Restoring Conceptual Independence to Technology

Neither of the prevailing views of technology – as violently subjugating nature or as derivative of science – quite describes the way technology is actually practised. A bird’s eye view of science and technology can only lead to misunderstanding of the relation between the two. This essay looks at the relationship from the point of view of a practising technologist, taking as its starting point a better understanding of the design process and the design paradigm.


Technology is generally viewed with a great deal of suspicion in today’s trendy environment of anti-modernity. It is held to be intrinsically violent and even genocidal1, with its aim of dominating and controlling nature. Common examples include the Nazi gas chambers or the Bhopal tragedy, linking these events are perceived as in some way inherent in the vision of technology itself. In this perspective, science is supposed to share the ideology of dominance over nature that characterises technology; and in this sense, science is considered a virtual synonym for technology. In other words, the Hiroshima bomb and E=MC2 are frozen together in time and space in such a way that their separation becomes an artificial exercise .


The more “classical” view of technology 2 does not deal with technology any more kindly. This endeavour locates technology in the knowledge domain as a poor second cousin of science. It is either “applied science” or “technoscience”, with the earlier tradition of technology considered as ‘techniques’ and consigned to its pre-history. In this view, knowledge that such techniques used — the properties of nature — were earlier known empirically and have now been replaced by the far greater scientific knowledge of the day. This replacement of traditional and empirical knowledge is held to define modern technology as distinct from earlier artisanal techniques; therefore the description of technology in this scheme as either “applied science” or “technoscience”. Though the progression of technique to technology transfers it from its earlier subaltern location to the more elite one of science, it still does not lose completely either its taint of commerce or the odour of sweat.


The primary reason for the identification of science with technology seems to be their shared skills and tools – the experimental methods and mathematics . Historically, they have also often shared people: figures such as Archimedes and Galileo are famous not only for the development of mechanics and physics, but also for a variety of machines. The need for defence (or offence) saw the learned men of their times harnessed to the military machine, a very early form of the military industrial complex! Even the services Leonardo Da Vinci offered to his patrons, were primarily on the basis of his technical abilities not his painting and sculpture. However, while the science of an Archimedes or a Galileo developed is still useful, (for example, the Archimedes principle), their military machines, catapults, etc. appear to be more or less obsolete3. Hence the belief that technology of old is more akin to crafts, with empirical knowledge used in the absence of real underlying principles of nature; and the consequent extrapolation that current technology with its better understanding of science is technoscience as distinct from the earlier version with its proximity to crafts. This distinction permits the philosophers of science, with their fixation on physics, to comfortably abandon the grubby world of artifacts 4 with its location in labour and contemplate the far more ethereal one of ideas.


Both these views look at technology and science as inseparable and consider that two have to be examined only in their unity; thus the problem of addressing two halves can be effectively collapsed to one. For those who would like to attack technology as a Manichean force subverting the good in nature, the task is considerably simplified in not having to address the question of separating the knowledge of nature from its modification. For those part of the grand Eurocentric project of showing that all knowledge flows from the “western” tradition of enquiry, inconvenient details – such as important technological advances of other civilisations – can be wished away as proto-technology.


The belief that science and modern technology are intrinsically “western” is an extremely deep-seated one; it comes up not only in the optimistic account of scientific progress but also in the critical accounts of science. While the appropriation of science for the “west” is relatively easier, it is not so easy in the case of technology. The monumental work of Needham (1969), which showed that the compass, the printing press and gunpowder, all originated in China, made it very difficult to argue that other civilisations did not have true “technology” even if it could be argued that they did not possess – unlike the Greeks- “true science and true mathematics”. Thus, a backdoor appropriation of technology required its subsumption under science. If science is western and technology has become technoscience, it can be then be argued that modern science and technology are essentially western. I reproduce below a longish quote from a recent article by Agaazzi (1998) to show how such views are presented as crude arguments, despite Martin Bernal’s incisive account [Bernal 1987] of the origin of these ideas in late 19th and early 20th century racism.


The suffix, “ology” that we find in the word technology, invites us to take advantage of the theoretical aspect that is usually bound up with its use (compare theology, sociology, philology, ethnology); it serves to indicate the presence of some kind of “scientific,” or at least theoretical dimension. In fact, the Greek term techne already included this theoretical aspect, since it was used to indicate the capability of justifying, of “knowing why,” a certain efficient procedure was efficient. I would maintain that the modern concept of technology can be interpreted as a new way of expressing the conceptual content of the Greek term techne. Without indulging in detailed historical reconstruction, we can say that western civilization finds what is perhaps the most decisive element of its specificity–as regards other great civilizations in human history–in that it explicitly introduced the theoretical demand into the domain of practice and of doing. What we might well call the “invention of the why,” rising from within Hellenic civilization in the sixth century B.C.E., led in that same context to the birth of both philosophy and science in the strong sense. (They were originally one and the same.) The very demand which led philosophers to ask for the reasons for the existence and constitution of the cosmos (and to postulate principles and first causes to provide such an explanation), was also what moved the first mathematicians to provide the reasons (by means of demonstrations) for the properties of numbers and figures; other peoples had discovered them only empirically, translating them into practical rules of calculus. In following this impulse, it was inevitable that a search for the “why” should eventually take up the different sorts of efficient knowing that men had used in various fields; and this gave birth to the notion of techne: efficient action where we know the reasons for its efficiency and that it is founded upon them.


I will take the third view, which is also prevalent5, that science and technology are different human activities with different goals and objectives. In the case of science, scientific activity produces laws, classifications or patterns in nature. These are then used for explanatory and predictive purposes. Though technological activity uses knowledge — either law-like or empirical — its primary goal is to produce artefacts which incorporate, some designed social function. The artefacts can be either material or “code”; the computer program in this scheme still remains an artefact though not a material one. While the relation between science and technology may evolve over time, it does not mean that the nature of scientific or technological activity has changed in the process. I will explore specific aspects of technology that I believe make it an independent endeavour from the enterprise of science. I will also explore why the interpenetration of science and technology still does not invalidate the fact that they are distinctly different kinds of activities.


The above account of nature of science and technology does not address the currently influential stream of social constructivism [Bijker et al 1978]. I accept one of the fundamental propositions of social constructivism that technology does not unfold in an unilinear fashion from some inner logic, but is also the result of a series of social choices, a proposition that social constructivists share with a much older tradition that society shapes technology. The problem that I have with the normative account of social constructivism is its neutrality regarding the cause of success of particular artefacts, its principle of symmetry where the analyst remains “impartial to the real properties of her object of analysis, viz. technology” [Brey 1998]. The neutrality towards the reason for success of technology has drawn similar criticism to the ones levelled against social constructivist accounts of scientific theories, the most influential ones being those of Langdon Winner (1991) and Vincenti (1995). Winner also criticised the inability of the social constructivist to take an evaluative stance towards specific technologies, invoking either moral or political principles. That there are social choices being made in the development of technology does not tell us anything about the choices that should be made from an emancipatory viewpoint. The second problem with the social constructivists’ account is the belief that technology is infinitely plastic and that the design space is therefore infinite. Instead the feasible design space for most technologies is strictly limited [Vincenti 1995] and the social shaping drives artefacts only into bounded choice sets.


I will address in the following sections the historical relation between science and technology and its evolution. I will also discuss the role of science in the design paradigm, arguing that it acts as a part of the constraining envelope 6 in the design of artefacts. Thus nature’s laws, as explicated in science, are applied not to design artefacts but to limit the possibilities of design. For those who are disturbed by this relegation of science to an apparently negative role, I must point out that any development of an artefact needs to be limited in the possible design space, and that this process is extremely important in the development of technology. I will then address whether there are design paradigms in technology, and how they change. Kornwachs has pointed out (though his observation applies more to the artefacts than to the design) that as the goals we do not want are much more extensive than the goals we definitely want, all our technological actions are necessarily incomplete and risk not being able to prevent reaching an undesirable state (or failure). As technology cannot anticipate all prevention modes, designs will occasionally fail. This leads us to an examination of the role of failures in bringing out unknown unwanted states, leading to changes in design paradigms.

History of Science and Technology Relationships

A conventional view of the history of technology is that technology was largely a collection of techniques in the past and became science-based only after the industrial revolution. In this process, technology was also institutionalised on the same lines as scientific institutions and broke free from its past conservative character transcending the guild form of organisation. In such a view, the earlier craftsmen who produced artefacts were deemed to be quite divorced from the realm of scientific theories, basing themselves largely on rules of thumb and empirical knowledge. With the growth of scientific knowledge, it is now possible to substitute laws of nature for the “crude” rules of thumb and thus generate a technology, which is imprinted with science, if not fused with it.


Though not obvious, this view of technology is underpinned by a certain assumption regarding the nature of science. In this scheme, if the rule of thumb and empirical knowledge can be replaced by science, science must indeed have moved fairly close to truth. Thus this perspective of technology must also view the progress in science as a closer and closer approximation to truth and the scientific progression to be continuous. Otherwise, a closer approximation to “truth” could uncover a new level in science for which the scientific knowledge available would again be limited. If an artefact is developed that utilises properties at this level, it must again fall back on empirical knowledge as distinct from a scientific understanding of nature.


The above view of the relationship between science and technology also assumes that technology was leading science earlier, while today science is in the lead. However, the implicit absence of paradigm shifts in science makes this conventional account of science — lagging behind technology and leading it now — quite suspect.


The historical account asserting the lead enjoyed by technology earlier and its following science now are generally assumed to be self evident, with a few examples given more as illustrations than proof. But even these examples are contentious and empirical evidence can be used to support different conclusions. Thus, according to Shapere (1998), the invention of the steam engine initiated the science of thermodynamics and therefore, in this account of history of science, technology had primacy over science earlier. However, Shapere has also quoted Cardwell (1995), who argues that Guericke’s study of atmospheric phenomena was used in the Newcomen engine, the first commercially used steam engine. It was appropriately, called the atmospheric engine. It is not relevant to my discussion whether the steam engine creates the field of thermodynamics or is itself a product of atmospherics. My contention is simple that claims regarding the primacy of technology over science in the past is a contested one and alternate views are not only possible but exist.


The primacy of science over technology over the last 100 years has been taken to be axiomatically true. Undoubtedly, science and technology are much closer as human activities than in the past. However, this does not automatically give either primacy, or a lead to science in its relationship with technology. Again, the example given quite often from this viewpoint is highly contentious. The example most often quoted is that electronic circuits are a result of our understanding of quantum tunnelling 7 and therefore held to be an example of science leading technology. Here again the historical record is far less clear. The characteristic of electronic components is that they are non – linear and result in non – linear circuits at the macro level. The first semi-conductor device was patented by J.C.Bose [Emerson 1998] and arose well before quantum mechanics had developed. Even if the precedence of science is accepted in terms of knowing the quantum phenomena, it by no means follows that technology is able to use quantum laws for designing artefacts. In fact, the quantum laws operate at the micro level and only explain an individual device. Interestingly, quantam laws themselves are linear and non – linearity arises out of the interaction of the micro and macro levels. However, the core of electronic engineering is developing complex circuits using such devices where the behaviour of each component is required to be known only at the macro level. In terms of circuit design, these semiconductor devices are analogous to the old-fashioned diodes and triodes, and they behave similarly. While the use of semi-conductor devices lead to miniaturisation and large-scale integration, the fundamental nature of electronic circuits do not change. They remain in non-linear circuits, due to the use of non – linear electrical components. Since we do not as yet have analytical tools to solve them, they are still designed using old-fashioned trial and error and rules of thumb. If there is one area in modern technology in which the technologist behaves very much like the craftsman of yore, it is in electronic engineering. So, to offer electronics as proof of either primacy of science over technology, or as a fusion of science and technology, is to misunderstand the fundamental processes that are at work.


The example of electronic engineering is a particularly good one, as it raises two other issues crucial to understanding technology. One is the role of different forms of knowledge in technology and the other is the impact of crossing levels in nature and their impact on technology.

Confronting the Unknown

In creating artefacts, technology has to address its lack of complete knowledge of the real world. As science, in any frame of reference, does not provide a complete knowledge of nature, how then do we develop artefacts that can be predicted to work in the absence of complete knowledge? The, technologist uses two methods to address this lack of knowledge: experiments to work out empirical relations; and the quantification of lack of knowledge — either scientific or empirical — in a factor of safety that should be described more correctly as a‘a factor of ignorance’.


That technology has become far more science-based stems from the belief that ignorance today is far less than it was before. In other words, it regards nature as two dimensional and bounded, with our increasing knowledge of it progressively reducing the area of the unknown. However, if nature is not bounded and has levels, it poses serious problems for this view. As technology does not remain within the bounds of the known, it still has to address the unknown. With the crossing of levels in nature, the problem is even more acute. Technology has to push out of the ‘envelope of the known’ to confront the new unknown level where the nature may still be largely unknown.


If we take the earlier example of electronic engineering, this issue comes more readily into focus. Originally, electrical circuits were linear as they used only linear elements; resistance, capacitors and inductors. The laws of science — Ohm’s law, Kirchoff’s laws, and other similar laws — can be used to compute and solve such circuits and therefore design devices containing such circuits. However, electronic circuits use non-linear elements — such as Bose’s two-element junction, diodes, and semi-conductor junctions. As the resulting non-linear circuits are not amenable to analytical methods, the use of electronic devices in technology means, again, reliance on empirical knowledge and factoring in ignorance.


If technology had been confined to the domain of linear electrical circuits, the argument that ignorance and role of empirical knowledge have been reduced by science developing almost complete predictable devices could undoubtedly be held to be true. With the introduction of the non – linear circuits and electronics, the certainty that characterised linear circuits vanishes.  Unfortunately, the unknown always yawns at the feet of the unwary. Electronics is another example of the same — rather than a proof that science, while playing tag with technology, is now leading it.


Let us turn briefly to another aspect of this lead-lag view of technology, namely the role of instruments in advancing science. Quite often, insignificant advances in technology have had a profound effect on science. This is because a new level in nature can be uncovered with even a minor technological progress. Consequently, some improvements in the instruments of enquiry open up domains or levels of reality not apparent earlier. The development of better vacuum pumps at the end of 19th century, was by itself, no major technological landmark; but it uncovered the quantum world, leading to the “demise” of classical physics. Similarly, a rather minor advance in glass grinding created the optical lens. The astronomical and the microscopic worlds became accessible to the scientists as a consequence. The development of the instruments of inquiry has grown today to such a level as to lead to arguments [Basella 1993] that the scientific reality itself is mediated by technology and the sine qua non of the scientific enterprise. Shapere has argued that technology and science continuously play leapfrog with each other, using the instruments of enquiry as examples of how technology leads science while a number of technological artefacts use new principles of science.


I would argue that the examples given of science leading technology are based on an insufficient understanding of how technology actually develops. The idea of primacy of science or its leading technology is trying to find a common metric within two incommensurable domains. The philosophy of technology is quite often a derivative discourse of the philosophy of science, and shares the prejudice of the scientist regarding the technicians in their laboratories. If technology and science are held to be different enterprises, then the question of lag-lead or primacy of one over the other becomes meaningless. No technological artefact can be constructed without understanding nature in some sense; nor can such artefact be based purely on known knowledge.


Design Paradigms and Role of Failure


The crucial difference between scientific activity and technical activity is that technology has as its starting point an abstract design through which it fulfils a certain function. This function is not merely to fulfil an existing need, but often creates a new social need through novel artefacts. Even where a new need is being created, it must be borne in mind that no social need can be created unless there is a basis for it in society; the artefact must base itself on certain existing aspects of human or social reality. The design of any artefact starts from an abstract model of the artefact — however fuzzy it might be — which incorporates the design function of the artefact. The creative process of innovation is much closer to the artistic process than conventionally granted. It is not an accident that a Leonardo Da Vinci offers his services to his patrons primarily as an engineer. His creative ability to create a mental image before developing it in practice is common to his sculpture, painting and design of artefacts and made him a master in each of these fields.


The issue I would like to raise here is whether there are design paradigms in developing artefacts and whether such paradigms undergo shifts in the way paradigms do in science.


A number of historians and philosophers have held that while science has discontinuities and revolutions, technology is far more continuous and conservative [Basalla 1995]. This seems particularly surprising when the breaks with continuity in technology are happening at a rate faster than at any other time. In some measure, the basis for asserting that technology tends to be conservative and progresses without discontinuities is to shift the obvious technological revolution to the scientific domain, and posit that technological revolution occurs due to exogenous factors. In this view, only scientific revolutions cause discontinuities in technology as technology now follows into the domain opened up by science. But as we have already noted, this view of development of technology takes a restrictive view of technology, particularly when the reality studied in science is itself mediated today by technology


Technology produces artefacts; any artefact must have as its starting point a mental design of the artefact. This mental design has to incorporate specific functions that such an artefact will perform. The design paradigm is the construction of this artefact within the envelope of the known and quantifying the outer limit of the unknown through a factor of ignorance. A change of design paradigm occurs when we either create a novel artefact to fulfil functions that did not exist earlier, or when we extend the scale of the artefact. In either case, the designer is pushing at the envelope of the known and thus bringing out new aspects of reality or new levels of reality.


The aspect of spanning levels of reality (electrical to electronic engineering) has been dealt with earlier. A change of scale that can lead to pushing out the design envelope – is not commonly realised. Change of scale of an artefact is one of the commonest evolutionary processes in technology. The scaling up or down of products may appear to be a trivial exercise, but it can also bring out either new properties or new levels of reality


The scaling of artefacts may have to do with the various dimensions of the artefacts, or with changes in the environment within which the artefact operates. For our purpose, either a dimensional change or a change of temperature that the artefact has to withstand, both constitute changes of scale. For example, in construction, the length of a simply supported beam can be increased till it collapses under its own weight. For short beams, the weight of the beam may not be important. However, with increasing length, the weight increases till it becomes an important variable in the problem. Thus scaling up of an artefact leads at some point to the domain of design being outside the envelope within which the original design paradigm was constructed. Similarly, the change of temperature beyond the design domain of the artefact can lead to the failure of the artefact as in the case of the classic failure of the O-Ring in the Space Shuttle under very low temperature conditions [Bell and Esch 1987].


The domain of design exceeding the envelope of design is generally not a quantitative issue. If the failure occurs because of a mistaken stress limit, changing the stress limit would be sufficient to readjust the design envelope. It is when a qualitatively new phenomenon is encountered during a scale change that we have a change of the design envelope itself. Again, to take recourse to a historical example, we might see the wind effects and resulting vibrations as a new “dimension” in bridge design, necessitating a shift of the design paradigm.


It is interesting to note that a recent treatment regarding shifting of design paradigms has focused on the study of failure [Petroski 1994] in identifying the domain of validity of the design envelope. Thus studying the success of an artefact cannot be used to validate the underlying design paradigm. It is only the failure of the artefact that brings out the inadequacy of the design paradigm.


Paradigms exist in technology as in science, and the paradigm shifts occur very much the same way. Failure analysis plays a similar role in changing design paradigms as does the Popperian notion of falsifiability in science, and can be used to validate or invalidate paradigms. While failure and falsifiability are similar in nature, there is one significant difference between the two. Falsifiability is a softer notion than failure that is far more definitive in nature. However, both are open to the kind of immunising auxiliary hypothesis that attempts to save the existing paradigm by modifying the framework only quantitatively, without the need to replace the framework itself.


What constitutes a design paradigm and what role does science play in it? It is obvious that in our view the design paradigm is central to the artefact. The design paradigm incorporates the primary functions of the artefact as well as embedded knowledge of nature, both empirical and law-like. The primary feature of the artefact may also be based on a novel property which has been discovered by the enterprise of science. Thus the design paradigm is a set of abstract principles that gives the idealised artefact its essential function.


Science and its laws act more to constrain the design. Thus it restricts the possible design space of the artefact and provides the outer dimension of the feasible. This is remarkably close to the current view of complexity and biological evolution that evolution is not optimising life forms in a continuous domain with infinite possibilities, but optimising them within a space that has far fewer options. In this view of evolution of the artefact, scientific constraints imposed by nature and the social choices made restricts the design space of the artefact.


Technology, neither the evil incarnation of technology violently venture nor its avatar as a applied science, seems anything close to technology as practiced by technologists. The process of evolution of artefacts must address the issues raised by various views of technology. Obviously, the framework adopted dictates the answer to the question of choice of technology and its larger social role. However, I do not propose to address these issues within this paper. There is only one observation that I wish to make here – that technology cannot be considered merely a tool that can be used or misused. The very conception of social function in designing artefacts involves existing social realities that then enter the design in some way. However, knowledge, and more particularly laws of science, also enter the design paradigm. In other words, though human beings make artefacts, they do not make them as they please. There are contingent social and scientific “laws” that also determine the success or otherwise of the artefact.




The above account is an attempt to restore to technology a conceptual independence that current accounts of technology seem to lack. The prevailing views of technology, either a violently subjugating nature, or as a derivative of science, seems to be unlike the way it is actually practised.A bird’s eye view of science and technology can therefore be quite misleading in defining the relation between the two. As a practising technologist, I have more of a ‘worm’s eye view’ of the process, and find that a more satisfying account of technology takes as its starting point a better understanding of the design process and the design paradigm. Once the design paradigm is addressed in more detail, the role of science, and its relationship to technology, takes on an appearance quite different to that permitted by current accounts of science and technology interactions.


1 A number of writers take the position that science and technology both have the common purpose of dominating over nature and therefore intrinsically violent. Some of the feminist critics of science and technology also take the theme of domination as their basis for attacking current science and technology as male-centric. A representative text is Shiv Vishwanathan, A Carnival of Science, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997.


2 Poser has said “Philosophy, in most cases, do not deal with such dirty things as technology. They prefer to discuss rationality of animal rationale instead of the products of homo fabre. Scientists, in most cases, look down on technology as a kind of scienceless application of science; only if they need some sophisticated new measuring instruments do they accept technology as an auxiliary science.” Hans Poser, “On Structural Differences Between Science and Engineering”, Society for Philosophy & Technology, Volume 4, Number 2, pp 81-93, 1998. See also Klaus Kornwachs, “ A Formal Theory of Technology?”, Society for Philosophy & Technology, Volume 4, Number 1, 1998.


3 Basalla has shown that older technological artefacts reappear in many of the products of the industrial revolution and therefore are present even today, albeit in new forms. George Basalla, The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993. However, the artefacts are no longer used for the functions for which they were originally designed and therefore can be considered obsolete.


4 To quote “Sciences, on the other hand, are the coddled child of at least philosophers of science, who, up to now, have developed a paradigm of science depending on their fixation on physics”. Poser, ibid, pp 81.


5 Walter Vincenti has made it difficult to argue that technology is just applied science. “Making something that works economically, reliably and safely is a rather different thing in purpose and consequences from running a scientific laboratory experiment. Such differences help explain why engineering can never be simply applied science.” [Vincenti 1995], Shapere has also argued for a separation of science and technology, arguing that intuitively science is concerned with a theoretical understanding of the world and technology as the construction material artefacts and structures..


6 The proposition that science can not be used directly but only by a preventing process has been elaborated by Kornwachs, who has developed on Mario Bunge’s analysis of the difference between the structure of scientific and technical knowledge. See Klaus Kornwachs, op. cit., and Mario Bunge “Towards a Philosophy of Technology”, in Mitcham, Carl and Robert Mackey, eds., Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology, Free Press, New York, pp 62-76, 1972.


7 Shapere states “Many of the innovative features introduced in the great revolution of our times, in electronics and computers, are in part applications of quantum tunneling, a process which was literally unthinkable before quantum mechanics, and which could not have been applied in invention or even conceived, even by the cleverest of inventors before the advent of the theory”, Shapere, [ Shapere 1998].




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(Courtesy : EPW  Vol: XXXVII No 1 )