Yet humanities are rarely taught as an integral part of education in technical fields. The engineering curriculum does require a modicum of credit hours in the humanities, ostensibly to make engineers well-rounded. But few courses examine technology itself as a human endeavor. Instead, engineering education treats technology as a thing to be understood entirely through the natural sciences.
But we should not blame engineering educators for this sorry state of affairs, at least not entirely. The neglect of humanities in engineering is rooted in the concept of technology itself, which shifts our focus from people to things. By focusing on things — industrial machines, computers, robots — we obscure the fact that our tools and devices are the product of human choices.
How did we end up with this anti-human concept of technology? For about 2,500 years, the things we now call technology were firmly linked to the ancient concept of art, the English word for the Greek techne and the Latin ars. But when social scientists created our modern concept of technology in the 20th century, they broke the millennia-long link between art and the practical activities of material production. This rupture distanced technology from its human essence, and has encouraged us to fear machines rather than our own impulses. As a result, we feel powerless to prevent the worst harms of technology, harms we have the ability to correct.
Until the early 20th century, technology was an obscure word that referred to “the science or systematic knowledge of the industrial arts,” according to the 1897 Century Dictionary. From the ancient Greeks into the 19th century, art was a much broader concept than it is today, referring to knowledge useful for any creative activity. Dance, arithmetic, medicine, carpentry, navigation, metalworking and at times rhetoric were all classified as arts, along with sculpture, painting and architecture. The Hippocratic writings from about 400 B.C., for example, contain an entire essay arguing that medicine deserved to be called an art, despite its unreliability. During the same period, Greek rhetoricians also argued that rhetoric was a form of expert knowledge and thus deserved to be classified as an art.
Among aristocratic elites, however, this idea of art posed a dilemma. Unlike aristocrats, artisans gained social status through skill, not birth. Yet elites depended on the talents of artisans. After all, leaders couldn’t rule without skilled armorers for the military, implement makers for agriculture and builders for cities.
Aristocrats therefore admired works of art, but they looked down on the artisans themselves. During the most open period of Athenian democracy, for example, quite a few citizen-craftsmen and their sons rose to positions of political authority. Elites, however, did not take kindly to these upstarts and frequently hurled insults at artisans to keep them in their place.
Scholars sided with aristocrats by creating intellectual systems that devalued artisanal knowledge. In ancient Greece, Aristotle proposed a hierarchy of knowledge with art at the bottom, ethics in the middle and philosophy at the top. Roman scholars similarly devalued artisans by creating a distinction between the liberal arts, which were suited to free men, and the vulgar arts, which required physical labor or were pursued for profit. “There can be nothing in a workshop which befits a gentleman,” Cicero declared in 44 BC.
Some scholars pushed back against this denigration of the vulgar arts. Medieval theologians invented the new category of “mechanical arts,” which granted at least some dignity to the arts of material production. Other scholars, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, considered all art, including mechanical arts, as inherently virtuous, embodying moral values that allowed the artist to distinguish good art from bad.
Yet the tension between the indispensable role of the mechanical arts and the low status of artisans was never resolved. These aristocratic prejudices persisted during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Despite the rise of the bourgeoisie, who owed their social status to wealth, not birth, the new elites in finance and industry had no desire to share their status with artisans. And the same market forces that gave rise to the bourgeoisie ultimately helped justify crucial changes in the concept of art itself.
By the 18th century, a distinct market had emerged for what we now call fine art, such as painting and sculpture. Unlike the mechanical arts, the fine arts had pleasure as their principal goal, a goal achieved by imitating beautiful nature.
This divorce between the fine arts and mechanical arts had profound effects, splitting aesthetic creativity from craft skills. With this separation, the fine arts gained all the “poetic” attributes of art, such as inspiration, creativity and genius, while the mechanical arts retained the routine aspects — working to rule, imitation and subservience. By the early 20th century, term “art” no longer denoted the mechanical arts. According to the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the word Art, becoming appropriated to the fine arts,” had become unsuitable for the “large number of industries and their products to which the generic term Art … properly applies.”
Yet there was no decent alternative to replace the concept of mechanical arts. Existing terms such as invention, science or industry did not capture the amazing world of modern material culture, with its automobiles, skyscrapers, electric lights, airplanes, streetcars, telephones and phonographs. Literary scholar Leo Marx has termed this situation a “semantic void”: a gap where meaning existed with no words to describe it.
In the early 20th century, the new concept of technology emerged from a small group of social scientists, most important Thorstein Veblen, who were trying to make sense of industrial modernity by filling this semantic void. Veblen gave the previously obscure term “technology” a new meaning, defining it as “the state of the industrial arts.” The term caught on, but Veblen’s explicit connection between technology and industrial arts was soon forgotten. By the 1920s, in an amazing case of historical amnesia, technology had completely lost its connection to the 2,500-year discourse about art.
In thinking about technology today, we need to reclaim this narrative about art. Just as there is no art without artists, there is no technology without the people who create it. What if we considered robotics as art rather than technology? The art of robotics doesn’t throw people out of work, at least not without the engineers, scientists and skilled workers who transform the idea of a robot into a practical reality.
How about the arts of computing? They can certainly threaten our privacy, but only through the work of the coders, developers, data scientists and systems engineers who make it possible for corporate executives to vacuum up our personal data. When we reimagine technology in terms of art, we direct our attention from things to people, forcing us to decide how we, as humans, can make collective choices to reduce the negative consequences of our own creative strivings.