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Technology: Critical History of a Concept

Technology: Critical History of a Concept

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Publication Date: November 12th, 2018
University of Chicago Press
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In modern life, technology is everywhere. Yet as a concept, technology is a mess. In popular discourse, technology is little more than the latest digital innovations. Scholars do little better, offering up competing definitions that include everything from steelmaking to singing. In Technology: Critical History of a Concept, Eric Schatzberg explains why technology is so difficult to define by examining its three thousand year history, one shaped by persistent tensions between scholars and technical practitioners. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, scholars have tended to hold technicians in low esteem, defining technical practices as mere means toward ends defined by others. Technicians, in contrast, have repeatedly pushed back against this characterization, insisting on the dignity, creativity, and cultural worth of their work. 

​The tension between scholars and technicians continued from Aristotle through Francis Bacon and into the nineteenth century. It was only in the twentieth century that modern meanings of technology arose: technology as the industrial arts, technology as applied science, and technology as technique. Schatzberg traces these three meanings to the present day, when discourse about technology has become pervasive, but confusion among the three principal meanings of technology remains common. He shows that only through a humanistic concept of technology can we understand the complex human choices embedded in our modern world.

About the Author

Eric Schatzberg is the chair of the School of History and Sociology in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Praise for Technology: Critical History of a Concept

"A thought-provoking narrative that surfaces an important intellectual history, especially about the differences and confluences between technology and science. Most notably, the author concludes this text with a manifesto, asserting that his book is intended as 'an intervention in the present, a first step in rehabilitating technology as a concept for history and social theory, with an eventual goal of shaping technologies toward more humane ends.' This text will offer advanced students and scholars a new lens for studying modernity alongside politics, arts, or culture . . . . Undoubtedly, this is an important contribution to conversations about technology and should be read by graduate students, faculty, and practitioners in history and STEM fields. . . . Highly recommended."

"This excellent book will long be the definitive study of the origin and evolving meaning of 'technology.' [ . . . ] This subtle and detailed work will be required reading for anyone working in the history of technology. It is not merely an exemplary etymological excavation but has implications for future research. Schatzberg concludes with 'A Manifesto' that calls on scholars to liberate the concept of technology from those 'who reduce it to instrumental reason' and from determinists 'who view technology as driven by its own ends.' Instead, scholars need to focus on links between technology, architecture, and the practical arts; recognize the vital role of craftsmanship; and resist the academic 'tendency to elevate theory over practice, discourse over materiality, principles over applications' (p. 235)."
— Technology and Culture

“In this book, Eric Schatzberg presents a long, complicated, and important story: the emergence of a key concept—arguably the defining concept—of our age. He collects, clarifies, synthesizes, and interprets a massive amount of research in both primary and secondary sources. For the foreseeable future, this is going to be the definitive study of the origins and meaning of technology.”
— Rosalind Williams, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"Schatzberg offers a refreshing and insightful overview of the conceptual changes of technology, as well as a thought-provoking defense of a humanistic understanding of technology."
— Contributions to the History of Concepts