Nye ch. 1

Preface: Nye wants us to think about how living in an intensely technological world affects our lives.
desktop
            and book face off He is asking a series of questions about technology
Nye wants us to see that technology is something like storytelling (narrative) How is it useful to understand technology as a narrative, not just a tool?
technology is about being able to modify our environment, about choices

Can we define technology?

Since 1850 new technology has increasingly come from new discoveries in formal science.  if you take that approach it speeds up technological progress and makes it more predictable. 
Is this where all new technology comes from?
Nye is interested not just in a dictionary definition but in what technology does for us.
We can't say technology is unique to human beings as animals use it too

technology =

what are the turning points in controlling nature?


Along with the scientific and industrial revolutions (17th and 19th centuries, respectively) came a new respect for technology.  New attitudes towards technology--that technology will make us rich and that "science and invention were the engines of progress" (p. 9)

from the scientific revolution until the late 19th century the relationship between science and technology is confused

what we call technology had been just something that craftspeople do, and the word as we use it today wasn't even used
now it began to be seen as a field of study, as something coherent and interesting

Consider the word: technology (used to mean only the scientific kind of technology, or at least the systematic study of tools, now we use it more broadly)

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definitions:
1.      a. A discourse or treatise on an art or arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts.
b. Practical arts collectively.
c. A particular practical or industrial art.
d. "high-technology" applied to a firm, industry, etc., that produces or utilizes highly advanced and specialized technology, or to the products of such a firm.  Similarly low-technology.
2. The terminology of a particular art or subject; technical nomenclature.
3. In Greek: systematic treatment (of grammar, etc.), Obsolete. rare.
4. Special Combinations: technology assessment, the assessment of the effects on society of new technology; technology transfer, the transfer of new technology or advanced technological information from the developed to the less developed countries of the world.

Nye's point is that the word technology used to mean something very different
first meant only a book about practical arts, then came to mean the arts themselves
now it means scientific study of a practical art--practical arts were not very interesting to scholars

So what does "practical arts" mean?
Learning used to be divided up into:
  • fine arts: painting, music, etc.--beauty for its own sake, not practical
  • liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, musical harmonics, and astronomy, to be understood for their own sake rather than for practical use
  • practical arts: anything useful
This older definition of technology assumed that formal science and technology didn't have much to do with each other
Early American colleges taught prestige subjects--Latin, Greek, mathematics, philosophy and theology

But that still wasn't what we usually mean by technology today:
  • Watch out for the idea that technology is the application of science--that was not true before the 18th century and only gradually became so over two centuries before about 1950.  Even now, there are many technological innovations that don't involve formal science.
  • Technology became the word for high prestige practical arts, it isn't so much used for low prestige ones (which is why technology today is sometimes used to mean computers--they have the highest prestige right now)

For example:
 
 Amos Eaton portrait from RPI
The history of Rensselaer shows the process of making engineering into a formal subject instead of simply the business of craftspeople 
  • In England engineering was still learned by apprenticeship until around 1900, while France had developed a system of formal schooling in engineering in the late eighteenth century.   The flagship school in France, Ecole Polytechnique, taught a broad foundation of mathematics and science with the idea that the students would then go to specialized programs to learn such fields as mining engineering and bridge design.
  • In the United States the Rensselaer School was founded in 1825, the first civilian technical school on the college level (the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was already teaching engineering).  Stephen Van Rensselaer put up the money and Amos Eaton (1776-1842) provided the ideas and directed the new school.
  • Eaton had started out as a lawyer and gone to jail accused of cheating in a land deal.  While in jail he studied science by reading books.  After he got out he made a living by giving public lectures about science.
  • How does Eaton think you should teach science?
    • you need hands on experience, not just to read a book
    • students should give lecture-demonstrations to the professors
    • learn practical scientific knowledge, not just abstract knowledge
  • Eaton stressed that students would learn science from its practical applications.  At Rensselaer: "In every branch of learning, the pupil begins with its practical application; and is introduced to a knowledge of elementary principles, from time to time, as his progress requires.  After visiting a bleaching factory, he returns to the laboratory and produced the chlorine gas and experiments upon it, until he is familiar with all the elementary principles appertaining to that curious substance." Eaton was struggling to figure out the relationship between science and engineering education.  He was also a pioneer of hands-on education.
  • Van Rensselaer wrote in 1824: "My principal object is, to qualify teachers for instructing the sons and daughters of Farmers and Mechanics, by lectures or otherwise, in the application of experimental chemistry, philosophy, and natural history, to agriculture, domestic economy, the arts and manufactures."
  • Rensselaer was reorganized to teach more courses in engineering, particularly after Eaton left in 1842.   The trustees hired a director, B. Franklin Greene, who was committed to the French model .  This proved successful, and for twenty years or so Rensselaer was the civilian equivalent of West Point for training in civil engineering.  Engineering was becoming a specialized profession
the key idea in the 19th century development of engineering and science education was that technology based on science will provide us with a new and better world
  • we can make the world a better place
  • we do that not by trial and error but by systematic study
  • science will give us power
  • technology--the scientific study of practical matters--is the key to progress
  • by the mid 19th century you had a new social understanding of what technology is and what it can do for us


This page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
HIST 1220
last updated 11/3/17