisan’ for someone who makes practical things, but the line between these in practice is always blurry and permeable. The arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrated just how misleading this distinction can be, and inspired industrial design of recent times (a la Braun, Breville, Dualit, and Apple Computer) continues to blur the lines.

The word ‘technology’ first entered English in the seventeenth century, and it was used at that time in its literal sense: a systematic study of one of the arts (Nye 2007, 11). A book on glassmaking, for example, would be called a “technology of glassmaking.” Even as the English-speaking world began to industrialize in the eighteenth century, those developing the new steam engines were most commonly referred to as “mechanics” who practiced the “mechanical arts” and not “technologists” who built “technology.” It wasn’t until after World War I that English speakers began to borrow the German word technik (translated as ‘technics’) to refer to the entire compendium of the mechanical arts as well as their resulting products and social influences (see for example, Mumford’s 1934 book Technics and Civilization). In the subsequent decades, this capacious understanding of technics was poured into the English word ‘technology’ and ‘technics’ fell out of fashion.

This was all well and good, but in the latter part of the twentieth century, Americans in particular began to narrow the term’s meaning to apply only to electronic and then digital devices. To “work in technology” came to be a simple pseudonym for working with computers or other forms of electronics, and with the adoption of the Internet and World Wide Web in the 1990s, it narrowed even further, primarily referring to electronic media, communications, and social networking.

If we are to think more clearly about technology, culture, and Christian spirituality, we must recapture two elements that are revealed in this rather brief etymology: first, technology is fundamentally linked to human creativity; and second, technology encompasses not only human-built artifacts, but also the techniques, practices, and the cultural contexts that surround those artifacts.

Because this word is so slippery, historians of technology often avoid overusing the word itself, and instead rely on more specific terms. When we talk about the ‘stuff’ of technology, we tend to use the word ‘artifacts’ (in opposition to ‘naturafacts’ which exist apart from human intervention). When we talk about technology as knowledge, we use the term ‘technique’. When we talk about technology as a form of practice, we use terms like ‘artisanal’ or ‘engineering’. And when we talk about technology embedded in culture, we use terms such as ‘sociotechnical systems’ and ‘actor networks’.

In my thinking, the term ‘technology’ encompasses all of these more specific meanings, and points towards our basic human impulse for creativity, a desire that arises from being made in the image of our Creator. Technology is also fundamentally a part of what we call ‘culture’, and is in fact one of the key mechanisms we use to continually reestablish and propagate that culture across space and time…but that is a topic for another post.

References:

  • Albert Borgmann. 1984. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. University of Chicago Press.
  • David Nye. 2007. Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. MIT Press.