By Michael Pearson
As a concept, technology can be a tricky one to get your head around. Just ask Eric Schatzberg, professor and chair of the School of History and Sociology, who has a handy way of exposing the problem.
“Who does art?” he asks.
Artists, of course, is the ready answer.
Then comes the follow-up: “Who does technology?”
If you are still thinking on that one, you are not alone.
The questions get to the heart of what Schatzberg, a leading historian of technology, argues is wrong with how academics, engineers, and everyday people think about technology.
Despite the broad implications of technology in today’s society, few really understand the concept, have much sense of its history, or appreciate why its long-ago dissociation from the fine arts could well be at the root of some of our day’s most pressing problems.
“Everything in our present day culture screams that technology is a central element of the modern world,” Schatzberg said in a recent interview. “But we have all these clashing definitions, and that makes it hard to get a grasp about what’s really central about technology and modernity.”
One reason for that, he argues, is that the subject is poorly studied.
“Intellectuals, philosophers, literary scholars, and historians have talked endlessly about what makes modernity, what makes a modern world, and pretty much everybody agrees that technology is a central part of it, but nobody investigates it in any depth,” he said, pointing to his own school, a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, and philosophers of technology in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy as notable exceptions.
Clearing up that confusion, Schatzberg says, may offer a key to understanding — and improving — the age in which we live.
Defining the Term
So, what is technology?
Does it just mean glossy phones, connected speakers, and spaceships that can sail past Neptune while beaming back photos? Is it, as Merriam Webster would say, “the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area?” More esoterically, does the word represent the notion that the things humans make and the science implicated in that work are simply a means to an end? Or is “technology” more a cultural expression that cannot be separated from human values?
Schatzberg defines technology as “the set of practices humans use to transform the material world, practices involved in creating and using material things.”
It is not a universally accepted definition. Some scholars define the concept as broadly as how things are done. Others would argue it applies only to the application of science.
Another fault line involves the role of human choice in technology. Instrumentalists see technology as devoid of moral purpose, a mere means to an end. Those with a cultural view of technology, among whom Schatzberg places himself, argue it is impossible to strip away the human values and choices that led to any given technology.
“If we reject this idea that technology is just a means to an end, we also reject the idea that technology lacks its own moral compass,” Schatzberg said. “And that’s important because that suggests that everybody who’s involved in creating and also using technology needs to think about the ethics of what they are doing.”
‘A System for Classifying the Arts, Both Mechanical and Liberal.’
Schatzberg, whose research into the concept of technology recently culminated in the publication of Technology: Critical History of a Concept (University of Chicago Press, 2018), traces the idea from its roots in ancient Greece through its coining in the 16th century.
The term came into being as a Latin combination of two words from Greek philosophy, logos and techne. Logos has to do with language and reason and techne is a difficult concept typically translated as art, skill, or craft, according to Schatzberg.
At first, the term described "a system for classifying the arts, both mechanical and liberal.”
Previously, in the 12th century, a theologian named Hugh of St. Victor engineered a split, calving the mechanical arts from the liberal arts. That distinction survives to this day in large ways and small — just think of the idiom, “it’s more an art than a science.”
“That’s a big part of my story, the way ‘art’ went from having this very broad meaning to having a much narrower meaning, how it went from meaning things that we would now call technology, but also the things we call the liberal arts and as well as the fine arts, into something much more narrow,” Schatzberg said.
After more than 12 years researching the concept, Schatzberg argues technology is due for a “rehabilitation.”
Among other things, he wants to rescue it from instrumentalists who “view technology as driven only by its own ends.”
He cites not only academic writing, but also much popular press coverage of technology, giving as an example a 1998 Business Week editorial discussing the rise of internet businesses that described Technology as “a relentless force that creates and destroys with little pity.”
He rejects what he says is the dominant view of technology as a self-perpetuating machine, arguing instead that technology is an accumulation of human choices that reflects the age in which it is practiced.
“If you think about technology as a form of human activity, then we can think about it as a way that human beings relate to, and transform the material world,” he said.
He also is adamant about restoring the association between art and technology, lost centuries ago.
“Art and science are really along a spectrum of abstraction and practical ideas,” he said. “So if you understand technology as art, it resolves a lot of the conceptual confusion. Art is a human activity. It isn’t just the products of art. It’s much harder to think of art that way than it is to think of technology as just things.”
Connecting Technology and the Liberal Arts
Schatzberg said liberal arts scholars play an important role at places like Georgia Tech, conducting innovative and impactful research in their own fields while also helping expand the notion of engineering education.
He said it is particularly important to teach engineering students about their field as not only a way to manipulate the material world, but also as a human activity filled with promise and peril.
Examples of this in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and the School of History and Sociology include Schatzberg’s own research and the McEver Program for Engineering and the Liberal Arts, which seeks to bridge disciplines through a variety of classes and seminars.
Work such as this has a long history at Georgia Tech and the Ivan Allen College. In the 1980s, Georgia Tech Professor Melvin Kranzberg published a paper setting out what he called the “Six Laws of Technology.” In his laws, he said historians had largely ignored the technological aspects of history, and argued that “technology is a very human activity — and so is the history of technology.” Schatzberg has built on those laws, distilling his ideas into a short manifesto about how we should change our understanding of technology (see below).
Among his points: We should reject the idea that technology is a mere means to an end, work to restore links between art and technology, and correct the tendency to “elevate theory over practice, discourse over materiality, principles over applications.”
"What technology means isn't just a subject for scholars in the liberal arts,” Schatzerg said. “It matters to engineers, computer scientists, and natural scientists too. If engineers think about the concept of technology in the way I have argued, it can change their whole approach.”
Eric Schatzberg’s Technology Manifesto
- Liberate technology from scholars who reduce it to instrumental reason, to the process of finding the best means to achieve a specific end. By rejecting instrumentalism, we also reject the belief that technology lacks its own moral compass.
- Rescue technology from determinists, people who view technology as driven by its own ends, as a self-directed system isolated from conscious human control.
- Reassert conceptual links between technology and art. We should view technology as a type of art in the older sense of the term, before the reduction of art to fine art. Understanding technology as art has the potential to resolve much of the conceptual confusion about technology.
- Rethink the nature of application to develop a new understanding of the relationship between science and technology. The problem of application in technology is similar to that in ethics. Both fields deal with the application of universal principles in endlessly varying contexts.
- Reclaim craft as an essential element of technology. Craft cannot be reduced to manual skill; it always involves cognitive judgments, judgments that rest in part on ethical principles. Science can never eliminate craft — not from technology, and not even from science.
- Correct the unbalanced and often biased understanding of technology among scholars, their tendency to elevate theory over practice, discourse over materiality, principles over applications.