Expert Witness:
Macht on Technology

Expert Witness — By on July 1, 2005 at 12:31 am

In his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger says that the primary question concerning technology is the question of “what it is.” Many answers have been given to this question and there is not a definitive answer to the question. There is, however, agreement about many aspects of what technology is. The rest of this essay is going to explore various answers to the question.
A Definition (or Two) of Technology
One definition of modern technology given by the authors of Responsible Technology is

“a distinct human cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends and purposes.”

Carl Mitcham’s theory of technology includes four parts or, rather, four ways to view technology.

  1. Technological objects (e.g., automobiles, hammers, computers, pencils, plastic bags, medication, chain saws, etc.)
  2. Technological activities that produce these objects (e.g., designing, inventing, manufacturing, etc.)
  3. Technological knowledge required to perform these activities (e.g., techniques, theories, rules of thumb, etc.)
  4. Technological volition (the human desire to create these objects)

Under his view, a human with both the requisite technological knowledge and the will or desire can perform the technological activities required to produce technological artifacts.


While there may not be a clear distinction between technology and non-technology, the first definition is useful for giving us guidelines to help identify what technology is. The second definition is useful for helping us think about technology in different ways. Both definitions shows technology to be multifaceted. The first definition sees technology primarily as an activity (Mitcham ‘



  • http://blog.burtonia.com Jeff Burton

    A couple of points:
    “Technology is for practical ends and purposes, as opposed to things like art or sports.” If “practical” is part of the definition of technology and excludes sports & art, then the definition is obviously wrong, given the wide application of tech to both of these.
    The example of fast food versus a home-cooked family meal is a poor one. The reason is that you are changing too many variables. For example, eating in a home-town cafe that offers “home cookin'” involves little technological change, but shares many of the same kinds of changes a fast-food restaurant has. A better example would be a home-cooked meal from scratch versus a microwave tv dinner.

  • Nick

    Interesting essay. I think I have a tendency towards uncritical instrumentalism, so it is useful to see a discussion of other views.
    The two views of technology that I discussed – instrumentalism and substantivism – each have nuggets of truth to them. Neither is an adequate theory, however.
    Now, how are we supposed to have a good flamefest with lots of intemperate ranting, if you insist on being all reasonable. Isn’t a blog post supposed to take a stand on some oversimplified black and white position?

  • http://www.blindmindseye.com MikeT

    Maybe I am missing something here, but I am not quite sure why we need to actually define technology.

  • http://inkan.blogspot.com pgepps

    Can we *PLEASE* close our tags, folks?
    More later, I want to digest and blog this, and then comment.
    Cheers,
    PGE

  • http://www.blogotional.blogspot.com John Schroeder (Blogotional)

    Apologies for the multiple trackbacks! — it was a Haloscan problem.

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com Macht

    Jeff,
    Technologies are often used in art and sports, but the primary purpose of those activities is not “the practical.” Obviously, a golf club is a technological object, but golf is primarily done for leisure or entertainment.
    I think the TV dinner might be a good example, too, but my primary purpose was to explain how the two theories would view these differently. For the purposes of what I wrote, let’s assume it is the typical McDonalds, Taco Bell, etc. fast food.
    Nick,
    Sorry.
    Mike,
    Do you see the value in defining, say, what a libertarian is and is not?

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com Macht

    Jeff,
    Technologies are often used in art and sports, but the primary purpose of those activities is not “the practical.” Obviously, a golf club is a technological object, but golf is primarily done for leisure or entertainment.
    I think the TV dinner might be a good example, too, but my primary purpose was to explain how the two theories would view these differently. For the purposes of what I wrote, let’s assume it is the typical McDonalds, Taco Bell, etc. fast food.
    Nick,
    Sorry.
    Mike,
    Do you see the value in defining, say, what a libertarian is and is not?

  • http://www.blindmindseye.com MikeT

    Macht,
    I don’t see the comparison. One is something claiming to be a belief system, the other is a broad category that covers so many disparate things that it spans from learning to make fire from sparks from a piece of flint to an iPod to SpaceShipTwo. It’s so broad that trying to define it isn’t going to happen unless you’re willing to accept a definition as expansive as the subject itself.
    I could go on about my basic problems with the majority of philosophy, but this isn’t the place for that.

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com Macht

    I guess I don’t see the problem with the comparison. One is broader than the other? One is a belief system? Is there a problem with having a definition that is “as expansive as the subject itself?”
    I guess I just don’t see what the problem is with coming to a better understanding of some subject or idea.

  • http://www.blindmindseye.com MikeT

    And therein lies the problem: the subjectivity. Some of us say it is superfilous to define it, others feel it is very necessary to understand it. Similarities and differences are often as much of a matter of opinion as fact. For example, to me it is illogical to try to say defining something as abstract as technology is the same as trying to define something as specific as a particular political ideology.
    That is my problem with so much of philosophy. It isn’t a “philos of the sophos,” but rather is a mind game that pretends to love learning and knowledge. I don’t need to be able to provide a concrete definition of what technology is to be able to participate in its development and use.
    In fact, it has been my experience that people who are real philosophy buffs tend to be the very people who cannot understand much of what they are trying to “get a deeper understand of.” My best friend’s roommate was one of the very best of the philosophy students at our university, but he ended up losing time and again in arguments with me because he worked from a pure logical proof perspective which was how his philosophy background taught him to view things, and I worked from an observational and analytical perspective which my computer science background helped put into me. He’d work from theory, logic and what he saw on paper when discussing politics and I’d work by analyzing how the system works in practice and using that as my baseline. That’s why, though both of us were on the right, he came off to those around him as being both very naive and academic.
    All of that is why I’d rather see Ron Paul, a doctor and not a philosopher or lawyer, on the Supreme Court. For a long time, my experiences have shown that if you want someone who can fix things in practice you go to someone with a rational, observational worldview like a scientist, engineer, doctor or software developer and not someone who can play sophistic word games to redefine the most basic components of the vernacular. Too many philosophers and lay philosophers like to twist the language to hide what they’re really saying.
    Don’t get me wrong, it was a well-written post, I was just musing that I am not quite sure why we need to be defining something so basic.

  • http://prosthesis.blogspot.com Macht

    I won’t deny that a lot of what counts as philosophy these days seems a lot like word games and doesn’t seem to actually care about the “real” world. But I don’t think that philosophy has to be like that and, IMO, some of the best philosophy is done by people who actually work and research in the fields they are philosophizing about (e.g., a physicist or biologist doing philosophy of science).
    You might be glad to hear that in the last couple decades or so, the philosophy of technology has taken what some people call an “empirical turn” where philosophers don’t just philosophize about some ideal of technology, but actually look at what engineers do and have done.