Like science, technology is a vast and intricate human enterprise, and it too has its rules of operation and laws of development. Indeed it is even more human than science, not only since it has existed from the remotest stages of human emergence on the planet, but in a deeper sense also. For, whereas science is, relatively speaking, passive in that it merely tries to understand and interpret what is out there; technology is active: it tries to change and upset matters in the external world. The laws and principles of the physical world were in effect long before humans emerged on the scene, and are likely to govern the universe long after we are gone. But there was no technology on this planet before we appeared, and all our technological creations will eventually perish once the planet becomes uninhabitable – except for certain plastics, some contend.
In the next few entries under this heading. I’d like to reflect on technology, as well as the interaction between science and technology.
A Definition of Technology
The word technology is derived from the Greek techne: an art or a skill. It refers to something done by humans. In ancient Greek, technologica referred to a systematic treatment of any subject, including grammar. It was only in the course of the 19th century that the word technology became current in English with its modern connotation. During the 18th century and soon after the Industrial Revolution, the term mechanic arts was more commonly used for what we now call technology or engineering.
Dictionaries generally give a variety of meanings for the term: from theoretical knowledge of industries to the practical means of achieving things. Technology is also sometimes described as applied science, to distinguish it from pure science. Many scholars have defined the term in different ways, and as with the definitions of science, there is no unanimity to be found here either.
In order for us to survive as creatures we need to make certain efforts. For example, human beings have to gather or grow food, must protect themselves from extremes of inclement weather, may have to go from place to place, have to heal ailments and wounds, etc. All these efforts call for exertions involving expenditure of energy. For the barest needs, the energy may be obtained from our own muscular capabilities. Indeed it is possible to physically survive as a creature by the use of our own intrinsic strengths which we get from the foods we eat, and without recourse to any external sources of energy (other than food). For over a million years our distant ancestors did just that.
It turns out – and this is no small discovery – that if we can take advantage of other sources for the satisfaction of our needs, such as the muscular power of animals, the heat from the burning of wood, or mechanical devices such as the wheel and the pulley, we can not only get what is most essential for survival, but a great deal more. This is so because, compared to our own internal energy reserves and potentials, external resources are enormously abundant, if not infinite. Any device, method, or idea that consciousnly takes advantage of external factors in the accomplishment of one’s individual or society’s collective goals may be regarded as an instance of technology.
Once it is realized that more than the merest minimum can be obtained by such methods, one always tends to look for even more. The intent now becomes, not simple survival, but enrichment. Indeed, as much as any other capacity that is unique to Homo sapiens, is our ability to enrich life’s experiences. Few creatures add extra dimensions to life beyond the basic processes related to food, mating, and excretion, and humans do this best. Here again, any external means that facilitates in the more effective experience of life’s enrichments (which include the diminution of pains attendant upon life) may also be listed among the items of technology.
Our survival also calls for the exertion of mental effort. In energetic terms this may be small compared to carrying a load twenty feet above ground; but it is nevertheless an important ingredient in the management of life. Any device or arrangement that takes the place of the human mind in accomplishing a specific goal is also to an example of technology.
We may thus say that technology refers to those aspects of human activities that enable us to accomplish our many goals and needs more efficiently and with less expenditure of our won efforts, by the manipulation of matter and energy in the world around. Such efforts become easier and more effective when they are based on an understanding of the laws governing matter and energy transformations, i.e. science.