Aug 19, 2015

Using Technology

The typographically attentive reader will notice that the title of this post italicises the word technology, and thus that the phrase does not refer to using technology itself, but to using the word technology. A word that refers to itself should be distinguished from a word that refers to a concept (in philosophy, this is called the use-mention distinction), and the convention in print has been to put a word that refers to itself in italics or quotation marks: e.g. technology or ‘technology’. This convention is, itself, a result of technological innovation, and specifically of print technology. Italics were originally separate typefaces, but eventually were mixed in with roman fonts for various purposes: emphasis or variety, for example. I don’t know when italics were first used to indicate words that refer to themselves, but certainly this convention was not common before the 1700s, perhaps not before the 1800s.

Answere of Master Isaac Casaubon to the epistle of the most reuerend Cardinall Peron (William Aspley, 1612)

For example, here is the first use of the word technology recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary; it is from the English version of Isaac Casaubon’s Answere of Master Isaac Casaubon to the epistle of the most reuerend Cardinall Peron. This whole section has been printed in an italic font, and the word technology has not been made distinct in any way, although the proper name ‘Gregorie Nazianzen’ has been set in roman type. And, although we might find a certain charm in the idea of converting ‘Theologie into technology’, what Casaubon meant by technology was not something like an Electric Monk, but ‘learned, or artificiall discourse’ – the original meaning of the word. Thus technology originally meant ‘technical language’, then ‘the study of technical knowledge and skills’. It was not until the early 1800s that technology came to mean (in the words of the OED, s.v. technology sense 4b) ‘the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively’. As late as 1934, Lewis Mumford’s classic study in the history of technology did not use the word technology in its title but an alternate term: Technics and Civilization.

The most common use of technology at the time I am writing this post, however, seems to be to mean ‘electronic gadgetry’. Check the ‘Technology’ section of any news publication and you will get articles about software companies, social media platforms, and robotic devices. When I am asked what I think of students using technology in the classroom, the questioners apparently want to know whether I object to students texting their friends on their mobile phones or using their laptops or tablets to check Facebook while I am trying to teach them about medieval literature. So when I tell people that this research project is about medieval information technology, I usually get puzzled looks, because for most people, it seems, the words ‘medieval’ and ‘technology’ don’t fit together, unless they are using ‘medieval’ in a pejorative sense to mean ‘clunky and primitive’, or are alluding to chain mail or siege engines. On the other hand, historians of technology have a much wider definition of technology; for example, the January 2015 issue of Technology and Culture (vol. 56, no. 1), the journal of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), features articles about railways, nuclear reactors, NASA missions, flight simulators, and ballet shoes.

Does it matter that the meaning of technology seems to have narrowed for so many? After all, the meanings of words constantly change, and I doubt anyone today is upset that technology no longer means ‘learned, or artificiall discourse’. However, the narrowing of the meaning of technology comes out of an insidious fallacy that we should resist. If technology means ‘mobile electronic information and communications devices’, then it didn’t really exist until the 21st century, and only people with these devices (or, to be really narrow, only people who own the latest iPhone) have ‘technology’. The corollary is that anyone who does not have the devices that we consider ‘technology’ somehow does not have the capacity to devise tools that modify the world, process information, or faciliate communication. By ignoring or denigrating all the other kinds of technology there are and have been, we cut ourselves off from the histories of the technologies we have, we lose the opportunity to learn from all forms of human ingenuity, and we indulge in a narrowminded and ignorant overconfidence in our own apparent superiority.

Medieval people did not live through a thousand years of stasis. On the contrary, many aspects of the world we live in are products of medieval technology. If medieval people hadn’t invented eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, and buttonholes, we might be squinting because of bad eyesight, telling time by looking at the sun, and keeping our clothes on with pins. More subtle are medieval innovations in the ways information was encoded and processed: word separation by space, the numeral zero, double-entry bookkeeping, and a lot of other features that we are exploring in this project and that continue to affect information design today.

hold on to that broader definition of technology
So this is a plea to hold on to that broader definition of technology and that broader view of technology. The screen on which you are reading these words is the product of modern technology, but the forms of the letters themselves are a product of medieval technological design (most modern roman fonts are based on a medieval script, Caroline minuscule), and writing itself is surely one of the most powerful technologies that humans have ever invented. To understand whatever form of electronic gadgetry happens to be trending next, we need to understand technology.

Yin Liu

References and Further Reading

As usual, the first place I go for the history of an English word is the Oxford English Dictionary. Interestingly, the OED does not record the newer ‘narrow’ meaning of technology, at least not in the September 2009 update of the entry for that word.

‘Theologie into technology’ is from Isaac Casaubon, The ansvvere of Master Isaac Casaubon to the epistle of the most reuerend Cardinall Peron (London: William Aspley, 1612), accessed through Early English Books Online.

A fairly decent overview of the history of technology is provided in the article by Robert Angus Buchanan for the Encyclop├Ždia Britannica Online.

For medieval technologies, classic (although sometimes controversial) studies are Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilisation (1934), on timekeeping devices, and Lynn White Jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962), on stirrups. For a more up-to-date and lighter read, there’s Chiara Frugoni’s Books, Banks, Buttons, and Other Inventions from the Middle Ages, trans. William McCuaig (Columbia University Press, 2005).

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