Despite these pathbreaking histories of the discourse of technology, a central question remains unanswered: Precisely when and how did technology assume the meanings that have brought it from obscurity to keyword? I argue that this semantic shift took form during the early decades of the twentieth century. I also argue that these new meanings derived primarily from the writings of American social scientists who imported elements of the German discourse of Technik into the English term technology, thus shifting the latter from its original definition as the science or study of the useful arts to a new one that embraced the industrial arts as a whole, including the material means of production.4
In nineteenth-century English, technology was a somewhat specialized term sharing a common set of meanings with its cognates in French and German. These meanings centered on technology as a field of study concerned with the practical arts; except in anomalous usage, they did not refer to industrial processes or artifacts. In German-speaking regions, a new discourse emerged around die Technik in the second half of the nineteenth century, which referred to the practical arts as a whole, especially those associated with engineers and modern industry. When Thorstein Veblen encountered the concept of Technik in German social theory, he incorporated its meanings into the English word technology, thereby transforming it into a sophisticated concept that was in many ways ahead of its time. Most scholars who drew on Veblen’s concept missed its subtleties, however, and, like the historian Charles A. Beard in the late 1920s, instead embraced a deterministic understanding that linked technology firmly to the idea of progress. The evolution of the current meanings of the term has thus been subject to the struggle between deterministic and nondeterministic interpretations of technology.
☛ “Technik Comes to America. Changing Meanings of Technology before 1930″ by Eric Schatzberg (subscription may be required). Originally published Technology and Culture, vol. 47, no 3, 2006, pp.486-512. © 2006 The Society for the History of Technology. All rights reserved.
This is one of the papers mentioned by Evgeny Morozov in his review Of Kevin Kelly’s recent book What Technology Wants?
Eric Schatzberg is Associate Professor of History of Science at University of Wisconsin. Visit his professional website for more of his publications.