What is technology? I often use the term overly loosely to refer to devices, as well as the distributed systems in which they are embedded. In Technology & Isolation Clive Lawson observes how the term is “frequently portrayed as knowledge, as artefacts, as ways of doing things, as any means to an end, as a form of study and even as a form of social institution” (loc 344). He suggests it is all these things and more, with its curiously overloaded character reflects a trajectory from the early Greek sense of techne (as skill or art) through to the German sense of technik in early modernity (“the material components of industry as well as to the rules, procedures and skills used to achieve some particular end”) and the more recent techno-scientific sense of ‘technology’ (the outputs of material innovation and the networks within which they operate) which unites the work of scientists and engineers.
This reflected the incorporation of singular artefacts into a more complex, increasingly distributed apparatus, which enabled it to exercise the function that it did. In the process it moved from being a study of objects to an object of study, giving rise to a sense of technological innovation as a process in its own right. This was driven by the professionalisation of engineering and the growing authority of science, with ‘technology’ acting as a rhetorical point which unified their institutionalising projects. This gave a new force to the critiques which technology provoked, as a romantic unease with its implications for the lifeworld and a class critique of the effects of automation confronted a process of technologisation which increasingly seemed to escape the social in some way, captured in Heidegger’s concern about the ‘standing reserve’ (loc 318):
For Heidegger, we are engaged in a transformation of the entire world (and ourselves) into mere raw materials or ‘standing reserves’, objects to be controlled (Heidegger, 1977, p. 183). Methodical planning comes to dominate, destroying integrity and encouraging a view of everything in terms of functionality rather than a respect for things for their own sakes. The central point is that technology itself is not neutral. The domination of technological processes leads to a situation in which everything is reduced to the status of a resource that has to be optimised in some way. Especially disturbing is the tendency for people to see themselves in the same way.
This sense of technology as having a life of its own has been a point of conflict for the study of technology. It has been a fruitful theme within the philosophy of technology but, as Lawson explains, the sociology of science has tended to reject such a view as essentialist. The strongest aspect of this case are the careful case studies which illustrate the deeply contingent character of how technology becomes part of social life, identifying at an empirical level how things could always have been otherwise. He convincingly argues that the weakest part of this case is the tendency to leave technological objects as indistinguishable from other features of the social world, reflecting the methodological principle of operating at a distance from the claims competing actors make about the nature of a technology. In doing so, I take him to be saying, technology is dissolved into the social and we lose sight of the core encounter here between a technological object and human agency:
Why, however, should such accounts be considered to be deterministic at all? To the extent that both hard and soft versions accept that there is some scope for human choice, and merely contest the issue of how much, why would we want to use the term deterministic to describe either of them?Loc 285
This is why he stresses the significance of ontology in the philosophy of technology. These are questions which can’t be adjudicated empirically at a distance from ontology but they also can’t be answered purely in an ontological register. Instead we need a conceptual vocabulary which enables us to talk about the causal powers and properties of different technological objects as well as how they interact with social objects and human beings within a situated context. In doing so, he promises, we can gain a renewed purchase on some of the more traditional questions in the philosophy of technology which have fallen from view in recent years, describe in loc 156:
To what extent is it possible or desirable to influence the introduction of new technology? To what extent do different technologies determine or constrain the kinds of social changes that follow or accommodate them? Do societies have broad trends or characteristics that are related to the amount or form of technology that have emerged within them – for example, can it be said that people are more or less connected to each other in virtue of the technology they use? Does technology bring with it opportunities for a better life or tend to smuggle in unnecessary problems? Does the form or speed of change of different technologies matter? Is technology always neutral, only taking on good or bad features in some particular context of use? Is it even possible or meaningful to talk in general about ‘technology’ at all?