The Philosophy of Technology

Inverting A Common Assumption

It is common that technology is defined as "applied science", deriving from Jacob Bigelow's 1829 definition as "principles, processes, and nomenclatures of the more conspicuous arts, particularly those which involve applications of science". Webster's defines technology as "industrial science; the science of systematic knowledge of the industrial arts", Collins offers "the application of practical sciences to industry or commerce", and Oxford has "the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes". For what it's worth, the etymology of the word is from the Hellenic "tekhnelogia", tekhne art, creation, and -logia, explanation.

These contemporary definitions imply that science has priority over technology and precedes technology, and historically the philosophy of technology has been confined as a minor tangent to the philosophy of science, and occasionally touching on the history of technology. However, in the past forty years or so, various philosophers of technology invert this common assumption [1], claiming that it is an idealist view that places epistemology over ontology. Rather than technology being applied science, they have argued that science is applied technology. Once we are beyond our natural capacities of observation, all our empirical information is technologically mediated. Science is a rational abstraction of data gained from technology that predicts empirical results. But the empirical results have a priority, discoveries of fact trump the scientific theory, and the scientific theory must adapt to empirical truth or die (e.g., spontaneous generation, miasma theory of disease, phlogiston theory, luminiferous aether, classical physics, phrenology).

Technology, Techniques, and Tools

The approach of the philosophy of technology is bound as part of a broader philosophy of praxis, which includes the experimental-empirical tradition in the philosophy of science, Thomism, Marxism, phenomenological and existentialist approaches, and various pragmatic approaches. 'Praxis' represents practical activity, from dealing with the phenomenal (material) we gain knowledge of the noumenal (ideal). The truth lies in results of practice, and the practice of people is conscious activity in the world. Praxis combines empiricist and rationalist contemplation or sense-data experience by performing both simultaneously, through the process of practical transformation of the world. It the technology of the subject for revealing the objective.

It is from praxis that one can elaborate a distinction between tools, techniques, and technology. A tool is a non-conscious instrument which, if it has any animation at all, follows a pre-programmed process as embodied and frozen labour. A technique is a standardised process with the opportunity for conscious reflection that is typically applied with a tool (a technique can be tool-free, such as in various athletics or martial arts maneuvers). Technical knowledge is the "know how" (rather than the "know what") of using a technique with a tool. A technology is a creation and explanation (see definition) which comes from the application of conscious techniques to non-conscious tools.

Phenomenology of Technology

The use of technology has particular relationship enframings between the subject, the technology, and the world [2]. Technology is defined whether it is an "embodiment" technology, "hermeneutic", "alterity", or "background". With embodiment technologies, the technology acts as an 'exosomatic organ'. In a hermeneutic relationship, the technology belongs more to the world than to the subject, with signs and traces received. In an alterity relationship, the technology acts as a discrete mediator the primary importance rests with the relationship with the technology, rather than the appearance of the technology. In background relationships, the technology provides a background relationship where the technology encapsulates the environment in which intentionality occurs [3].

Embodiment Technologies : (Subject-Technology) -> World
Hermeneutic Technologies : Subject-> (Technology-World)
Alterity Technologies: Subject -> Technology -> World
Background Technologies: Subject -> (Technology/World)

Signs and Desires of Technology

The phenomenological-technical analytical approach also includes "horizonal instances", where there is a breakdown in the intentionality relationship, as technology ranges from levels of transparency to opacity. For example, cyborg transparency with embodiment technics, referentiality breakdown with hermeneutic, boundary breakdown with alterity, and the virtual reality in background.

A criticism of the phenomenological-technical [4] approach is that it does not review the semiotic (technology as a sign) or unconscious (technology as an unconscious expression). From the semiotic perspective, the tool-sign's signification is as interpretant (embodiment), sign (hermeneutic), other (alterity), or field (background), and the trope is metonymy (embodiment), synecdoche (hermeneutic), metaphor (alterity), narrative (background). The psychoanalytic approaches include process and neurotic tendencies, which are sense-projection and identification (embodiment), language-projection and paranoid-epistemophilia (hermeneutic), projection of self and narcissism (alterity), mastery and delusion (background).

Communications Technology

A general statement of information and communications technology appears in Shannon [5] that illustrates a technic analytical approach through signal transmissions between sender and receiver and the calculation of signal-to-noise ratios and correction.

Information Source -> Sender -> (Signal) -> (Noise) -> (Correction) -> Receiver -> Destination

The expression of communication for the generation of mutual understanding and shared symbolic values over a communications medium can also be expressed in a similar manner [6].

Subject <- Symbolic Expression <- Communications Technology -> Symbolic Expression -> Alter

Social Technology

Since the beginning of modern sociology (Saint-Simon, Comte) there have been debates on whether human society and behaviour is naturalistic. Empirical sociology has shown correlations between social categories and even the most individualistic of behaviour (e.g., Durkheim on suicide). A logical elaboration from this positivist approach to social behaviour is evident in sub-disciplines as diverse as criminology and marketing. Contemporary studies (e.g., Alex Pentland [7]) in "big data" analysis often highlight unexpected correlations in behaviour.

If humans are entirely positivistic in their behaviour then social engineering and therefore social technology should also be possible. Soviet economists such as Preobrazhensky [8] were advocates of such engineering, at least in theory. A major criticism of social engineering is an argument of the incompleteness of knowledge and the 'double hermeneutic' (Giddens) where social individuals are both the subject and the object of analysis and interpretation. An argument for reflexive social technology as a social system was a matter of debate between the German social theorists Niklas Luhmann and Jurgen Habermas [9]. Even accounting for the systems theory, Habermas argued that there is no technologicalisation for the generation of meaning (the example of communications technology enhances the capacity, but does not generate meaning or understanding per se).

History and Education

Perhaps the most important aspect of technological development is the acceleration of development with punctuated stages of increasingly shorter time-frames [10]. The correlates with increasing specialisation in science and technology. Such developments put increasing stresses on social latency and to social systems, a conflict between "the productive forces of society" and "the existing relations of production" [11], which can lead to both social revolution or social paralysis and denial. We may wish to consider the technological possibilities of our own coming lifetime which we would find uncomfortable.

Whilst this may suggest a tragedy of technology - the remorseless unfolding of a narrative with an endemic flaw - the possibility of communicative systems and communicative action to establish new normative relations between people and with technology remains possible. Whilst this is not guaranteed, it is facilitated by such features as information and communications technology, by a social security system, and by an education system which combines both theoretical and practical tasks with reflexivity. Technology amplifies our moral decisions, both good and bad - which means that the need for conscious, deliberative, and agreed control over technological capabilities becomes increasingly critical.


[1] Don Ihde, 'The historical-ontological priority of technology over science' in Philosophy and Technology, pp235-252, 1983
[2] Robert E. Innis,, 'Technics and the bias of perception", Philosophy and Social Criticism, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1984
[3] Don Ihde, "Technics and Praxis: A Philosophy of Technology", Springer, 1979
[4] Zoe Sofia, "Whose second self? gender and (ir)rationality in computer culture", Deakin University, 1993
[5] Claude Elwood Shannon, "A Mathematical Theory of Communication", The Bell Technical Journal, Vol XXVII, No 3., July 1948
[6] Lev Lafayette, "Technology and Freedom" (honours thesis), Murdoch University, 1993
[7] Alex Pentland, "Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter", Penguin, 2015
[8] Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, "The New Economics: Experience of the Theoretical Analysis of the Soviet Economy", Brian Pearce, trans., Oxford University Press, 1965 [FP: 1926]
[9] Niklas Luhmann, Jurgen Habermas, "Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie - Was leistet die Systemforschung?", Suhrkamp, 1971
[10] Gerhard Lenski; Patrick Nolan; Jean Lenski, "Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology". McGraw-Hill, 1970
[11] Karl Marx, "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy", Progress Publishers, 1977 FP 1859

A presentation to The Philosophy Forum, Sunday September 2, 2015

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