Jan 7, 2011

Define Technology

Definitions lead to a shared sense of what two or more people are talking about, so I'm going to start by trying to define "technology."
One thing technology does is extend a human's ability to perceive and act in the world. Microscopes, telescopes, chemical tests, airport scanners, all increase our ability to perceive things that we don't have with the unaided senses. We can travel using our legs and feet, but our reach is greatly extended with a car, airplane, or spacecraft.

Another aspect of technology is that it is the result of transforming raw materials through some process of design. Whether through a structured design process or accident, technology is designed for a purpose out of other materials. In a sense, it is an act of creation.

A final thing I will mention is the purpose of the technology. I once had to explain to first and second graders what engineers do. I told them that "engineers design things to make people's lives better." In some way, all technology was designed to make someone's life better. Making a person's life better carries moral judgments, and this will be examined in a later post. For now, we can say technology accomplishes some useful purpose.

To sum up: technology is something that is designed by the transformation of raw materials to extend human perception and action for some useful purpose.

What do you think? What would you add or take a way from this initial definition of technology?


  1. I'm going to be a bit contrary, but only because the subject is something I share an interest in. Please take this as the seeds of conversation and not antagonism.

    I think perhaps you are being entirely too physical in your analysis. If I may take a small liberty with one sentence: "To sum up: [a tool] is something that is designed by the transformation of raw materials to extend human perception and action for some useful purpose."

    Technology the word has its roots in both application and knowledge. You seem to be leaving out the knowledge portion in favor of just applications. To wit, the items you describe aren't technology, they are the products or applications of technology. A car isn't technology that enables travel, it's a tool for travel. The wheel, assembly line production, and internal combustion engines are technologies; the car is the product of those. (Note that I use the plural engines, as opposed to a specific engine. My bias as a computer programmer shows, resulting in my perception of an abstract vs. implementation relationship between technology and tools. It's also worth mentioning that your definition excludes as technology the entire field of Software Engineering unless you use a particularly liberal definition of raw materials.)

    And while I'm being annoying, I'll take exception to your description of what engineers do as well, though it makes a nice segue into the topic of the blog. Engineers designing things to make people's lives better is... optimistic at best. Engineers apply scientific principles to solve practical problems, usually in exchange for money. While the title typically brings along a set of implicit or explicit ethics, which is how engineers frame the work they choose, I think it is a disservice to roll those ethics into the title without acknowledging the set of engineers who don't follow them.

    Nit picking aside, I look forward to reading your explorations of what is ultimately one of the most important topics of our age.

  2. Good points - my focus is very much on the tools and I see what you're saying.

    I think tools can come about through accident, but you are right that it is the designer applying knowledge that brings it about. This is one way I believe we are made in God's image - that we apply knowledge and creativity to make something new (at least new to us).

    I do have a very liberal view of "raw materials." In fact, I think "raw materials" has to be considered in context of whatever is being designed. That may range from iron ore to sheets of steel to electromagnetic waves to control structures in a programming language. I have no desire to exclude software engineering!

    And I hear you about defining engineers. My purpose was to speak to the normative - what an engineer ought to be. Yours is a descriptive definition - how things are (and an accurate one). I'll nitpick myself and add creativity to scientific principles. Including "practical problems" is a definite improvement - this helps distinguish engineering from, say, artistic work.

    More posts to come on this.