Our first step in understanding the problems of technology is to attempt to grasp what technology is—no easy matter. We must first start with the phenomenon as given, that is with the term itself. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, its meaning is defined as, “the practical application of knowledge in a particular area,” or “a capability given by the practical application of knowledge.” But these definitions seem to be merely superficial in that they don’t reveal anything substantial about technology.
Etymologically speaking the term “technology” has its roots in the Greek word, techne, art, meaning craft-making as it relates to useful crafts rather than the fine arts, i.e. masonry and carpentry rather than poetry, painting, and dance; and logos, articulated speech, or discursive reason. However, the compound word, technologos, was not known to the Greeks. The closest thing the Greeks came to our notion of technology would have been something with the emphasis reversed, i.e. not logos of techne (an account about art) but a techne of logos ( the art of rhetoric). The art of persuasion was the a techne of logos, and, according to the sophists, a means of rationalizing political life free from the need of force(1).
Nevertheless, art and speech are intimately related. Humans, exhibit both of these capabilities, in view of the fact that man is the animal having logos (language). In the words of Aristotle, man as zoon logon echon, i.e. animal “having” (echon) language—understood as speech and discourse. What is uniquely different of human craft from animal making, is not instinctive or spontaneous. Human craft involves deliberating, calculating, ordering, thinking, planning—all manifestations of logos. A connection that Aristotle wisely discerned when he says techne is the habit of making involving logos (true reasoning), in contradistinction to the rational quality concerned with doing (praxis)(2). All craft making has a non-automatic element to it, but to be truly technical it must be guided by mind, savoir-faire, by expertise. It is this rational element that makes the various arts eminently teachable. Following up these clues, one might think that technology is the sum of the products of craft and industry, and, even more, the sum of know-how, skills, and other devices for their production and use.
However, this is, at best, a partial view. Technology, especially modern technology, occupies itself not only with the bringing-into-being of machines and tools and other artifacts. It is certainly involved in the harnessing of power and energy—thermal, hydroelectric, chemical, solar, atomic. The drill for oil, the damming of rivers, the splitting of atoms provide not objects of art but an undifferentiated ready resource for all sorts of human activities, in both war and peace. Indeed, according to Heidegger, this aspect of modern technology is essential and decisive. Modern technology is less a bringing-forth of objects than a setting-upon, a challenging forth, a demanding made of nature: that nature’s concealed materials and energies be released and ordered as standing-reserve, available and transformable for any multitude of purposes(3). Not the loom or the plow but the oil-storage tank or the steel mill or the dynamo is the emblem of modern technology.
Illuminating as this may be, it is still falls short of the phenomenon technology. For technology today is not limited to the mastering and control of the external and natural world. It has now extended into the realm of what is most noble, man himself. There is burgeoning biomedical technology, usable for genetic engineering and the like. There is psychological technology that include various techniques of psychotherapy and psychopharmacology. There are abundant techniques of education, communication, and entertainment; techniques of social organizations and engineering (e.g. police and the army); techniques of management (e.g.factory or boardroom); techniques of inspection and regulation; techniques of selling and buying, learning and rearing,dating and mating, birthing and dying. In our modern age technology is ubiquitous, much wider and deeper than the mechanical. Technology is an entire way of being in the world, a social phenomenon more than a merely material one, characterized by the effort, through rational analysis, methodical artfulness, and correlative organization, to order all aspects of our world toward efficiency, ease, and control—to achieve the fullest control at the highest efficiency at the least possible cost and trouble. In short it is a way of thinking and believing and feeling, a way of standing in and toward the world. Technology in its full meaning, is the disposition rationally to order and predict and control everything feasible, in order to master fortune and spontaneity, violence and wildness, and to leave nothing to chance, all in the service of human benefit. It is technology, thus understood as the disposition to rational mastery, whose problem we hope to discover.
But whence comes such a disposition to mastery? Differently put, what is the source of the technological attitude? Again a terrible difficult question to answer. According to some its deepest roots are somehow tied to human weakness; necessity is the mother of invention. Need lies behind the fish hook and the plow, fear of the beast and men behind the club and barricade, and fear of death behind medicine. It is, according to Hobbes, fear of violent death that awakens human reason and the quest for mastery. But, as Aristotle rightly observed, to much fear can enervate the body and soul(4). According to Aeschylus’s Prometheus, only when men ceased seeing doom before their eyes were they able, with his aid, to rise up from abject nothingness, poverty and terror(5). On this view,the world’s inhospitality and hostility toward human need and aspiration inspires the disposition to self-help through technology.
Ecce, the master does not seek mastery just to escape from the cold.
Yet, on other accounts, the root is not primarily human weakness but human strength: huperefania, human pride rather than needy fear erects the technological attitude. According to Genesis, the first tool was the needle, and the first artifact the fig leaf, as shame (which in this context is perhaps nothing but wounded pride) moved the primordial human beings to cover their nakedness, right from the moment of their rise to painful self-consciousness(6). Pride lies behind the technological project of the city and tower of Babel, the humanity moved by the desire to make itself a name through artful self-assertion(7). It was Francis Bacon after all who at the beginning of modern era, himself moved by honor and glory, calls mankind to the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate, which project he regards as the highest and most magnificent human possibility(8). Ambition—the desire for wealth, power, and honor—prompts many a man of science and industry. Ecce, the master does not seek mastery just to escape from the cold.
See Here: Technology II
- See, Plato’s Gorgias 450C.
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1140a20.
- Martin Heidegger, “The Question concerning Technology,” in The Question concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp14-17.
- Aristotle, and William Ellis. A Treatise on Government: Or, the Politics of Aristotle. London: J.M. Dent, 1935. Print. pp 250.
- Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, trans. David Grene, in Aeschylus II, The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), lines 250; 437ff.
- Genesis 3:7.
- Genesis 11: 1-9.
- Francis Bacon, The Advancement of learning Book I and The Interpretation of Nature, in Selected Writings of Francis Bacon, ed. Hugh G. Dick (New York: Random House, 1955), pp. 193 and 150-54.