Final Word

Technology – ‘art’ driving a revolution


To the modern ear it may sound ironical at best, and probably laughable, to suggest that a global social revolution, driven by modern technology, has its roots in the arts, but it is true.

During the holidays I read an article about how present technological developments are creating a ‘jobless society’, posing challenges (and opportunities) on many fronts. This was followed by one on how a particular high tech company plans “to replace almost every human worker with robots”. It was time, I decided, to try and establish were it all started from.

And if you think I am the only one thinking that technology is driving a revolution, consider that my Google-search of the words “technology and new revolution” rendered the following response: “About 142 000 000 results (0,41 seconds)”.

Where did it all start?

With this column in mind, I tried to trace the origin and the original meaning of the word ‘technology’. It turned out to be a relatively new one in English, dating back to the early 17th century. The root dates to the ancient Greek word tekhnologia, meaning ‘systematic treatment’.

The word has had an interesting and complicated journey through history into our modern vocabulary, changing its meaning a couple of times along the way to the modern dictionary definition of “… the application of practical sciences to industry or commerce”.

This modern meaning comes from mainly the German language; German engineers created the word technik for the “totality of tools, machines, systems and processes used in the practice arts and engineering”.

In ancient Greece they used the word techne for skill with art, or craft and added logia to it, creating the concept of ‘systematic treatment’ of arts and crafts. For the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle architecture was a typical manifestation of this concept.

In his work “Nicomachean Ethics”, he describes it as a “rational faculty exercised in making something … a productive quality exercised in combo with true reason.”

He believed that the business of techne was to “bring something into existence which has its efficient cause in the maker and not in itself”.

For him, tekhnologia was how the sciences, and particularly mathematics, manifested themselves in arts and crafts.

The first big change

The first big change in the concept of technology and the broadening of its meaning came with the rise of Roman dominance on the European historical stage.

The Roman philosopher Cicero praised the human ability to transform the environment and create a “second nature”. Other Roman poets praised techne as well, with the construction of roads and the convenience of well-built villas.

During the Middle Ages the term seems to have disappeared from the scene and was replaced with the concept of “mechanical arts” when arts and crafts were associated with material or physical manifestation in things like architecture, weaponry, commerce, theatre and even agriculture.

The concept of technology as a driver of human advancement came into full bloom during the period in European history known as the Renaissance (literally meaning ‘rebirth’) between the 14th and 17th centuries. Historians also regard this as the bridging period between the Middle Ages and modern times.

During this time technology brought mankind powerful innovations like paper, printing, the mariner’s compass and gunpowder.

With it, however, also came huge social upheavals such as the end of the feudal system and the French Revolution.

In the book, New Atlantis, published in 1627, Francis Bacon foresaw a perfect society whose “king” is advised by scientists and whose engineers were organised into research bodies at an institution called Salmon’s House – a vision that later led to the establishment of Britain’s Royal Society in 1662.

The next big change

Then, from around the middle of the 18th century until just short of the middle of next century (1840), on the back of the modern concept of technology, came the Industrial Revolution.

As man learned how to harness the energy from, first, steam, and later other sources of energy to drive machines for the manufacturing of products it dramatically changed humankind’s whole way of life.

In the words of an article on the website World History International: “About the time of the American Revolution, the people of England began to use machines to make cloth and steam engines to run the machines. A little later they invented locomotives. Productivity began a spectacular climb. By 1850 most Englishmen were laboring in industrial towns and Great Britain had become the workshop of the world. From Britain, the Industrial Revolution spread gradually throughout Europe and to the United States.”

According to a 2014 article on the website Scherrology the meaning of the term “remained unstable until the latter half of the 20th century where it evolved into vague abstraction that was further complicated in the 1990’s when newspapers, stock traders and bookstores made technology a synonym for computers, telephones and ancillary devices as David Nye argues in his book "Technology Matters: Questions to Live With.

Now, it mostly refers to what to on the back the back of the development of the internet, has become known as ‘The Connected World’.

Final Word

The Scherrology article concludes: “… the culture in which the technology is going to be used, served and taught should be the one to clearly define it. To accomplish this, we must look to the past to see how the word’s meaning has evolved over time and then look towards the future to understand how the word will continue to evolve and then prepare ourselves and our learners for those inevitable shifts that are most likely to occur.”

This might be the answer to Albert Einstein’s warning: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. They will have a generation of idiots.”

by Piet Coetzer

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