The use of the term “technology” has changed significantly over the last 200 years. Before the 20th century, the term was uncommon in English, and usually referred to the description or study of the useful arts. The term was often connected to technical education, as in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (chartered in 1861).
The term “technology” rose to prominence in the 20th century in connection with the Second Industrial Revolution. The term’s meanings changed in the early 20th century when American social scientists, beginning with Thorstein Veblen, translated ideas from the German concept of Technik into “technology.” In German and other European languages, a distinction exists between technik and technologie that is absent in English, which usually translates both terms as “technology.” By the 1930s, “technology” referred not only to the study of the industrial arts but to the industrial arts themselves.
In 1937, the American sociologist Read Bain wrote that “technology includes all tools, machines, utensils, weapons, instruments, housing, clothing, communicating and transporting devices and the skills by which we produce and use them.” Bain’s definition remains common among scholars today, especially social scientists. Scientists and engineers usually prefer to define technology as applied science, rather than as the things that people make and use. More recently, scholars have borrowed from European philosophers of “technique” to extend the meaning of technology to various forms of instrumental reason, as in Foucault’s work on technologies of the self (techniques de soi).
Dictionaries and scholars have offered a variety of definitions. The Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary offers a definition of the term: “the use of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems” and “a machine, piece of equipment, method, etc., that is created by technology.” Ursula Franklin, in her 1989 “Real World of Technology” lecture, gave another definition of the concept; it is “practice, the way we do things around here.” The term is often used to imply a specific field of technology, or to refer to high technology or just consumer electronics, rather than technology as a whole. Bernard Stiegler, in Technics and Time, 1, defines technology in two ways: as “the pursuit of life by means other than life,” and as “organized inorganic matter.”
Technology can be most broadly defined as the entities, both material and immaterial, created by the application of mental and physical effort in order to achieve some value. In this usage, technology refers to tools and machines that may be used to solve real-world problems. It is a far-reaching term that may include simple tools, such as a crowbar or wooden spoon, or more complex machines, such as a space station or particle accelerator. Tools and machines need not be material; virtual technology, such as computer software and business methods, fall under this definition of technology. W. Brian Arthur defines technology in a similarly broad way as “a means to fulfill a human purpose.”