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  • Technology: Critical History of a Concept by Eric Schatzberg
  • David E. Nye (bio)
Technology: Critical History of a Concept
By Eric Schatzberg. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. 344.

This excellent book will long be the definitive study of the origin and evolving meaning of "technology." Its core argument was first presented at the 2003 SHOT meeting in Atlanta and appeared later in this journal in 2006. Even then, Eric Schatzberg already had a detailed, convincing argument. He showed how the term "technology" was used in other languages (and with various meanings) before it came into English "through a Latinized Greek neologism in the sixteenth century" but remained an obscure concept for the next 300 years (p. 75). The German-derived "technics" was a rich competing term used from 1870 until the 1930s. Only in the mid-twentieth century did "technology" attain widespread acceptance and something like its present definition—shortly before the first volume of Technology and Culture appeared.

Schatzberg has now widened his scope to include the ancient world, Medieval Latin, the early modern period, many European philosophers and social scientists, and much more on the contradictory American uses of the term after 1935. In his introduction, Schatzberg declares "the definition of technology is a mess" with its "welter of contradictory meanings" (p. 1–2). This is not an accident but down to the western hierarchy of knowledge that places the fine arts and science above the practical arts. That hierarchy originated in the ancient world, and accordingly, Schatzberg explores techne as employed by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and other classical authors in the tradition of Martin Heidegger in "The Question Concerning Technology" (chapter 1). Schatzberg traces the complex developments in terminology from Greek and Roman to medieval and early modern ideas (chapter 2). Adopting a term from Leo Marx, Schatzberg examines a "semantic void" created by narrow definitions of science and fine art, neither of which considered craftsmanship and practical knowledge. "Technology" would fill that semantic void, borrowing much of its meaning from the German term "technik," as used after 1870 by philosophers, engineers, and social scientists. Sociologist Werner Sombart [End Page 1212] laid foundations for later theories of the social construction of technology when he rejected a deterministic conception of technik and recognized that kultur could influence, hinder, and shape material change (p. 111). Unfortunately, Sombart's views were overwhelmed by less sophisticated formulations, and his ideas did not fill the semantic void. Rather, "the net result of these conceptual changes was to remove human agency from the discourse of industrial modernity at the turn of the twentieth century" (p. 72).

The American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen brought this German discussion into English, assisted by the leading American historian of the 1920s Charles Beard, who championed a more deterministic view of technology. Both influenced the younger Lewis Mumford, who spent several months in 1932 reading intensively about technik at Munich's Deutsches Museum. This research shaped his seminal Technics and Civilization, which rejected autonomous conceptions of technology and argued for the importance of human agency (pp. 146–51). While this work remained influential for decades, the meanings given to "technology" after 1945 were increasingly either deterministic or instrumental. Many critiques from both the right (Jacques Ellul) and the left (Herbert Marcuse) attacked the determinism of technological society. Given the prestige of science, others defined technology as applied science, but engineers abhorred this idea. To develop better ways to understand the technological world, a small group of scholars (many from schools of engineering) came together in 1958 to establish the Society for History of Technology. Yet, the new field had amnesia. "Historians of technology appeared to know nothing about the history of the concept of technology itself, or even to be aware that the concept had a history" (p. 211). In its first decades, the new field struggled with three incompatible definitions—as applied science, as the knowledge and practices of the industrial arts, and as "technique, or instrumental reason"—as well as fending off the various forms of technological determinism that flourished elsewhere in academia and popular culture (p. 212).

This subtle and detailed work will be required reading for anyone working in...


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