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  • Writer's picturebruce yu

What Is Technology? An Anthropologist's View

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

What is technology? One may argue technology is solely the application of science to practical tasks. Is it?

Let's look at the definitions of technology first. According to Arnold Pacey, a recipient of the Leonardo da Vinci Medal for the History of Technology, also an author writing for the MIT Press, technology is the systematic application of scientific or other organized knowledge to practical tasks. What constitutes the general meaning of technology? Pacey thinks there are three. Firstly, the technical aspect of technology, also known as the restricted aspect of technology, includes knowledge, skills, technique, tools, resources, etc. Secondly, the cultural aspect of technology, which includes goals, values, creativity, and ethical standards. Thirdly, organizational aspect, which includes economic and industrial activity, users, consumers, trade unions, etc. Pacey believes that the three aspects of technology impact on each other subtly, or they together construct a system, which is called "technology". Furthermore, Pacey thinks technology uses are different based on different cultures and human needs. Hence, it is us who decide if the use of the technology is neutral, whether it create positive impacts or negative impacts. Just like nuclear energy, it can both be used to a constructive way and a destructive way.

But is technology really neutral intrinsically? Another author from the MIT Press has an opposite argument. Landon Winner, a famous political philosopher, begins with a similar argument as Pacey's point. He argues that artifacts can be built towards specific political purposes. Machines are designed by human. Since Human have intentions when designing the machines, the machines can therefore be built towards a political stance. Winner's next point is shockingly different from Pacey and the public's common view of technology as a neutral object. Winner states that some technologies are by their very nature political in a specific way. In Plato's Republic, he introduced the ship analogy. Large sailing vessels by their very nature need to be steered with a firm hand, sailors must yield to their captain's commands; no reasonable person believes that ships can run democratically. In other words, a sailing vessel, by its very nature, is authoritarian. To more extent, Winner believes that solar energy promotes democratic government, as it can be managed by diversely distributed authority. On the other hand, nuclear energy stations, is a technical object that requires a more centralized government, hence it is more authoritarian by its nature.


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