Where We Get the Word Technology and Why It Matters

Why even point out that our technique has been physically embedded in a tool? It's the 21st century, of course it has.

Everyone knows we’re surrounded by “tech.” It’s reshaping every aspect of society in every corner of the globe, making countless twenty-something millionaires in the process, and keeping kids from playing outside like they used to.

Those things might be true. And yet, we’re not great at identifying what “tech” really is: ask someone to point it out, and they’ll look for the closest object with a glowing screen. This focus, while not exactly incorrect, artificially silos digital devices from the rest of mankind’s toolbox, obscuring the rich fabric connecting everything our species has made and done.

So, let’s step back a bit.

Technology's Greek Origin Story

The Greek tekhno meant skill, and this definition was passed down directly into today’s technique, which is literally a skill — and, importantly, a skill of any sort: there’s technique to baking a soufflé, to origami, to handstands, to ballet, and sure, to programming computers. As such, cooking, paper-folding, acrobatics, dance, and software engineering are all technical: in order to do them well, you need technique, or skill. Also importantly, technique doesn’t inherently require technology: a handstand needs nothing but the human body, gravity, and the ground.

By taking technique and giving it material form, we created technology.The magic of technology comes from adding the logy, which is derived from the root leg, meaning collect. So, if we were to collect a skill, what would it look like? Well, originally it looked like a book: tekhnologia was compiled information about grammar. As we might recall from our elementary school days, proper grammar requires quite a bit of skill! By taking technique (like the rules of language) and giving it material form (like words written on pages), we created technology.

So, from the beginning, technology was a physical manifestation of a skill. And that meaning lasted for quite a while: it was still the definition when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was founded in 1861, with the charter of “instituting and maintaining a society of arts, a museum of arts, and a school of industrial science” — what better way to collect and manifest skills than to create a university?

And Then the Industrial Revolution

That definition might not have changed, but with the Industrial Era in full swing, plenty of other things had. Among the many transformations that swept across society, textiles — once skillfully made by hand — were now made by machines. So if looms were the physical manifestation of the skill of making fabric, were looms technology? And what about all the other new inventions that mechanized human techniques? We could’ve gone either way on those questions, but in the natural course of language, we decided yes, and technology was broadened from books about the skill of grammar to any physical form of any skill at all.

There were near-endless new inventions introduced during the Industrial Revolution, but that wasn’t unique to the time. Inevitably, being the clever species we are, there will always be some new thing we’ve made. And, being new and exciting, that thing will get our attention, while everything else fades into the patterns of everyday life.In recent times, most of those new things — cellphones, tablets, desktop computers, etc. — have had glowing screens. So, with our limited scope of attention,

In recent times, most of those new things — cellphones, tablets, desktop computers, etc. — have had glowing screens. So, with our limited scope of attention, technology has been implicitly restricted to objects with pixels and a backlight. And these are, to be sure, quite wondrous technology. But so was the electric refrigerator before that, the airplane before that, and the fax machine, the lightbulb, gunpowder, and stone tools even longer ago. And they’re all technology.

Continuing Our Human Tradition

Why even point out that our technique has been physically embedded in a tool? It's the 21st century, of course it has.Earlier we noted that the magic of technology comes from adding the logy to tekhno. Unfortunately, this magic was no match for the relentless drive of linguistic effort reduction, which shortened the full word down to just tech. It’s almost poetic: why even point out that our technique has been physically embedded in a tool? It’s the 21st century, of course it has. And that brings us to a riddle:

Question: How long do you go after waking up in the morning without using technology?

Answer: Zero seconds — Your pillow is technology. (The technique of supporting one’s head was once done with one’s arm.)

Put succinctly, a technique is a skill, and something technical requires skill — but not necessarily technology. Technology is a tool that embodies a technique, and tech is our perfect choice of abbreviation that efficiently confuses all three by consisting only of letters they all share. Confounding shorthand aside, these definitions place our brightly glowing screens in the full context of human tradition, as just the latest instance of getting skills to do things, then getting things to do those skills.

Republished from Ologologic.