“Technology” is a strange word. Its Greek root, techné, means “art” or “excellence,” and its usage in English is scarce until at least the 20th century. Its rise in popular discourse during the second Industrial Revolution, the movement that produced inventions such as the phonograph, makes sense. However, what’s usually glossed over is that “technology,” as a word, is filler, distracting us from the the reshaping of society from above.
What does it even mean to say that “technology changed everything” or to assign so much agency to vague, well, technological concepts such as “big data” or “the Internet of Things?” The vast discourse on technology is the best possible example of what Georg Lukacs called “reification,” the act of instilling human activities with the characteristics of things, creating what Lukacs himself called “a ‘phantom-objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relationship between people.”
When I see “technology” in a sentence, I move pretty quickly past it and don’t think much about it. If I do, though, it’s like I rounded a corner and saw a forked roads leading into three turnabouts – the generality is crushing. Are we talking strictly about the actions of hardware, software, and networks? Are these actions autonomous? What if we just assigned all of these machinations to the category of “machinery and artisanal crafts” and spoke of the great, world-changing, liberating power of “powerful industrial machinery”? It doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
Words and classes
The history of words to talk about all of the basic concepts that undergird “tech writing” – the category that would seemingly include everyone from TechCrunch to PC World to Daring Fireball to this blog – is the history of taking words that belonged to the blue-collar working classes and reassigning them to the white-collar management classes. Take “software,” for instance. It derives from “hardware,” which once referred primarily to small metal goods. As early as the 18th century, one could talk about a “hardware store” as a place to buy metals.
Something similar, on a much broader scale, has gone on with the term “Internet.” As I explained in my entry on “Space Quest 6: The Spinal Frontier,” the entire discourse about “the Internet” is a retroactive reorganization of many separate traditions, spanning hardware, software, and networking, that once went by disparate names. Even the act of using “the Internet” was once similarly variable: it could be called “going into cyberspace” or “using virtual reality” well through the 1990s. Grouping everything under the banner of the “Internet” has had the desired effect of making changes affecting fields as diverse as education (via online learning) and transportation (via services like Lyft and Uber) seem inevitable.
It is reification writ large, as tight origin story compiled after the fact to create that very “phantom-objectivity” that Lukacs talked about. Likewise, “technology” itself, as a word, is a mini history on how mundane physical activities – building computers, setting up assembly lines – were reimagined to be on par with the high arts of antiquity. Leo Marx wrote, in his paper “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept”:
“Whereas the term mechanic (or industrial, or practical) arts calls to mind men with soiled hands tinkering at workbenches, technology conjures clean, well-educated, white male technicians in control booths watching dials, instrument panels, or computer monitors. Whereas the mechanic arts belong to the mundane world of work, physicality, and practicality – of humdrum handicrafts and artisanal skills – technology belongs on the higher social and intellectual plane of book learning, scientific research, and the university. This dispassionate word, with its synthetic patina, its lack of a physical or sensory referent, its aura of sanitized, bloodless – indeed, disembodied – cerebration and precision, has eased the induction of what had been the mechanic arts – now practiced by engineers – into the precincts of the finer arts and higher learning.”
Making it, writing it
I love this passage since it captures so much of how the the rise of technology firms has been about word games and the institution of engineers and venture capitalists as, crucially, creators, and heirs to the traditions of straight male-dominated industry. Debbie Chacra did a great job out outlining the real shape of the Maker movement in a piece for “The Atlantic,” arguing that “artifiacts” – anything physical that could be sold for gain or accrue some sort of monetary value, seemingly on its own – were more important than people in today’s economic systems, especially people who performed traditionally female tasks like educating or caregiving.
Tech writing, vague as it is, exists in this uncomfortable context in which anything not associated with coding or anything “technical” is deemed less important – to businesses, to shareholders, to whomever is important for now but may be forgotten tomorrow – that what is more easily viewed (I mean this literally) as work that came from a predictable process (software from coding is the best example). Writers in this field have to continually prop up a huge concept – technology – that carries the baggage of decades of trying to be elevated to the status of fine arts like….good writing.
Talking about the agency of concepts is common, and tech writers – or anyone dabbling in writing about technology – have to play so many ridiculous games to cater to readers who long ago became lost in the reification of “technology” as an unstoppable force. Take this sentence, which I recently found via Justin Singer’s Tumblr:
“Big Dating unbundles monogamy and sex. It offers to maximize episodes of intimacy while minimizing the risk of rejection or FOMO [fear of missing out].”
Bleh. This passage is easy to make fun of, but its structure is so indicative of tech writing at large. There’s the capitalized concept (“Big Dating”) that is acting, via a buzzwordy verb (“unbundling” – what was the “bundle” in the first place? but “disrupt” is still the all-time champion in this vein) on The World As A Whole. Then there’s the shareholder language (“maximize”/”minimize”/”risk”) that speaks to the neoliberal economic ideas – most of them questionable – that have been the intellectual lifeblood of the tech industry as well as the governments that feebly regulate it (the weakening of political will is one reason Marx saw technology as a “hazardous” concept).
Aristotle and wrap-up
When I dipped my toes into Aristotle’s “On Interpretation” earlier, I talked about how he defined nouns as “sounds.” I then wondered if so much bad writing was the result of trying to write things that would sound absurd in speech (i.e., as sounds).
Tech writing in particular has this sort of not-real quality to it that makes it sound so silly when read aloud. It’s always trying to reify and create vast, unstoppable forces that aren’t even physically perceptible. Writing about “the Internet of Things” or “Big Dating” is to basically dress up everyday and unnovel concepts like networked devices and dating services in dramatic language.
You may as well have someone try to describe an sandstorm or flood to you as it were the result of a phantom-objective, all-powerful godlike force. Wait, that’s, like, 99 percent of religion right there. Well, when writing about “technology,” you’re always writing someone else’s scriptures, with all the opacity and word-gaming that that entails – who wants to read most of that?