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By the mid 20th century humans had achieved a level of technological mastery sufficient to leave the surface of the planet for the first time and explore space.

Technology is a word with origins in the Greek word technologia (τεχνολογια), techne (τεχνη) "craft" + logia (λογια) "saying". It is an encompassing term dealing with the use and knowledge of humanity's tools and crafts.

Disambiguation of technology
Depending on context, the word technology has the following definitions and uses:

  • Technology as tool-In its most common usage, technology is the tools and machines that help to solve problems. In this usage, technology is a far-reaching term that can include both simple tools, such as a wooden spoon, and complex tools, such as the space station.
  • Technology as technique-In this usage, technology is the current state of our knowledge of how to combine resources to produce a desired products, to solve a problem, to fulfill a need, or to satisfy a want. Technology in this sense includes technical methods, skills, processes, techniques, tools and raw materials. (such as artificial intelligence, building technology, or medical technology).
  • Technology as culture former-a culture-forming (or destroying) activity (such as manufacturing technology, infrastructure technology, or space-travel technology). (McGinn). As a cultural activity, technology predates both science and engineering. This is not to imply that technology is the only culture forming activity, nor that it is the primary culture-forming activity. Often, it is dominant in cultural formation; often, it is not. In addition, culture may act to form technology. Due to widespread, and sometime careless, use of technology, several other topics arise in the study of technology, including technological ethics, environmental impacts, technological by-products, and technological risk, among many other philosophical and sociological topics.


Science and technology

The lines between science and technology are not always clear. Generally, science is the reasoned investigation or study of nature, aimed at finding out the truth, generally according to the scientific method. Technology is the application of knowledge (scientific, engineering, and/or otherwise) to achieve a practical result (Roussel,

For example, science might study the flow of electrons in an electric current. This knowledge may be used to create artifacts, such as semiconductors, computers, and other forms of technology.

History of technology

Main article: History of technology

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The history of technology is as old as the history of humanity because history proper refers to what could be recorded by technological means. Mind you that other animals currently use tools and animals prior to human existence may have as well. The history of technology follows a progression from simple (low-tech) tools and simple energy sources to complex ("hi-tech") tools.

The earliest technologies converted natural resources into simple tools. Processes such as carving, chipping, scraping, rolling (the wheel), and sun-baking are simple means for the conversion of raw materials into usable products. Anthropologists have uncovered many early human houses and tools made from natural resources (although birds also build nests out of dried materials and we don't consider them to have a technological society).

The use, and then mastery, of fire was a key turning point in man's technological evolution providing him with simple energy. The use of fire extended the capability for the treatment of natural resources and allowed the use of natural resources that require heat to be useful. Wood and charcoal were among the first materials used as a fuel. Wood, clay, and rock (such as limestone), would be among the earliest materials shaped or treated by fire, for making weapons, pottery, bricks, and cement, among others. Continuing improvements such as the furnace enabled the ability to smelt and forge metal (such as copper, ca. 8000 BC), and eventually to the discovery of alloys, such as brass and bronze (ca. 4000 BC). The first uses of iron alloys, steel, dates to around 1400 BC.

Complex tools include both simple machines (such as the lever (ca. 300 BC), the screw (ca. 400 BC), and the pulley) and complex machines (such as the ocean liner, the engine, the computer, modern communications devices, the electric motor, the jet engine, among many others). As tools increase in complexity, so does the type of knowledge needed to support them. Modern complex machines require written technical manuals of collected information that has continually increased and improved; these are so complex that entire technical knowledge-based processes and practices (also complex tools themselves) exist to support them, including engineering, medicine, computer science, etc. Further, complex machinies require complex manufacturing and construction techniques and organizations. Entire industries have arisen to support and develop complex tools.

The nature of technology

General characteristics

With all of the technology in use in modern society, it may seem futile to attempt a generalized list of common characteristics. Many authors, such as McGinn (1991) and Winston (2003), list the following:

Complexity refers to the characteristic that most modern tools are difficult to understand. Some are easy to use, but difficult to comprehend source and means of make, such as a kitchen knife, or a baseball. Others are both difficult to use and difficult to comprehend, such as a tractor, gasoline, a television, or a computer.

Dependency refers to the fact that modern tools depend on other modern tools, which depend on other modern tools, for their make and their use. Cars, as an example, have a huge complex of industry of means and methods. And to use them requires a complex of road, streets, highways, and gasoline stations, waste collection, etc., beyond our comprehension.

Valence refers to the many, many different types of the same tool. Imagine the many different types of spoons available today, or scissors, and even complex tools come in many shape as well, like the construction crane, or the automobile.

Scale refers to the sheer magnitude, size, and pervasiveness of modern technology. Simply put, technology seems to be everywhere. It dominates modern life. Scale refers also to the magnitude of some modern technological projects, like the cellular telephone network, the Internet, air travel, satellites, etc.

Types of technology


One possible classification of technology uses the fields of technological studies, commonly found in academic institutions of higher learning:

Relationship with society

The relationship between society and technology is quite complex, creating what many characterize as a co-dependence upon the other; society creates and depends upon technology to meet its needs and desires, and technology's very existence arises due to society's needs and desires. However, this "symbiosis" goes further than that: Every advancement in technology influences and eventually changes society. So the needs of society change, creating more needs, and, eventually, creating more technology. (McGinn 1991)

Consider the telephone, and its latest sibling the mobile phone. With the invention of the telephone, society began to depend on quicker ways of communication with others. Higher expectations for quicker communications were initially met using short-range radio systems for use in emergency vehicles. However, even higher portability was realized with miniaturization of components. This demand for a new product led to the invention of the mobile phone. The influence of portability is so pervasive now anyone can be accessible to talk in most urban places in the developed world

Many technologies allow one society to have a military advantage over another society. This can be indirectly as something that creates population growth, for example, or this can be direct technology put into use like the gun or the atom bomb. The effects these technologies have on human society are complex and could result in slavery, assimilation, or genocide. Some technologies, like the video camera, start without militaristic use but eventually find themselves employed for those purposes. The car is another example of this... it is created and marketed with the promise of freedom (initially for the wealthy and without regard to the factory hands) but then it impedes upon other forms of transportation (like the free movement of the pedestrian), requires extensive paving for its full accommodation, and then it is employed militaristically. Its consumption of fuel eventually even becomes the potential basis for a resource war.

The use of advanced mass media techniques, such as television programming, allows some members of society to have larger sway over the attititudes and opinions of others. Mass media often shapes mass opinion -- for better or, at least as often, worse.

The effects that various forms of technology have upon the environment also sways public opinion. The Chernobyl effect (caused by a massive nuclear meltdown) is thought to have played a part in undermining the confidence that citizens of the Soviet Union had in their government. The exact causes for the collapse of that government are debatable but the new leader in Russia had a reputation as being a strong environmentalist.

Economics and technological development



Government funding

The government is a major contributor to the development of technology. In the United States, many agencies invest millions of dollars in new technology. In 1980, the UK government invested just over 6 million pounds in a 4 year Programme, later extended to 6 years, called the Microlectronics Education Programme (MEP) which aimed to provide every school in Britain with at least one computer, microprocessor training materials and software, plus extensive teacher training.

Technology has frequently been driven by the military, with most modern applications being developed for the military before being taken up for civilian use. However, this trend has recently seen a reversal, with the industry often taking the lead in developing technology which is then adopted by the military.

Some government agencies are dedicated specifically to research, such as the American's National Science Foundation, the United Kingdom scientific research institutes, the American's Small Business Innovative Research effort. And many government agencies dedicate a major portion of their budget to research and development.

Private funding

Research and development is one of the biggest investments made by corporations toward new and innovative technology.

Many foundations and non-profit organizations contribute to the development of technology.

Other economic considerations

Side effects

There are two types of effects from the use of technology, main effects and side effects. Main effects are those intended by the technology, usually to fulfill some desire or need. Side effects are (usually) unintended, and often unknown prior to technology's implementation. This portion of the article deals with those side effects.


The most subtle side effects from technological uses are sociological in nature. Subtle because those side effects can go unnoticed without careful observation and contemplation of individual, institutional, and group behaviors.


The implementation of technology influence the values (beliefs, ideas, opinions) of society by changing expectations and realities. There are (at least) three major, interrelated, values that are the result of technological innovations:

  • Mechanistic World View. A set of beliefs that views the universe as a collection of parts, like a machine, that can be individually analyzed and understood. (McGinn)
  • Efficiency. A value, originally applied only to machines, but now placed upon all aspects of society, whereby each element (organizational structures and human beings) is expected to attain higher and higher performance, output, ability, etc. (McGinn)
  • Progressivism. The belief that societal progress is good.



Winston provides an excellent summary of the ethical implications of technological development and deployment. He states there are four major ethical implications:

  • Challenges traditional ethical norms.
  • Creates an aggregation of effects.
  • Changes the distribution of justice.
  • Provides great power.



Technology, throughout history, has allowed people to complete more tasks in less time and with less energy. Many herald this as a way of making life easier, however work has continued to be proportional to the amount of energy expended, rather than the quanitiative amount of infomation or material processed. Technology has had profound impacts on liftestyle throughout human history, and as the rate of progress increases society must deal with both the good and bad implications.

In many ways, technology simplifies life.

  • The rise of a leisure class
  • A more informed society can make quicker responses to events and trends
  • Sets the stage for more complex learning tasks
  • Increases multi-tasking
  • Global Networking
  • Creates denser social circles

In other ways, technology complicates life.

  • Sweatshops and harsher forms of slavery are more likely to be found in technologically advanced societies (relative to primitive societies). However, the replacment of workers with machines and social progress such as emancipation trancends this in many post industrial societies.
  • The increasing disparity between technologically advanced societies and those who are not.
  • More people are currently starving now that at any point in history or pre-history, however the majority of these people live in subsistance and therefore less technological societies, this is also relative to the worlds population explosion. Technology, such as genetics, hopes to alliviate the stress put on resources.
  • 'Work to drive to drive to work to work to drive' -- consequently dealing with the traffic jams. The increase in transportation technology has bought congestion in some areas.
  • Too much information can lead to stressful situations.
  • Technicism
  • New forms of danger existing as a consequence of new forms of technology, such as the first generation of nuclear reactors.
  • New forms of entertainment, such as gameing and internet access could have possible social impacts on areas such as academic preformance.


Institutions and groups

Technology influences, often enables, organizational and bureaucratic group structures and influence. Example of this include:

  • The rise of organizations: e.g., health institutions.
  • The commericalization of leisure: sports events, products, etc. (McGinn)
  • The advent of large organizational structures.
  • Others



Technology provides a heightened awareness of international issues, values, and cultures. Due mostly to mass transportation and mass media, the world seems to be a much smaller place due to the following, among others:

  • Globalization of ideas
  • Embeddedness of values
  • Population growth and control
  • Others



The effects of technology on the environment is both obvious and subtle. The more obvious effects include the depletion of nonrenewable natural resources (such as petroleum, coal, ores), and the added pollution of air, water, and land.

The more subtle effects include debates over long-term impacts (e.g., global warming, deforestation, natural habitat destruction, costal wetland loss)

Each wave of technology creates a set of waste that's heretofore unknown by humans: toxic waste, radioactive waste, electronic waste.

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Autonomous technology

In one line of thought, technology develops autonomously, in other words technology seems to feed on itself, moving forward with a force irresistible by humans. To these individuals, technology is "inherently dynamic and self-augmenting." (McGinn, p. 73)

Jacques Ellul is one proponent of the irresistibleness of technology to humans. He espouses the idea that humanity cannot resist the temptation of expanding our knowledge and our technological abilities. He, however, does not believe that these seeming autonomy of technology is inherent. But the perceived autonomy is due to the fact that humans do not adequately consider the responsibility that are inherent to technological processes.

Another proponent of these ideas is Langdon Winner who believes that technological evolution is essentially beyond the control of individuals or society.


Individuals rely on governmental assistance to control the side effects and negative consequences of technology. Government intervenes many through laws.

  • Supposed independence of government. An assumption commonly made about the government is that their governance role is neutral or independent. Often, if not usually, that assumption is misplaced. Governing is a political process, more so in some countries than in others, therefore government will be influenced by political winds of influence. In addition, government provides much of the funding for technological research and development. Therefore, even government has a vested interest in certain outcomes.
  • Liability. One means for controlling technology is to place responsibility for the harm with the agent causing the harm. Government can allow more or less legal liability to fall to the organization(s) or individual(s) responsibile for damages.
  • Legislation.
  • Others



Society also controls technology through the choices that it makes. These choices not only include consumer demands; it includes

  • the channels of distribution, how do products go from raw materials to consumption to disposal;
  • the cultural beliefs regarding style, freedom of choice, consumerism, materialism, etc.;
  • the economic values we place on the environment, individual wealth, government control, capitalism, etc.
  • Others


Technology and philosophy


Generally, Technicism is an overreliance or overconfidence in technology as a benefactor of society.

Taken to extreme, some argue that technicism is the belief that humanity will ultimately be able to control the entirety of existence using technology. In other words, human beings will eventually be able to master all problems, supply all wants and needs, possibly even control the future. (For a more complete treatment of the topic see the work of Egbert Schuurman, for example at [1].) Some, such as Monsma, et al., connect these ideas to the abdication of God as a higher moral authority.

More commonly, technicism is a criticism of the commonly held belief that newer, more recently-developed technology is "better." For example, more recently-developed computers are faster than older computers, and more recently-developed cars have greater gas efficiency and more features than older cars. Since current technologies are generally accepted as good, future technological developments are not considered circumspectly, resulting in what seems to be a blind acceptance of technological developments.

Optimism, pessimism and appropriate technology


On the somewhat pessimistic side, are certain philosophers like Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Ellul, and John Zerzan, who believe that technological societies are inherently flawed a priori. They suggest that the result of such a society is to become evermore technological at the cost of freedom and psychological health (and probably physical health in general as pollution from technological products is dispersed).

Perhaps the most poignant criticisms of technology are found in what are now considered to be literary classics, for example Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.


On the other hand, the optimistic assumptions are made by proponents of technoprogressivist views or ideologies such as transhumanism and singularitarianism, that view technological development as generally having beneficial effects for the society and the human condition. In these ideologies, technological development is morally good. Some critics see these ideologies as examples of scientism, mathematical fetishism, or techno-utopianism and fear the idea of technological singularity which they support.

Appropriate technology

The notion of appropriate technology, however, was developed in the twentieth century to describe situations where it was not desirable to use very new technologies or those that required access to some centralized infrastructure or parts or skills imported from elsewhere. The eco-village movement emerged in part due to this concern.


Theories and concepts in technology

There are many theories and concepts that seek to explain the relationship beteen technology and society:


  • Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance, Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Nobel, David. Forces of Production: a social history of industrial automation, New York: Knopf 1984, Paperback Edition: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • McGinn, Robert E. Science, Technology and Society, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1991.
  • Monsma, S.V., C. Christians, E.R. Dykema, A. Leegwater, E. Schuurman, and L. VanPoolen. Responsible Technology. Grand Rapids, Michigan (USA): W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.
  • Roussel, P.A., K. N. Saad, and T. J. Erickson. Third Generation R&D, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 1991.
  • Winston, M.E. "Children of Invention", in Society, Ethics, and Technology, Second Edition, M.E. Winston and R.D. Edelbach (eds.), Belmont, California (USA): Wadsworth Group/Thomson Learning, 2003.
  • Smil, Vaclav. Energy in World History, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994, pp. 259-267, as quoted in, maintained by David W. Koeller, Northpark University, Chicago, Illinois (USA), downloaded September 11, 2005.

See also

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:

External links

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