For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. – Richard P. Feynman
I came up with the term “technothrope” as a tongue-in-cheek, somewhat sarcastic description of my love-hate relationship with technology. “Technothrope” has some Latin connotations of “one who loves technology” but I could just as easily have called this column the “mistechnothrope” because as often as I love new technology, I hate the consequences of humans using (and misusing) it. But what exactly is technology? It certainly gets thrown around a lot these days, often by groups you wouldn’t normally associate with “hi-tech.” So what is meant by the term?
A modern dictionary definition of technology is:
1. The branch of knowledge dealing with creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment. The sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.
2. Alternatively, a particular technological process, invention, or method.
I would clarify that the word “technical” used in the first definition means belonging or pertaining to an art, science, or the like; or of, pertaining to, or showing technique. “Technological” as used in the second definition refers back to the first.
This is important because definitions are important. They are the things we as humans agree on (usually) or at least can debate over, that become fundamental axioms, or assumptions. They constitute something we can all agree on (usually) as being true in formal logic. These axioms are then used as yardsticks for measuring whether a new thing fits the definition of that term, or if it’s time to make up a new term because the new thing is so different from past experience that it warrants a new definition.
Now let’s look at the modern dictionary definition of engineering:
The art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of the pure sciences in the construction of material objects.
Wow. That definition, to me, is much more concrete than the definition of technology, although there still is some ambiguity. For example, we humans don’t agree whether engineering is purely an art or a science – but that debate is beyond the scope of this essay and of that dictionary. Whichever it is, we can easily use the definition of engineering to determine if some thing or event actually fits under that definition. Let’s take a couple of examples and apply our axioms to see.
Consider the invention of the steam engine. Although there have been crude examples dating back to the first century AD, the first useful steam engine appears to have been developed in 1698 by Thomas Savery for pumping water in mines. A key discovery leading up to this useful device seems to have been the addition of cooling in 1663 to force condensation, producing a partial vacuum inside the pump. This knowledge is codified in the ideal gas law, PV=NkT, which actually was not formulated until much later -- 1834. This is a case where inventors were creating machines without fully knowing the fundamental physical laws governing their mechanics as we know them today, although something was known of hydraulic theory as early as 1728 and possibly as early as the mid-1600’s. As a Captain in the English Navy, Savery likely had access to the body of knowledge as it existed at the time, as he was associated with the Royal Society, then the premier forum for the exchange of scientific information. In fact, a reading of Savery’s later treatise on his steam engine indicates that all the fundamentals of PV=NkT were understood, excepting the part where atoms come into play (the Nk part). The relationship between Pressure, Volume, and Temperature at least was somewhat understood.
So, was Savery an engineer and was the devising of and building of his steam engine an act of engineering? By our previous definition, I think we would all agree that it most certainly was. Savery engaged in the art (or science) of making practical application (constructing a machine to fulfill a need) of the knowledge of the pure sciences (what was known of hydraulics and the gas law at the time) in the construction of material objects (a steam engine-driven pump). But was it a new technology?
Skipping over the somewhat abstract and obtuse first definition of technology, let’s jump straight to the second, where we’ll see the answer is yes. The steam engine-driven pump is quite clearly a technological invention, where “technological” is used as in the first definition. Even if we use the first definition, it is clear Savery’s device was a way in which a social group (the English) provided themselves with a material object (his pump).
Let’s also look at Webster’s 1913 dictionary definition of “technology”:
Industrial science; the science of systematic knowledge of the industrial arts, especially of the more important manufactures, as spinning, weaving, metallurgy, etc.
Note: Technology is not an independent science, having a set of doctrines of its own, but consists of applications of the principles established in the various physical sciences (chemistry, mechanics, mineralogy, etc.) to manufacturing processes.
That seems much clearer and actually seems to match the modern definition of engineering. Again, clearly Savery’s output seems to match this definition (since it is essentially the same as engineering).
Now let’s talk about safety razors.
The straight razor, or something like it, dates to prehistoric times. However, the first modern straight razor was developed by the cutlery industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Indeed, from Savery’s picture it appears he was clean-shaven in the early 1700’s, and certainly many of the US’s founding fathers appear shaven.) In 1740 the straight razor was considerably improved through a new process of creating hard steel developed by Benjamin Huntsman. Huntsman had a reputation around his home of Sheffield, England for his scientific knowledge, and was also a skilled craftsman. Although much of his new process was largely discovered due to trial-and-error over several years, we must attribute some of its success to Huntsman’s scientific knowledge. Therefore, when considering the development of the steel straight razor, we are certainly considering the application of basic scientific knowledge (metallurgy) to the construction of a material object (the straight razor). Huntsman was therefore an engineer, engaged in engineering, and his work also fits the 1913 and modern definitions of technology.
The safety razor was invented in the late 18th century by Jean-Jacques Perret, who was inspired by the joiner’s plane. A similar razor was developed in Sheffield, England in the late 1820’s, long after Huntsman’s death. By 1880, one could buy a safety razor in the US described as "a small blade… held in a suitable frame and provided with a guard to prevent the edge of the razor from cutting into the skin." In 1901, a fellow with the strange name of King Camp Gillette invented an inexpensive version of the safety razor that took disposable blades, intended for use only once per shave, thereby inventing the “loss leader” sales model used by computer printer manufacturers today. The significant problem to overcome in bringing Gillette’s razor to market was the manufacture of cheap thin disposable blades. The prior safety razors used a time-consuming and labor-intensive forging process, where Gillette and his team spent nearly a decade developing a much more productive stamping process.
Was Gillette’s feat an act of engineering? When examining the process for manufacture, certainly so; forging and stamping are quite different processes and each require the application of basic scientific knowledge to develop. Was the new safety razor a new technology? The process of stamping, as an act of engineering, fits the 1913 definition as well as the modern one. But the razor itself is not a new technology by the 1913 definition, although it is by the modern one. The distinction is important. By the 1913 definition, an advertiser should not, in the Technothrope’s opinion, bill his razor as “the latest technology.” Saying it is “built with the latest technology” would, however, be OK.
What about modern safety razors?
Well, we don’t even call them safety razors anymore. Such a razor connotes the double-edged all-metal device that perhaps our fathers or grandfathers used. Gillette barely even calls them razors at all anymore; they sell the Mach3 Turbo (should I expect a sonic boom when I use it?) and the Fusion Power Phenom (if I get it to 88MPH, will it generate 1.21 jigowatts so I can go back in time?) Maybe it’s lacking a flux capacitor, but the one thing the Fusion Power Phenom does bill itself as having is “5 Blade Shaving Surface Technology.”
Really, Gillette? So you took the original design, and pretty much lacking any real scientific breakthroughs that would let you make better shaving devices, you just increased the number of blades. Of course, we didn’t jump immediately to 5, there is a “technology roadmap” at work here. One can imagine the CTO of Gillette spending months locked in his office in the early 70’s planning for world domination of the shaving industry within 30 years: the single-blade Super Speed was introduced in 1960; followed by the Trac II in 1971 with two blades and the Mach 3 in 1998 with 3 blades; the current version, the five-blade Fusion entered the market in 2006.
What is truly shocking is that the Mach 3 “technology” cost $680 million to “engineer.” No wonder that Fusion blades, reported to cost 8 cents to make, sell with a markup of nearly 5,000 percent. And the value of Gillette as a company exceeds that of some carmakers (although that’s not saying much these days).
It’s difficult for me to accept that the more modern definition of technology will allow for the addition of more blades to a razor to be classified as technology. But it does, by both abstract, watered-down definitions. It is a way in which social groups provide themselves with a material object of their civilization, and it is a new invention. But it is not based on any fundamental scientific principles. Its design and development does not meet the definition of engineering: The art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of the pure sciences in the construction of material objects.
What is going on here?
I blame my own industry, the computer industry, for watering down the definition of technology. Everything that we turn out, both hardware and software, is now deemed a “technology.” What we really do (software programmers) is create lists of instructions for the computer to carry out, sometimes in a new and novel way, for the purpose of increasing productivity, moving information from one place to another and converting it from one form to another. Sometimes we apply knowledge from the basic sciences (chemistry, physics, biology) to create our products. In these cases, we are usually trying to simulate or model some process that is understood through the basic laws of these sciences. In many other cases, we are applying principles from mathematics. And, it is debatable whether mathematics counts as a science when used in the definition of engineering. Much more often, we are simply reusing methodologies in computing that have been developed over the past several decades. Regardless, we are increasingly being called “software engineers” despite the fact that there is no professional certification required to practice it, as there is with virtually every other engineering discipline.
Even the computer industry itself has suffered from euphemism-itis: in the 1970’s, it was called Data Processing. Now it’s called Information Technology, IT. What does IT do? At some companies, they set up the computers and keep the networks and servers up and running. At others, IT encompasses programming and database administration. Everything they do certainly fits the modern, watered-down definition of “technology.” But it’s hard to accept that what they do fits into the definition of engineering or the old definition of technology. Perhaps if you accept that “Computer Science” is an actual basic science, then you can accept that what programmers and “IT professionals” do is engineering and what they make is actually technology.
When I look over today’s MIT Technology Review, I see headlines like: “Brain Surgery using Sound Waves,” “Making Light Bulbs from DNA,” and “Big Oil Turns to Algae.” All of these things to me are technologies; the new and novel application of basic scientific knowledge to solve engineering or manufacturing problems (or repairman problems in the first case). I can’t imagine that MIT would announce the new 6-bladed Gillette PowerDynamiteExtremeToTheMax razor as a new technology breakthrough in its prestigious journal. I don’t think I really want to see MIT covering Microsoft introducing yet another database programming system (that would make about 10, I think) which does the same thing as the previous 9 systems, just in a somewhat different way purported to make life easier for programmers, but more likely designed to give Microsoft salesmen a new product to pitch to their customers as the latest “technological breakthrough” for “information technology professionals.”
I think the computer industry – both hardware and software – consider anything a new technology if it is built on previous technical knowledge, not just basic science knowledge. Microsoft once labeled a version of Windows “Windows NT”, for New Technology. The New Technology was that they threw out the entire old version of Windows – millions of lines of code – and wrote a new version from scratch, with a different paradigm for how the operating system should work. Both versions of Windows ran on exactly the same hardware, so it’s difficult to see how some basic scientific knowledge led Microsoft to breakthroughs in how operating systems should be put together. Now if NT had only run on new processors made from germanium instead of silicon… but then 900,000 of the 1 million lines of code would have been the same. So would that have even been a “new technology?”
So are we better off today than in decades past? The personal computer revolution, through which my entire life has been entangled from the days of Altair and TRS-80 until today when it provides my livelihood, owes its existence to electrical engineers basing their work on miniaturization, an engineering breakthrough built on the basic physics knowledge of how electrons work in silicon semiconductors. The personal computer was built with many technological breakthroughs, and although it fits the modern definition of a “technology,” I still prefer to keep the word sacrosanct to mean a breakthrough in engineering, not to describe a product. I think that very rarely – almost never – should we use the word technology to describe anything a computer does in software. The way we program computers has evolved; we have learned better techniques and better methods, the way an artist might learn better brush stroke techniques as he matures in his craft. Software is better now than in the past; it does more things, it is more reliable (believe it or not), and we can develop new products faster. But this is because of knowledge and experience developed over the years of doing it, it’s not because of a technological breakthrough. So let’s stay away from using “technology” in the computer industry. Likewise, we should never use “technology” to describe adding more blades to a razor.
I picked on Gillette, but many companies abuse the term technology. In fact, I like their Mach 3 Turbo product with the lubricant strip and the aloe strip and the 3 blades. It does give a close shave, and I never have razor burn with it. I’ve tried switching back to 1- and 2-blade razors without the strips and the Mach 3 is definitely better. But while it was a great idea to add the extra blades and the strips, I still wouldn’t call that a new technology.