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Perspectives on Science 13.4 (2006) 554-573

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Revisiting Technology as Knowledge

University of South Carolina

Books Reviewed in this Essay:

Amy E. Slaton, Reinforced Concrete and the Modernization of American Building, 1900–1930 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
Sara E. Wermiel, The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth Century American City (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2000).

The idea that technology constitutes a form of knowledge is a long and commonly held notion in the field of science and technology studies. In fact, this has become such a common assumption that it no longer requires further description or definition. But, as is true in many cases, as it became a trope, the phrase also lost, or at least muddied, some of its meaning. In Edwin Layton's 1974 article establishing technology as a kind of knowledge, he argues that technology must be analyzed in a way that acknowledges that technology comprises more than mere artifacts (Layton 1974). Taking technology as knowledge effectively places technology into social and intellectual history, as well as into philosophy. It is also clear from Layton's article, as well as his later work on the relationship of science and technology, that his notion of technology as knowledge also sets up a parallel between science—seen as a special kind of knowledge by many philosophers if few sociologists—and technology (Layton 1971, 1987). Technology is neither subsumed under science nor completely outside of it; communities of technologists and scientists constitute interdependent, [End Page 554] parallel, epistemologically equivalent bodies, what Layton calls "Mirror Image Twins." These views, while perhaps radical in the 1970s have come to be accepted without argument in the twenty-first century.

Layton's work also consciously established a directive for his own field. If we assume technology to be knowledge, then the study of technology warrants a scholarly effort parallel to the attention paid to science by philosophers, historians and social scientists. Layton's directive has been enormously successful, yielding several threads of development in technology studies, including (but not limited to): the notion that technology and engineering are more than and more interesting than the application of pre-existing scientific knowledge; a philosophy of technology focusing on the epistemological dimensions of engineering; and a body of work examining the interplay between social influences on technology and technological influences on society, led by Thomas Hughes and Wiebe Bijker, called "the social construction of technological systems" (Vincenti 1990; Mitcham, Meijers and Kroes 2000; Bijker, Hughes and Pinch 1989). Yet little of this scholarship, even though fully and often consciously justified by the notion of technology as knowledge, actually explains what it means to claim technology as knowledge. And to be clear, while the idea that technology is a form of knowledge has been notably successful in driving important scholarly investigations into technology, this success is, at least in part, dependent on the flexibility of the idea that technology constitutes knowledge. Fixing a notion of technology as knowledge runs the risk that some technologies or some knowledge forms would be excluded or eliminated, as has been the case in defining scientific knowledge. Scholars in the technology as knowledge tradition have carefully avoided limiting definitions of technological knowledge in an explicit effort to avoid some of the restrictions that have arisen through the epistemology of science. We may speak of pseudo-science, but never of pseudo-technology.

In fact, the flexibility of the concept of technology as knowledge allows technology to constitute many different kinds of knowledge. But to view technology as a whole one must investigate the relationships between the various kinds of knowledge that have been called technology. Can these various kinds of knowledge be fit together in a coherent multidimensional whole or do the parts contradict one another? In this paper I want to ask this very broad question: how can the notion of technology as knowledge be "unpacked?" What kinds of knowledge are delimited by the phrase technology as knowledge...


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