Knowing the Technology

Technology’ is one of the keywords of our world, yet it is also one of the most confused. As an analytical category it seems necessary for our understanding of all of humanity’s history, and indeed beyond. We are probably comfortable with asserting that humans have had technologies since the Palaeolithic, and a menagerie of animals, from crows to chimps, have even been identified as tool users. As an actors’ category ‘technology’ is of surprisingly recent vintage, although cognate terms – techne, arts, and so on – have a much longer history. Yet even for a recent English word ‘technology’ has come to embrace often conflicting meanings. In this essay review I have three aims. First, I will offer a summary of Eric Schatzberg’s important new opus Technology, which untangles and clarifies the history of ‘technology’ and its cognates as actors’ categories. Second, I will conduct a critical analysis, arguing that Schatzberg, while helpfully placing past ways of thinking about technology into two camps, ones he calls the ‘cultural’ and ‘instrumental’ approaches, makes a misstep when he favours the former over the latter. Third, I offer an extension of my preferred instrumentalist definition, one which highlights an essential property of technologies – their power to intervene over scales – in a way that, I suggest, offers a new, invigorating direction of study for historians of science and technology.

Comments are closed.