A New Definition of Technology – The Scientific Texts That Guide Human Activity

A new definition of technology has been put forward by a group of thinkers in Germany. They assert that technology is not limited to machinery but includes all texts which guide human activity.

            Professor Peter Sloterdijk, who heads the department of philosophy at Karlsruhe University, southwest Germany, explained his theory as he launched a new translation of Martin Heidegger’s essay “What is Called Thinking?” In January this year, Prof Sloterdijk and fellow philosophers Peter von Uexküll and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger announced their view that many scientific theories and writings on history and culture should be considered as part of technology rather than as art or literature. This would include works such as “The Theory of Relativity” or the essays of Prof von Uexküll, whose work has been largely neglected in English-speaking countries.   

            According to Prof Sloterdijk, the German word “Technik”, which includes both technology and art, is closer to our modern understanding of science than the term used in French or English because it does not set limits to what can be considered a technological text. He said this was why French President Nicolas Sarkozy had chosen the term “science of civilisation” when he launched an ambitious project to gather together all writings on history and culture into one database that would allow them to be searched for references just as easily as scientific papers are now accessed.

            Prof Sloterdijk said that, until recently, it had been possible to keep literature and science separate. However, as scientific texts have increasingly influenced the way people live their lives through technology, a new definition of technology has become necessary. “For a long time there was an insurmountable frontier between what we read in books and what we were told by scientists,” he said. “There is now a huge area where both overlap.”

            In addition to scientific texts such as those collected in Mr. Sarkozy’s database, Prof von Uexküll would also include many essays from the humanities which now find themselves under pressure from scientific methods of analysis with little regard for their literary qualities or narrative style. Under his new definition, Prof Sloterdijk suggested that even Jane Austen’s novels might have to be included as technological texts because they taught people how to behave in a certain way.

            Prof von Uexküll, who died in 2004 but whose work is being re-evaluated by leading European thinkers such as Prof Sloterdijk, said it was a mistake to think that science and art were irreconcilable opposites with different rules. “They are both at the service of life,” he wrote. It is not necessary to think of either literature or science as superior – both can be considered servants of human life.”

            The thinking behind the new definition would not stop at Jane Austen. Prof Sloterdijk said that, in his view, many texts from the Middle Ages might be counted as technology because they too had been written to guide people in their behavior. This would include much of the Bible. “In former times our behaviour was guided by a document such as the Bible,” he said. “Nowadays we use science books.”   

            In its own way, this new definition is not completely unprecedented: it can be compared to other attempts to revise how we regard texts and institutions while still allowing them a place in one category or another – for example, when a government body responsible for censoring pornographic materials decides to broaden its activities into censoring almost all media which could pose a nuisance to someone (as has happened in various countries).

            There are also some precedents for this sort of change within the technological field itself – for example, many people regard cars not as a form of transportation but as an object d’art. However, there is no precedent anywhere which states that someone must acknowledge some kind of “technology” as something more than simply certain tools or machines.

            Currently, most individuals who work within the fields which used to be called science fiction would rather keep their works separate from those of scientists. The reason is that they do not want their artistic freedom limited by scientific ideas and methods (which can reinforce existing stereotypes about what one should write about) – although they may borrow ideas from these sciences when it suits them (which is to say, when they think that it will allow their works to be more plausible or engrossing).

            One possible positive outcome of this change would be felt by those who wish to have their writing taken seriously. If literature and science are not supposed to overlap at all – as was originally believed – then there may be some who might dismiss these texts as being beneath their notice simply because they were not written by scientists. However, if the opposite view gains ground, then people may start taking them more seriously even though they are still aware that literature contains no hard facts.

            On the other side of the coin, scientists themselves may find that their work becomes regarded as less serious if it has to co-exist with fiction – even though this may be a misguided notion. There are, after all, many types of work in which scientists play a major role but where their conclusions and ideas still do not influence the general public in spite of the consequences they might have on our lives (eg politics and international relations).

            Perhaps there is nothing wrong with writers and scientists making up their own categories so long as both parties continue to respect each other’s contributions to human knowledge. At least, that is how things would appear according to the prevailing wisdom at present – when one considers what has been said by most people who have given serious thought towards these matters for the past few decades.

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