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By the mid 20th century, humans had achieved a mastery of technology sufficient to leave the atmosphere of the Earth for the first time and explore space.

Technology is a broad concept that deals with an animal species' usage and knowledge of tools and crafts, and how it affects an animal species' ability to control and adapt to its environment. Technology is a term with origins in the Greek "technologia", "τεχνολογία" — "techne", "τέχνη" ("craft") and "logia", "λογία" ("saying"). [1] However, a strict definition is elusive; "technology" can refer to material objects of use to humanity, such as machines, hardware or utensils, but can also encompass broader themes, including systems, methods of organization, and techniques. The term can either be applied generally or to specific areas: examples include "construction technology", "medical technology", or "state-of-the-art technology".

The human species' use of technology began with the conversion of natural resources into simple tools. The prehistorical discovery of the ability to control fire increased the available sources of food and the invention of the wheel helped humans in travelling in and controlling their environment. Recent technological developments, including the printing press, the telephone, and the Internet, have lessened physical barriers to communication and allowed humans to interact freely on a global scale. However, not all technology has been used for peaceful purposes; the development of weapons of ever-increasing destructive power has progressed throughout history, from clubs to nuclear weapons.

Technology has affected society and its surroundings in a number of ways. In many societies, technology has helped develop more advanced economies (including today's global economy) and has allowed the rise of a leisure class. Many technological processes produce unwanted by-products, known as pollution, and deplete natural resources, to the detriment of the Earth and its environment. Various implementations of technology influence the values of a society and new technology often raises new ethical questions. Examples include the rise of the notion of efficiency in terms of human productivity, a term originally applied only to machines, and the challenge of traditional norms.

Definition and usage

File:Handtiegelpresse von 1811.jpg

The invention of the printing press made it possible for scientists and politicians to communicate their ideas with ease, leading to the Age of Enlightenment; an example of technology as a cultural force.

In general technology is the relationship that society has with its tools and crafts, and to what extent society can control its environment. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a definition of the term: "the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area" and "a capability given by the practical application of knowledge". [1] Ursula Franklin, in her 1989 "Real World of Technology" lecture, gave another definition of the concept; it is "practice, the way we do things around here". [2] The term is often used to imply a specific field of technology, or to refer to high technology or just consumer electronics, rather than technology as a whole. [3] Bernard Stiegler, in Technics and Time, 1, defines technology in two ways: as "the pursuit of life by means other than life", and as "organized inorganic matter." [4]

Technology can be most broadly defined as the entities, both material and immaterial, created by the application of mental and physical effort in order to achieve some value. In this usage, technology refers to tools and machines that may be used to solve real-world problems. It is a far-reaching term that may include simple tools, such as a crowbar or wooden spoon, or more complex machines, such as a space station or particle accelerator. Tools and machines need not be material; virtual technology, such as computer software and business methods, fall under this definition of technology. [5]

The word "technology" can also be used to refer to a collection of techniques. In this context, it is the current state of humanity's knowledge of how to combine resources to produce desired products, to solve problems, fulfill needs, or satisfy wants; it includes technical methods, skills, processes, techniques, tools and raw materials. When combined with another term, such as "medical technology" or "space technology", it refers to the state of the respective field's knowledge and tools. "State-of-the-art technology" refers to the high technology available to humanity in any field.

Technology can be viewed as an activity that forms or changes culture. [6] Additionally, technology is the application of math, science, and the arts for the benefit of life as it is known. A modern example is the rise of communication technology, which has lessened barriers to human interaction and, as a result, has helped spawn new subcultures; the rise of cyberculture has, at its basis, the development of the Internet and the computer. [7] Not all technology enhances culture in a creative way; technology can also help facilitate political oppression and war via tools such as guns. As a cultural activity, technology predates both science and engineering, each of which formalize some aspects of technological endeavor.

Science, engineering and technology

The distinction between science, engineering and technology is not always clear. Science is the reasoned investigation or study of phenomena, aimed at discovering enduring principles among elements of the phenomenal world by employing formal techniques such as the scientific method. [8] Technologies are not usually exclusively products of science, because they have to satisfy requirements such as utility, usability and safety.

Engineering is the goal-oriented process of designing and making tools and systems to exploit natural phenomena for practical human means, often (but not always) using results and techniques from science. The development of technology may draw upon many fields of knowledge, including scientific, engineering, mathematical, linguistic, and historical knowledge, to achieve some practical result.

Technology is often a consequence of science and engineering — although technology as a human activity precedes the two fields. For example, science might study the flow of electrons in electrical conductors, by using already-existing tools and knowledge. This new-found knowledge may then be used by engineers to create new tools and machines, such as semiconductors, computers, and other forms of advanced technology. In this sense, scientists and engineers may both be considered technologists; the three fields are often considered as one for the purposes of research and reference. [9]

The exact relations between science and technology in particular have been debated by scientists, historians, and policymakers in the late 20th century, in part because the debate can inform the funding of basic and applied science. In immediate wake of World War II, for example, in the United States it was widely considered that technology was simply "applied science" and that to fund basic science was to reap technological results in due time. An articulation of this philosophy could be found explicitly in Vannevar Bush's treatise on postwar science policy, Science—The Endless Frontier: "New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature... This essential new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research." In the late-1960s, however, this view came under direct attack, leading towards initiatives to fund science for specific tasks (initiatives resisted by the scientific community). The issue remains contentious—though most analysts resist the model that technology simply is a result of scientific research. [10][11]

The nature of technology

General characteristics

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

Complexity refers to the characteristic that most modern tools are difficult to understand (i.e., require substantial preparatory training to manufacture and/or use). Some are relatively easy to use (and understand the use of), but relatively difficult to comprehend as to their source and means of manufacture, such as a kitchen knife, a baseball, or highly processed food. Others are both difficult to use and difficult to comprehend, such as a tractor, a television, or a computer.

Dependency refers to the fact that most modern tools depend on other modern tools, which (in turn) depend on still other modern tools, for their manufacture and/or proper use. Cars, as an example, have a huge supporting complex of industry for their manufacture and maintenance. And to use them requires a complex of roads, streets, highways, gasoline and service stations, waste collection, etc.

Valence refers to the many, many different types or variations of the same tool. Imagine the many different types of spoons available today, or scissors; even the most complex tools generally come in a variety of shapes and forms, as 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. (Modern man and his society would quickly succumb without it.) Scale refers also to the scope of many modern technological projects, such as the cellular telephone network, the Internet, air travel, communications satellites, and their impact on most people in the world.

Types of technology

See also: List of technologies

One possible classification of technology uses the major 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 of one upon the other; society creates and depends upon technology to meet its needs and desires. Modern technology, or something close to it is absolutely essential for supporting the 6 billion plus inhabitants of the Earth today— and technology's very existence arises due to society's needs and desires and history. 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, and conversely. (McGinn 1991)

Consider only communications: telegraphy, radio, and the telephone— with its latest progeny, the mobile phone. With the invention of electrical forms of communication, society began to depend on ever quicker means of communication among its members. Higher expectations for speedier communications were initially met using telegraphy, then radio, then telephone systems. This demand for ever speedier (and more accessible) communications led to the invention of the portable phone. The influence of such technology is so pervasive, that now anyone can be said to be accessible 24/7/365 in most places in the world, even in "the heart of darkest Africa" or Antartica. Gone are the days of lost explorers and mysterious "lost worlds" (thanks also to GPS). The modern business world would be mightily hampered if it had to give up its cell phones, faxes, internet, personal computers and printers and copy machines— yet that was the world of the early 1960s, scarcely two generations ago!

Many technologies allow one society to have a significant advantage over another society. This may be indirect— as something that promotes population growth— or this can be direct— in the form of markedly superior weapons. The effects of these technologies on human society are complex— at the extreme, resulting in one human society enslaving, assimilating, or annihilating another. Some technologies are initially employed for one social purpose, but then used for one or more others. Moreover, the widespread adoption of a new technology invariably launches the need for the rapid adaptation of old technologies and the invention of new technologies. The car is example of this... it was created and marketed as a substitute for the horse, initially for the wealthy, but as its use spread among the population to people of all walks of life, it began to require many supporting activities and industries, such as road building, gas and service stations, etc. Its superiority as a means of transportation inspired its use in war, but its increasing need for fuel may eventually lead to resource wars.

The use of mass media techniques, such as newspapers, radio, and television programming, allows a select number of society's members to have great influence over the attitudes and opinions of others. And mass media often shapes mass opinion, thereby effecting and affecting social change.

The perceived effect of technology upon the population's well-being may also sway public opinion. The Chernobyl accident may well have played a part in undermining the confidence that citizens of the Soviet Union had in their (then) government. But in any event, it has had a marked effect on the nuclear power industry in Russia. In the U.S., no new nuclear reactors have been built since the Three Mile Island accident.

Economics and technological development

Economics can be said to have arrived on the scene when the occasional, spontaneous exchange of goods and services began to occur on a less occasional, less spontaneous basis. It probably didn't take long for the maker of arrowheads to realize that he could probably do a lot better by concentrating on the making of arrowheads and barter for his other needs. Clearly, regardless of the goods and services bartered, some amount of technology was involved— if no more than in the making of shell and bead jewelry. Even the shaman's potions and "sacred objects" can be said to have involved some technology. So, from the very beginnings, technology can be said to have spurred the development of more elabotate economies, and conversely.

In the modern world, superior technologies, resources, geography, and history give rise to robust economies; and in a well functioning, robust economy, economic excess naturally flows into greater use of technology. Moreover, because technology is such an inseparable part of human society, especially in its economic aspects, sources of funding for (new) technological endeavors are virtually illimitable. However, while in the beginning, technological investment involved little more than the time, efforts, and skills of one or a few men, today, such investment may involve the collective labor and skills of many millions.

Sociological and other (unintended) effects

There are innumerable effects of the use of technology; at the extremes these may be separated into intended effects and unintended effects. Unintended effects are (usually) also unanticipated, and often unknown prior to the implementation of a new technology. Nevertheless, they are frequently as important as, if not more so, than the intended effect.

The most subtle side effects of technology are often sociological in nature. Subtle, because those side effects may go unnoticed unless carefully observed and studied by a trained and practiced eye. These may involve (extraordinarily slowly occurring) changes in the behavior of individuals, groups, institutions, and even entire societies. One only has to compare in detail the society of 2006 and the society of 1996, to see the radical changes that have ocurred almost unnoticed over only half a generation!


The implementation of technology influences 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) This is a form of reductionism that few nowadays literally espouse. However, what might be classified as a neo-mechanistic world view holds that nothing in the universe is not amenable to understanding by the human intellect. And that, while all things exceed the sum of their parts (e.g., even if we consider nothing more in addition than the information involved in putting the things together), in principle, even this excess must (eventually) be understood by human intelligence. That is, no divine or vital principle or essence is involved.
  • Efficiency. A value, originally applied only to machines, but now placed upon all aspects of society, whereby each element (including organizational structures and human beings) is expected to attain a higher and higher percentage of its maximal possible performance, output, ability, etc. (McGinn)
  • Social progress. The belief that there is such a thing as social progress, and that, in the main, it is beneficent. Before the industrial revolution, and the subsequent explosion of technology, almost all societies believed in a cyclical theory of social movement and, indeed, of all history and the universe. This was, obviously, based on the cyclicity of the seasons, and an agricultural economy's and society's strong ties to that cyclicity. Since the 'rest of the world' (i.e., everyone but the hyperindustrialized 'West') is much closer to their agricultural roots, they are still much more amenable to cyclicity than progress in history. This may be seen, for example, in Prabhat rainjan sarkar's modern social cycles theory. For a more westernized version of social cyclicity, see Generations : The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 (Paperback) by Neil Howe and William Strauss; Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (September 30, 1992); ISBN 0688119123, and subsequent books by these authors.

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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.

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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
  • And plus it's good for your health!!!
  • Cheap price

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 world's population explosion. Technology, such as genetics, hopes to alleviate 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 brought 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 gaming and internet access could have possible social impacts on areas such as academic performance.

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Institutions and groups

Technology often enables organizational and bureaucratic group structures that otherwise (and heretofore) were simply not possible. Example of this might include:

  • The rise of very large organizations: e.g., governments, the military, health and social welfare institutions, supranational corporations.
  • The commercialization of leisure: sports events, products, etc. (McGinn)
  • The almost instantaneous dispersal of information (especially 'news') and entertainment around the world.
  • Others

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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

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Some technologies are designed specifically with the environment in mind, but most are designed first for economic or ergonomic effect, with environmental side effects.

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.


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 this seeming autonomy of technology is inherent. But the perceived autonomy is due to the fact that humans do not adequately consider the responsibility that is inherent in 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.

  • 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

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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

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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.

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Theories and concepts in technology

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

Other animal species

File:Gorilla tool use.png

This adult gorilla uses a branch as a walking stick to gauge the water's depth; an example of technology usage by primates.

Credit: Public Library of Science

The use of basic technology is also a feature of other animal species apart from humans. These include primates such as chimpanzees, some dolphin communities,[12][13] and crows.[14][15] Considering a more generic perspective of technology as ethology of active environmental conditioning and control, we can also refer animal examples such as beavers and their dams, or bees and their honeycombs.

The ability to make and use tools was once considered a defining characteristic of the genus Homo.[16] However, the discovery of tool construction among chimpanzees and related primates has discarded the notion of the use of technology as unique to humans. For example, researchers have observed wild chimpanzees utilising tools for foraging: some of the tools used include leaf sponges, termite fishing probes, pestles and levers.[17] West African chimpanzees also use stone hammers and anvils for cracking nuts,[18] as do capuchin monkeys of Boa Vista, Brazil.[19]


  • 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


  1. 1.0 1.1 Definition of technology. Merriam-Webster. URL accessed on 2007-02-16.
  2. Franklin, Ursula. Real World of Technology. House of Anansi Press. URL accessed on 2007-02-13.
  3. Technology news. BBC News. URL accessed on 2006-02-17.
  4. Stiegler, Bernard (1998). Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, 17, 82, Stanford University Press.
  5. Industry, Technology and the Global Marketplace: International Patenting Trends in Two New Technology Areas. Science and Engineering Indicators 2002. National Science Foundation. URL accessed on 2007-05-07.
  6. Borgmann, Albert (2006). Technology as a Cultural Force: For Alena and Griffin. The Canadian Journal of Sociology 31 (3): 351–360.
  7. Macek, Jakub. Defining Cyberculture. URL accessed on 2007-05-25.
  8. Science. URL accessed on 2007-02-17.
  9. Intute: Science, Engineering and Technology. Intute. URL accessed on 2007-02-17.
  10. George Wise, "Science and Technology", Osiris, 2nd Series, 1 (1985): 229-246.
  11. David H. Guston, Between politics and science: Assuring the integrity and productivity of research (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  12. Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann; Leakey, Richard. Chimpanzee Tool Use. URL accessed on 2007-02-13.
  13. Rincon, Paul. Sponging dolphins learn from mum.. BBC News. URL accessed on 2007-02-13.
  14. Schmid, Randolph E.. Crows use tools to find food. MSNBC. URL accessed on 2008-05-17.
  15. Rutz, C.; Bluff, L.A.; Weir, A.A.S.; Kacelnik, A. (2007-10-04). Video cameras on wild birds. Science.
  16. Oakley, K. P. (1976). Man the Tool-Maker, University of Chicago Press.
  17. McGrew, W. C (1992). Chimpanzee Material Culture, Cambridge u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  18. Boesch, Christophe, Boesch, Hedwige (1984). Mental map in wild chimpanzees: An analysis of hammer transports for nut cracking. Primates 25 (25): 160–170.
  19. Nut-cracking monkeys find the right tool for the job, New Scientist, 15 January 2009