Thinking Through Technology, part I

Thinking Through Technology by Carl MitchamOver the holidays I started a new book that I think at least some of you will really want to read. It’s entitled Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy, and was written by Carl Mitcham back in 1994. It is by far the most complete review of the philosophy of technology I have ever read, but it also calls for a research agenda that is very close to my own.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, entitled “Historical Traditions in the Philosophy of Technology” is a rather long (and at times very dry) review of the existing literature, but with a few added twists. Mitcham very keenly observes that there are really two separate bodies of work that both use the name “philosophy of technology.” The first comes from engineers who step back from their day-to-day work to philosophize about what they do (e.g., Kapp, Engelmeier, Dessauer). The second comes from humanities scholars (philosophers, historians, sociologists, etc) who make technology their primary object of inquiry (Mumford, Ortega Y Gasset, Heidegger, Ellul, etc). He refers to the former as Engineering Philosophy of Technology (EPT), and the latter Humanities Philosophy of Technology (HPT).

Although these groups seem on the surface to be doing similar things, Mitcham shows how they are actually approaching the subject from vastly different perspectives. EPT tends to take a kinder view of technology, and is more analytic when it engages with specific devices or systems. HPT, on the other hand, tends to be far more critical of technology, and more interpretive when examining specific cases. EPT pays more attention to the act of engineering, stressing its inherent creativity and links to the other arts. HPT pays more attention to the societal “impacts” of technology, taking a far more technological determinist view.

This should not be altogether surprising, Mitcham notes, when one considers the personal experience and motivations of those in each camp. The engineers-turned-philosophers speak from their direct experience making things and bringing new devices and systems to market. Because they understand the technologies at a deeper level, they can also analyze new systems more carefully, teasing out what is essential and fixed versus was is accidental and changeable. They also tend to recognize that any technology exists within a rich sociotechnical system of use, a system that is just as influenced by social forces as it is by technological ones.

Humanities scholars that examine technology typically don’t have any direct experience with the making of new technologies, nor do they have much in the way of theoretical engineering knowledge. They are reacting to a society that has seemingly lost interest in what these scholars know and love: the classic works of western thinkers found in most humanities curricula. They see the public glued to televisions, or in more recent years mobile communication devices and social networks, and fear their impending irrelevancy. Mitcham notes that HPT can often appear as “a series of read-guard attempts to defend the fundamental idea of the primacy of the nontechnical” (39); that is, attempts to reclaim the idea that what matters most in this world is not engineering or its products, but the never-ending reflection on what it means to be human and to live justly together.

What I appreciate most about Mitcham is that he recognizes the need for both EPT and HPT. If we are to ever get a handle on what technology is and how it relates to society, we need the perspectives of both practicing engineers and humanities scholars. Each has only one part of the puzzle, and each has quite a lot to learn from the other.

After discussing EPT vs HPT, Mitcham ends Part I with the most complete review I’ve ever seen of the usage of the term ‘technology’ in scholarship. Here he relies more on the history of technology, though his sources are a bit dated, and thus his critiques are not necessarily as relevant given the more recent scholarship in the field. Still, he does a much more complete job of analyzing the use of tekhnē in classical Greek than I have ever seen before, and uses that to make the argument that technology in the modern era is fundamentally different from pre-modern craft and architecture. I would agree with him on that, but Mitcham is unfortunately so far silent on whether we are now moving into a post-modern era, and if so, how engineering and its products might be shifting again into something entirely different. Perhaps he will get into that in part II.


2 thoughts on “Thinking Through Technology, part I

  1. Rosie Perera

    Good book. I read it for Craig Gay’s seminar “Christianity & Modern Technology” at Regent. I was only auditing the class, so I didn’t write up a significant summary or review of it, but these were my own personal reading notes: “Distinguishes between two types of philosophy of technology: the engineering philosophy of technology (which tends to be pro-technology) and the humanities philosophy of technology (which tends to be anti-technology). Breaks down technology into four aspects: technology as object, technology as knowledge, technology as activity, and technology as volition. Draws a lot from Heidegger. Epilogue outlines three ways of being-with-technology: ancient skepticism, enlightenment optimism, and romantic uneasiness (ambivalence). He claims that the first two are viable today but the third is impotent because of its ambivalence.”

  2. Adam

    Dave, I stumbled across this book, I think, at Half-Price Books maybe a year ago. It’s on my shelf waiting to be read. I’m excited to see it’s worth my time. This was a good introduction. I’m definitely an HPT.


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