Technology, or, What’s in a Word?

In Technology, The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept, Leo Marx (no relation) wrote that the word technology has had many lives. The essay is well worth reading, and can be found online easily. Marx informs us that until the begining of the 20th century in the U.S. “technology” referred to the field of study of mechanical arts, not to the mechanical arts themselves. Furthermore, the idea that those mechanical arts were the drivers or prime movers of change (and progress) in society is of similarly recent vintage.

Historians of technology tend to use the word rather freely, but in more specific senses than laypeople. When we say technology we usually mean an ensemble of instruments and techniques, and also sometimes the social relationships that are necessary or optional parts of that ensemble. We can speak of technologies of production, like the assembly line or the power loom; technologies of visualization like the camera obscura and the optical microscope; and technologies of synthesis like petroleum distillation columns, particle accelerators, and bakeries.

There are technologies of representation like the printing press and the book, with its ensemble of practices of reading and commenting, circulating and referencing. Steven Shapin described epistolary and publishing practices as being part of technologies of trust, whereby 17th century gentlemen practitioners of natural philosophy could come to agreement about the behavior of contentious phenomena across great distances. There are medical technologies and administrative technologies, military technologies and penal technologies, navigational technologies (compasses) and cadastral technologies (property maps.) Many, if not all, of these instruments imply a particular range of social relations and thus a particular form of social and organizational life. As the use of a given instrument in a given situation becomes more fully worked out, the instrument and the specific mode of existence come to entail one another more and more strongly. This process of mutual entailment is purely conventional, but it can appear as though it flows logically from the technical considerations of the instrument and its use. The nuclear family is implied by en suite bathrooms and kitchens in high-rise apartment buildings. Communal baths and a central cafeteria imply other ways of organizing intimate life, as in college dormitories, single-room-occupancy hotels, or older public housing projects. Lockable cell blocks with a central observation tower and meals delivered through a slot imply still other ways.

None of the aforementioned technologies are fully autonomous from human agency, though some may act as if they were. Conversely, the organizations necessary for the articulation of these technologies would be useless without the instruments that they bring into action. There are technologies that are so large and heterogeneous that we can’t easily think of them as being one at all, and these we call large technological systems. Think of the electrical grid, the U.S. interstate highway system, or the internet. These big distributed networks of people and power and instruments and conventional practices threaten to upset the very definition of technology, in that they are nearly indistinguishable from the social body they animate.

In some cases there may even be technologies without “machinic arts” at all. Jennifer Light and others have used the category social technologies to describe instances in which there seems to be an interesting story going on that could be meaningfully captured using the tools of the history of technology, but in which there does not seem to be a manufactured instrument doing the work. Boy Scout camps, model town-halls, the UN, social movements. Where’s the technology? Does it matter? Is it really the instrument and its use that we are following? And if not, then what?

In a similar sense, can the human body be considered to be a piece of technology? Is the trained eye of a blacksmith or glassblower a technology? A trained eye is as sensitive to minute differences in high-temperature steel as a sensor. Is it technology to use a thermometer and a piece of graph paper to keep track of your body temperature in order to anticipate your fertility? Is it technology to do this with a group of other women as part of a political project of consciousness-raising and activism? Is the personal technological?

Again, the question here for me is not “can so-and-so articulation of humans and non-humans be considered technology?” but rather “How are people reproducing themselves and being reproduced? With what tools? With which other people? In what arrangements? To what ends?”


Marx, Leo. “Technology, The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept” Technology and Culture 51(3), 561-577.

Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon. Leviathan and the Air Pump. Princeton University Press. 1985.

Hughes, Thomas. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society 1880-1930. Johns Hopkins University Press. 1983

Light, Jennifer. Workshop presentation at the University of Pennsylvania, 2011(?).