Technology, in its most basic form, is a practice of making artifacts to serve a specific purpose. Some artifacts, like a software program, are tangible and have a specific function, whereas others, like a house, are not. Artifacts that are useful for technological purposes include machines, utensils, and software. They are not works of art.
Throughout its history, technology has played a crucial role in human society. It has become a major economic force, and its influence is often felt in our culture. As such, philosophy of technology is a growing discipline that attempts to understand the impact of technology on humankind.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the dominant perspective in philosophical reflection on technology was a critical one. Representatives of this perspective were schooled in the social sciences, and most had no first-hand experience with engineering. However, as science and technology became more popular in the public consciousness, a positive view of technology began to prevail.
From the beginning of the scientific revolution, technology affected human culture directly. The use of scientific theories, along with experimental methods, changed the way that people thought and worked. A number of philosophers have attempted to bring the human element into technology, arguing that humans can make technology more socially desirable.
Another way to understand the origins of technology is to look at its relationship to nature. Ancient Greeks, such as Democritus and Heraclitus, believed that human artists were able to imitate nature. One example was the invention of weaving. Others, such as alchemical writers, believed that human art could surpass natural products.
The Renaissance helped to increase our appreciation of human creativity. During this period, the concept of the operational principle became a central part of engineering design. An operational principle is a set of rules for action, which are essentially prescriptive. Examples of these rules include: If one wants to achieve X, one should do Y.
Those who have made this connection have argued that technology has a value-ladenness, in that it is constructed to accomplish a certain purpose. Despite the importance of technology to humankind, a number of humanities philosophers of technology have taken a negative view of the concept.
Some humanities philosophers of technology have criticized technology for its value-ladenness, while others have suggested that the concept of technology is neutral. For instance, Joseph Pitt, who is considered a leading figure in the field, has argued that technology is ‘humanity at work’.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the general trends in technology conceptualizations have become more varied. While a few key concepts, such as the operational principle, remain relatively stable, others have evolved. The term ‘technological norm’ is derived from Georg Henrik von Wright’s Norm and Action (1963). These norms describe the course of action that an author should take in order to achieve a particular goal.
In addition to these early contributions, the twentieth century has seen more and more humanities philosophers of technology taking the work of the founding figures further. Most humanities philosophers of technology have adopted a more neutral approach to the concept of technology, focusing on its relationship to other phenomena rather than analyzing it.