Technology as knowledge


Technology, as much as it is a human creation, is not something we can take for granted. That is to say, there is not just one, but several ways of understanding what technology is. And this question: what is technology? It is a philosophical question that we are addressing in this series of articles .

In technology as artifacts we have seen that technology is something that can be observed and whose intrinsic or extrinsic properties we can describe. We have learned that the functions of technology have to do with the relationship between the technology and the people who use it. And if we look carefully at the range of nuances that emerge from these functions, it turns out that an artifact functions at the same time in many aspects of reality: spatial, symbolic, economic, social, legal, aesthetic, ethical and in people’s beliefs. . And technology is also something that we can know and think about , that we can learn or study about, and that is knowledge.

Is scientific and technological knowledge the same thing?
Generally we talk about scientific-technological knowledge as the same thing, but there are some differences. There are two types of knowledge: descriptive, about what artifacts are and how they are (their physical properties) and normative, about how they should be (their functions). Descriptive knowledge is what occurs in scientific knowledge, while technological knowledge incorporates this second aspect.

Reviewing the 4 ways of understanding technology developed by Marc de Vries, it is striking how this author also points out three other factors that distinguish both types of knowledge and that are specific to technological knowledge :

It is specific to the context , not very generalizable, and barely requires enough theory to support a particular situation, but not much theory either.
The content, what technological knowledge studies, is often a social convention , and not so much a conclusion that is obtained from observation, as in science. If scientists observe and measure what the charge of an electron is, engineers make decisions such as what size a screw should be. Conscious and unconscious aspects come into play in these decisions, for which it is important that engineers have criteria for analyzing the social processes that will impact their decisions. While this may not be relevant for a screw, it is relevant for creating a bridge or an algorithm.
Scientific knowledge is propositional: it is expressed with propositions or phrases that contain a certain truth (e.g. the relative density of water is 1 kilogram per liter). This is not possible in technological knowledge, which defines only one way of doing things and is usually expressed through drawings, models or prototypes. This is what happens with know-how or knowing how to do, and it is this particularity of expressing it that, in educational innovation, has been incorporated as new ways of learning and teaching (e.g. Visual Thinking ).

Image by Nino Care on Pixabay
Are engineers and developers aware of these differences?
Olaya affirms that engineering is: “ the discipline of the particular par excellence . ” If scientific knowledge is intended to be “abstract, unconditional, disinterested, universal, timeless, utopian, secure, value-neutral and linked to theory”, engineering knowledge is :

“ concrete, contingent, goal-oriented, particular, temporal, contextual, uncertain, value-laden, and task-specific ”

Olaya, C., The importance of being atheoretical: management as engineering . In Systemic Management for Intelligent Organizations (pp. 21-46), Springer, 2012.
For Marc de Vries, technological knowledge is that which engineers typically handle:

design concepts and operating principles,
technical specifications and criteria such as usability,
technical tools such as mathematical formulas and simulation software programs or programming environments and languages,
quantitative data and data analysis mechanisms,
practical considerations for making decisions, and
design strategies to solve problems.
And this is how it is studied in professional and university training of engineering disciplines.

In my opinion, it is not so clear, however, that this distinction between scientific and technological knowledge is visible in practice and that engineers are aware of these important differences , that is, that they know well the human and social context (not only the scientific problem) and social conventions (culture), and that the decisions they make, loaded with values, are just one way of doing it among many others.

Perhaps this is because in technical education there is also an important curricular load of sciences such as mathematics, physics and chemistry. Specifically, the engineering curriculum contains more science subjects in the first years, which gradually give way to more specifically technical subjects in the following years. In these disciplines, students learn and practice prescriptive knowledge, which also includes, for example, solving mathematical problems. But according to the distinction that de Vries makes, problem solving in physical sciences and problem solving in technology are very different .

In technology, problem solving occurs in a social context
Assimilating or confusing one and another way of solving problems can lead us to confuse the universal with the contextual, the observable with what is a social agreement , and the decisions we make or that specific way of doing things as a certain truth, when It is just one way among many others. The conception of scientific knowledge as neutral thus permeates technological knowledge.

Let us also remember that technology is sociotechnical systems , so solving problems embedded in people’s lives also requires knowledge about society and culture that is closer to disciplines such as history, sociology, anthropology, psychology or philosophy. On the one hand, unfortunately in these disciplines it is not so visible how they approach the resolution of complex social problems, so that this way of understanding it is often transferred to scientific and technological knowledge, thus arriving at the understanding that technology can solve problems. fundamental human and social problems, in what is known as technological solutionism . On the other hand, reality is complex and dynamic. Therefore, posing problems that can be solved technologically requires simplifying reality, that is, taking only a part of it to make it manageable, to consider a finite and addressable number of data and variables.

A hybrid proposal: feminist technoscience
In fact, technological knowledge is not something that should be considered in isolation. To address its interrelationship with other areas of knowledge and for a greater understanding of technological knowledge itself, the approach of feminist technoscience is suggestive. Jutta Weber defines technoscience knowledge as the confluence of science, technology, industry and society . This hybridization, she says:


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