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February 2, 2011 2:08 AM   Subscribe

How broadly do we define technology in today's world? What do we understand it to refer to when using the word? What are the assumptions we are making?

I'm writing a series on technology in emerging markets and the recent MetaFilter thread discussion on Kevin Kelly's new book and assertion that no species of technology has become extinct is making me wonder how narrowly or broadly do we define the term and what do we mean by it.

At first thought it seems to be all about hardware and software and applications i.e. computing and ICT devices. Now I wonder if it might extend to manufacturing or engineering or even recycling.

Would appreciate any generally accepted definition of the term or consensual understanding of "what we all mean by it" particularly in terms of the developing world.

tl;dr - how would we differentiate between the category "internet & computers" and "technology"?
posted by infini to Technology (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
A more general definition might consider that technology is not only synthetic, but it purposely augments our lives to further some end, one that couldn't be accomplished (easily, or at all) without it.

A pair of eyeglasses is technology, for example. It is man-made, and one wears it to correct natural imperfections in sight that otherwise leave people functionally blind. Glasses improve the quality of life of its user.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:11 AM on February 2, 2011


It seems like you're asking about one particular use of the word "technology". I mean, it's used by anthropologists to refer to particular kinds of flint knapping, i.e. "Clovis technology"^, so it definitely doesn't just have to do with computers - broadly, it sort of means "knowledge and techniques related to the crafting of a class of human artifacts, as well as the artifacts themselves."

Are you maybe asking about the meaning that would be a synonym of the more colloquial term "tech"? It seems like that's more often used just to talk about specific kinds of modern technology and computer-related stuff.
posted by XMLicious at 5:05 AM on February 2, 2011


This is a really excellent question because it is so hard to answer.

tl;dr - how would we differentiate between the category "internet & computers" and "technology"?

tl:dr indeed. There is a long running debate in patent circles regarding the technical nature (or the lack thereof) of computer software.

Without taking any side in that debate, but drawing from it, the European Patent Office takes the position that any invention realised in software is patentable (assuming it meets the basic requirements of being new and novel) given that the invention has a "technical character" and makes a "technical contribution."

What is "technical" and what is "not technical" is, of course, extremely important as under the European Patent Convention. Under the EPC, the former is patentable and the latter is specifically denied patent protection.

What a "technical character" is and what constitutes a "technical contribution" is unfortunately rather poorly defined. If something is useful, if it has an identifiable, practical, "tangible" application you are half way there.

A speech coding algorithm used to encode speech is a technical invention. An algorithm to convert decimal to BCD is not. But in the middle it is a very gray area and you can only begin to understand this by looking at the history of how the courts have struggled to define this.

In many instances it seems to be "I know it when I see it" (which maybe is not all bad. "Technology" should have a broad, expansive, inclusive scope because we have no idea what the future brings.)

Send me an mefi-mail and I have some chapters from I book I wrote which might give you some more background if you are interested.
posted by three blind mice at 5:21 AM on February 2, 2011


Definitions here and here.

Who is this "we" you're talking about that defines technology? Seriously, dictionaries give general definitions--it's what they do. But it sounds like you're narrowing the definition based on the emerging-markets context, so you really do need to define "we" along with any other relevant parameters of your question.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:44 AM on February 2, 2011


I have always taken it to mean anything that intentionally augments the inherent limitations of a species.

It's all-encompassing enough to allow inclusion of something as basic as a chimp using a stick to pry out termites from a log to conceptual augmentation such as calculus and methods (like blowing on a hot object to cool it.)

Humans have the advantage here, but we're not alone. I've heard it said that we have the capacity for what amounts to 'instant evolution', or the extension of our capabilities into environments for which we have no inherent tolerance or ability to function.

I think this definition is superior to trying to enumerate all the ways in which we do this. It encompasses recreation and art, as well as 'practical' tech, too.

Feel free to steal it! (It includes stealing, too!)
posted by FauxScot at 6:12 AM on February 2, 2011


Are you maybe asking about the meaning that would be a synonym of the more colloquial term "tech"? It seems like that's more often used just to talk about specific kinds of modern technology and computer-related stuff.

But it sounds like you're narrowing the definition based on the emerging-markets context, so you really do need to define "we" along with any other relevant parameters of your question.


I think that I was most certainly thinking about "tech" initially, and definitely what triggered my question.

But to mash my answer along with that asked about defining "we" - I'd say that if "we" were reading about technological developments and trends in say, Africa, what aspects would "we" want to read about under this topic? Textile weaving technology or mobile money transfer? Local language website design service offered by Google or the guys who recycle aluminium parts using old motor oil as fuel?

Apart from the general interest in the question and I will certainly be writing to three blind mice as that answer has a lot of helpful information in the way the topic is framed, I was stuck wondering what the parameters of my brief were when asked to write on "technology in emerging markets" (especially since I'm a such a bean plater)

Hope this helps and please keep the answers coming. This is already turning into a very valuable thread of reference for me. Thank you.
posted by infini at 6:26 AM on February 2, 2011


20 years ago in a college lecture I attended, a professor used the 3:4:5 right triangle as an example of "technology," explaining that technology is just something that works without requiring any deep intellectual understanding of why it works. Technology might be a tool or a method or a product, but it is distinct from science or thought. Usually we're most interested in new technologies and how they affect the lives of people who use them (or on whom they're used, or who fail to adopt technology that other people have taken up). It's the social and economic impacts of technology that make the technology itself interesting, so we talk about all of this together.
posted by jon1270 at 7:17 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been asked to resolve this - as usual I don't know if there is any one definition and whether a question like this can be resolved. However, I chose to go in the direction as framed by XMLicious above:

Are you maybe asking about the meaning that would be a synonym of the more colloquial term "tech"? It seems like that's more often used just to talk about specific kinds of modern technology and computer-related stuff.

And part 3 of the series will be published this coming Tuesday. I'd be happy to share a link to the publisher's site by memail if anyone is interested.

Thank you
posted by infini at 1:51 AM on March 5, 2011


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