Technology and language

In the absence of consensus, the process of constructing and evaluating a definition is actually clarified. One cannot pretend that a proposed definition is inevitable, or is the only one that stands to reason. It becomes more obvious that language is conventional, that a definition is a rule for linking concepts together in ways that are clarifying or helpful. Since what is clarifying or helpful is always relative to some context-giving purpose, there may be as many differently helpful resolutions for using words as there are purposes for doing so. Deans of distinguished institutions for the systematic study of industrial arts may find it helpful to use words in one way; aircraft maintenance personnel may find it more helpful to use them in another.

Since the purpose in this entry is philosophical, its aim will be for as much comprehensiveness as reasonably possible, combined with as much critical coherence as can be achieved in light of the variety of data in hand. The norm of adequate comprehensiveness will warn against premature exclusions of whole domains from the extension of the term under discussion, and the norm of critical coherence will warn against such excesses of inclusion as might make the term vacuous by referring uncritically to everything. For example, if we are to understand technology from the broad philosophical perspective, it will probably be more useful to include pre-scientific craft traditions within the concept of technology, to see the internal similarities and differences brought by modern science, than to exclude the earlier practical arts from notice by definition. But, contrariwise, since understanding a subject must allow for contrast with what is not that subject, it will probably not be useful to accede to such all-inclusive definitions as would identify the mind-activated body as the primary all-purpose tool. This would imply that a conscious human being is never without tools, is never in a non-technological condition. With an over-broad definition it is harder to express the significant difference that the introduction of a tool makes to the naked hand; with an over-narrow definition it is harder to notice significant similarities between tools of different types.

Venturing our own definition, in this context, must be an exercise in balance. We must be conscious of what we will include and what exclude by our proposed linguistic rule, and must be ready to stand by these consequences as long as we support the rule. For example, the concept of the practical has been central in all the discussion thus far. If we make this concept essential, then we exclude from the concept of technology what is purely theoretical or aesthetic or otherwise done for its own sake, without practical motives. If this seems appropriate, we are entitled to make this decision. Again, the concept of the purposive runs throughout, implying intelligent goals as essential to the idea of technology.

If this cluster of concepts is taken as essential, then we shall be excluding the purely instinctive from our definition. This need not eliminate a priori all animal constructive activities from the domain of the technological, but it draws the line at a new place: To what extent are the apparent artifacts of animals actually the result of art, or intelligence? If the human species is not alone intelligent, then the concept of technology will apply quite naturally to flexible, environmentally responsive implementations of animal aims, but will not apply to behaviors that are hard-wired, immune to modification in changing conditions. Is this an appropriate distinction? If so, we may legitimately adopt it. Finally, the concept of physical embodiment remains to be resolved, whether technology must necessarily be implemented in material things. If we so decide, then purely conceptual discoveries or inventions, like the Arabic zero, will be excluded from the technological, while the abacus, another great aid to calculation, implemented variously by pebbles in sand or beads on wires, will be included. Like all the other decisions, this is a judgment call. Will it be more helpful for understanding technology to require that it be implemented, especially if that requirement can be understood to include not just metal or plastic but also social and biological implementations, as in the invention of armies and corporations or in the selective breeding of new strains of grain or livestock? If the answer is positive, then this resolution may reasonably be made.

Thus, once we are alert to the conceptual consequences, and accept them, a possible definition of technology, one that could reconcile a number of clashing linguistic intuitions and lay a foundation for further clarifications in this important domain, could be: Technology is the practical implementation of intelligence.

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