© 2013 ellathompson


The reading, Introduction: ‘Culture’ and ‘Technology’, essentially spends a whole ten pages trying to define culture and technology. Well, no, I lie. It doesn’t try to nail down a specific definition for each word. Instead, the writer explores the evolution of each word. The words are first dealt with in isolation from one another. But the words’ meanings are not discrete. They are not mutually exclusive. They overlap, interact, work collectively.

I’m glad the writer spent some time trying to define technology and culture. A number of readings this year have presented a multitude of varying angles on each word.



Google defines technology as:

  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry (advances in computer technology, recycling technologies).
  2. Machinery and equipment developed from such scientific knowledge.
  3. The branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences.

So, technology is actions, things, and thoughts.

If you were to ask the average person, however, their answer would most likely be the second definition – the ‘thing’ definition.

To me, it feels like there should be slightly differing words to represent the technology ‘actions’ and ‘thoughts’. I can’t really grasp these meanings when framed in a word that so strongly signifies a ‘thing’ – it’s sort of hard to remove myself from that ingrained definition.

This is interesting since – as the writer reflects – the early meaning of the word was the “study of arts”. So it was an action. And thoughts. Rather than ‘things’ – which is what was ingrained into my generation. I suppose the study (action and thought) comes before the thing.

In fact, this relates to the technique-technology debate – which the writer also addresses. He offers a simple definition for technique – “the use of skill to accomplish something”. Mauss considers that a technique is both “effective” (works) and “traditional” (passed through culture). He identifies the body as the “first and most natural instrument” – we may think certain things we do are just “natural”, but they are actually very “technically and culturally specific”.

The writer discusses how technology currently describes the “overall system of machines and processes”. He also talks about how technology has been generalised to the point of abstraction – e.g. technology as “an overarching system that we inhabit”. He considers the broad-based approach to technology that is being promoted by a number of theorists. This approach encompasses concrete forms (products, artefacts) as well as abstractions (knowledge, processes, goals). Essentially, his point is that technology – now so central to so many societies – should be considered as far more than just a “collection of tools and machines”. We live in technology – we use it, change it, develop it, it affects things, it affects us, the way we think, communicate, learn, do – so there is something more going on (than technology just being a ‘thing’).

This leads into a discussion of culture. The composer, Brian Eno, defines culture as what people do, beyond the basic necessities of survival and bodily function. The contemporary meaning of culture involves two sides: specific self-contained cultures (e.g. youth culture, French culture), and – very generally – all human activity around the world (“culture as opposed to nature”). An interesting fact about the word ‘culture’ is that its Greek roots relate it to the word  ‘cultivation’ and, in the 1500s, the word meant “cultivation of mind or body”. However, this does imply some sort of ‘higher living’ – favouring the intellectual/artistic side of civilisation. This is what the writer challenges. The book takes a holistic approach to the meaning of culture – defining it as being “dynamic”, “multiple” and “unpredictable” (changing, overlapping, contradicting, messy, many – as opposed to the 19th century elitist notion of culture as a “stable, idealistic realm”).

The writer also makes the point that technologies can end up being used in ways the inventors had not foreseen – “the street finds its own use for things”.

There is something that I find quite intriguing about the evolution of the meaning of culture. In the early nineteenth century, the Romantics visioned culture as “uplifting” and “ennobling” – as the positive dimension of civilised societies. At the same time, degrading social results of the Industrial Revolution were being seen. This established a “dichotomy between culture and technology”. Nowadays, however, there is something that unifies the two. Both words are – to some extent – in the one concept. This is because of their interdependency. Culture develops from technology. Technology arises from culture. (Technique is in there somewhere too!) For example, the writer points out that civilisations are largely based on “the technologies of building and writing”. In broader terms, contemporary mass culture is “made possible by the technologies of communication and production”. They make up the one concept, albeit a complicated one.

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