2.4 Science, Technology and Technique
The Relationship Between Science and Technology

One way of defining what is meant by technology is to view it as the handmaiden and the child of the doing of science--as the practical adjunct to theory. In this popular view, science serves as the tool to discover the rules by which the universe operates, and technology provides the eventual payback for all the investigative work. This way of looking at the relationship between science and technology has elements of truth, but can be misleading. It is one thing to create a model to explain, say, electromagnetism. It is quite another to use the theory to make an actual product such as a radio, a television, or a computer. The kind of thinking that goes into applying the principles worked out by scientists to the making of real products is quite different from that which goes into discovering such principles in the first place.

This can easily be seen when one realizes that science is essentially an inductive and theoretical process, wherein one examines many actual instances in the real world of some assumed underlying order and attempts to find a general structure for those instances. The development of technology, on the other hand, involves a deductive or tool-making mentality, by which one derives specific applications of general principles. Perhaps the best way to distinguish between the two is to say that science is concerned with why things work, whereas technology is concerned with how to make something work, that is, how to do something.

The fundamental motivating factors are also very different. Pure science can be driven by the desire to know, or by intellectual passion, and requires very little more. The motivation may be pure curiosity; it may be a desire to "think God's thoughts after him," or it may be to "become like God, knowing all," or it may be anything between. As in mathematics, pure science may have an inner cry to be applied (the cry may come from a funding agency), but the researcher need not be personally interested in such aspects. Work in basic science can be done for the same reason that climbers scale Mt. Everest--the challenge is simply there.

On the other hand, the drive to build tools (technology) comes from the need for better and more efficient ways to get a job done. People innovate to better feed themselves, to defend themselves from attack, to become more effective aggressors, or to gain some other competitive advantage. They build higher, faster, wider, cheaper, and more beautifully than the last person and what they have built fulfils a need and may increase their wealth. They may even do it to help other people achieve their full potential, or because they believe that God ought to be honoured in the full use of their talents to benefit others. They may not even be able to articulate a reason why they build, except to say that they enjoy tinkering.

One other difference between the two should be noted, and that has to do with methodology. Since technology is required even in the absence of scientific knowledge, it often uses trial-and-error methods. For instance, it is difficult to predict what the physical properties of an alloy will be just by knowing those of the metals to be mixed. The constant search for lighter, stronger, or more ductile alloys cannot wait for science to provide a working model to explain what will happen when a given collection of metals is mixed in specified proportions, for such a theory is a long way behind the need. Rather, metallurgists actually mix different combinations and then test the properties of the alloys they produce. They may use only general rules of thumb based on past experience and not require a unifying theory. This procedure may lack in pure theoretical beauty, but it gets the job done, and that is what technology is all about.

Because many of the technological advances of this century have depended on science, it is easy to forget that the creation of tools goes on independently of science--even (to a great extent) in its absence. Moreover, each set of tools or machines has the potential when once manufactured to enable the building of others of a higher order--and to do this even before the first set is understood clearly. Yet, the industrial age has seen a phenomenally successful partnership between research science and engineering, and to a considerable extent the nature and goals of science have come to be dictated as much by the needs for new technologies as by pure curiosity. Pure science has become woven up with its applications and the two can no longer be completely separated. Indeed, it may no longer be accurate to distinguish pure science from applied science, because the separation does not really exist in practice. Nowhere is this relationship more evident than in the technology parks adjacent to many North American universities. Perhaps the best known of these is the Silicon Valley area of California, which owes its existence to nearby Stanford University and the many professors and former students who have successfully turned their knowledge into products and cash. The same thing is now taking place in biochemistry, where academics are racing to turn a profit by transforming their research into marketable pharmaceuticals.

Likewise, the U. S. space program has generated large numbers of commercial spin-offs to the mass market. These technologies were developed initially for conditions of zero gravity, extreme temperature, high stress, and limited mass or size, and had ultrahigh reliability requirements, but quickly found uses in more mundane environments as well.

All technical advances in these fields (computing, biochemistry, space) have had consequences for a wide range of marketable products. The same comment can be made for military technologies, for the entire aerospace industry has grown as it has largely because of the impetus provided by the needs of two world wars. The observation can be repeated for almost any research or technology. Thus, pure research and pure invention do not exist alone and entire to themselves. Each inevitably affects the other and reflects back onto itself. Answers generate both products and new questions. Here, the interdependence principle could be stated:

There are no such things as pure theories, or pure applications.

Technology in its Own Right

However, the relationship between science and technology goes far beyond the fact that one is inductive and creates abstractions and the other is deductive and generates concrete results, for science as it is now known is only a few centuries old, whereas technology has been around at least since the first person thought of throwing a stone. It is not hard to argue that technology gave birth to science by providing a critical mass of industrial tools and complex processes that could only be understood and carried to the next step of their development by inventing the exacting analytical techniques called science. Viewed in this way, science could be regarded as the tool of technology rather than the other way around.

In fact, if the definition of technology is broadened in the manner of Jacques Ellul to include all systematic techniques--all searches for the most efficient way of doing--then the scientific method itself is actually one example of a technique. As a technique, it is subject to being studied for its own sake, and to being modified in order to become more efficient. Seen in this light, scientific enquiries take place under the control of one out of many possible techniques of thinking. They do not so much generate products from theory as they apply a practical methodology themselves. This concept is even more evident when one considers that scientific investigations themselves almost always require tools other than simply the particular mental discipline known as the scientific method. Whether the device is the mass spectrometer of the chemist, the meson machine of the physicist, or the computer employed by the molecular biologist to map genetic structures, there is always a level of co-requisite technology without which the particular science cannot be performed. Indeed, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of the science without the technology that is required to do the work. Moreover, there may well be more efficient techniques to pursue a given line of enquiry. There may even be a better way to do what is now called science as a whole. Techniques that are yet known may not even exist, but the point is that it cannot be proven that modern science is the most efficient possible technique of its kind.

Furthermore, just as science and technology drive each other, and their modern versions could scarcely exist without each other, each technological advance drives others. That is, just as no scientific discovery is without its implications to technology (and vice versa), the same is true of new products and techniques themselves--none exists alone or is without a broader influence. Some examples include:

o The development of reliable pumps made it possible to mine the deep seams of coal underlying much of Britain, one of the prerequisites for the industrial revolution.

o The burning of coal eventually forced the creation of scrubbing technology for cleaning emissions.

o The development of steel made possible a wide range of machinery, instruments, and consumer goods that could not have been foreseen by those who made the first alloys of iron and carbon.

o The World War II German rocket program led directly to today's ICBM's and also to space exploration technology.

o Radio led to television, and the demands of both led to communication satellites.

o The growing complexity of telephone systems required automatic switching systems and eventually computers.

o The modern microcomputer was made possible by a number of inventions, most notably those of the vacuum tube, the transistor, and the integrated circuit. It in turn has spawned new products, disciplines, and whole industries.

Examples of this sort of thing could be multiplied for product development alone; they lead to two more statements of the interdependence principle:

It is impossible to discover one thing


It is impossible to make one thing.

That one application drives another explains why in the long run the overall growth of technology is exponential, even though any one application reaches natural limits, perhaps in a relatively short time. Consider transportation technology, for instance, and its progression through walking, riding, sailing, driving, and flying, until achieving space travel by rocket. Each of these on its own imposes a natural upper limit on speed, but the need to travel farther and faster forces new transportation technology to be developed. The theoretical limit on rocket speed is some substantial fraction of the speed of light; the most optimistic of science fiction writers take it for granted that a new technique of transportation (warp speed) will eventually be developed to get around this barrier. More conservative voices assert that this is impossible, and it appears to be from most theoretical and practical considerations . However, such voices have been heard before--the horseless carriage, the aeroplane, the moon rocket, and the personal computer were all impossible until they were done. These examples may serve to illustrate an important fact of both science and technology that may be termed the incompleteness principle. It applies to all knowers with the exception of an all-knowing God.

For any field of study or application, it is either impossible to know everything, or it is impossible to know when everything is known.

or, to put it another way

No body of knowledge can ever be known to be complete, and no technology can be absolutely known to be the most efficient possible.


Broadening the notion of technology in order to view the scientific method as one in a spectrum of techniques has other consequences as well. If technique is the search for efficient methods as well as for efficient devices, then one may suppose that virtually every discipline has techniques better suited to that field than to others. This supposition leads to the further insight that the best techniques of management or the study of sociology may resemble scientific technique, but do not have to correspond exactly to it. Indeed, one ceases to expect that all technique must be of the scientific kind, for efficiency will surely be related to the nature of the field, rather than to theoretical considerations. Thus, it makes sense to speak of techniques of economics, politics, management, advertising, communicating, teaching, and of clear thinking (logic). One can also suppose that such techniques also lead to efficient methodologies in each of these areas, without having to apply the label "scientific" to them.

Jacques Ellul observed that every field of human endeavour can be assumed to be subject to the search for technique. As techniques develop, he observed, they do so in the most efficient manner available, reducing the number of choices for method, and tending to become rigid and authoritarian, admitting of no exceptions because of the claim to be the most efficient. He saw the end result of this progression of technique to be an amorphous totalitarian society with no individual choice at all (everyone would of necessity always do the most efficient thing). However, there was a factor that Ellul did not in his pessimism consider--the incompleteness principle. What if some other path were followed from the start? Could not a different "most efficient" point have been reached? How would anyone know that such a point had in fact been reached?

Clearly, it is not possible to know when the ultimate efficiency possible has been achieved in any field. It may be reached for a given technique applied in a particular way, but there may be other techniques with vastly different results. The high technology explosion in so many fields simultaneously illustrates this better than any theory. The view of the 1950s, like that of the 1890s, was that certain ultimate goals for both scientific knowledge and technological efficiency were close at hand. This view cannot any longer be sustained. It is being replaced by a more open-ended thinking that does not suppose that any state of equilibrium (in the sense of an ultimate technique) must necessarily ever be reached in either product development or in the potential application of technique--even to the social sciences.

To put this concept another way, suppose humankind was indeed created in the image of an omniscient and transcendent God. The process of learning may still be at the stage of the infant who makes piles of someone else's blocks and then knocks them over. Children naturally believe that they know everything, and are constantly amazed to discover that they do not. The principle of incompleteness is worth restating in these new terms:

No technique can ever be known to be ultimate, the best possible or universally applicable to all situations and cultures. All are open-ended.


The popular conception that science discovers and technology applies reverses the dependency of the two. Technique (efficient methodology) encompasses both science (one technique) and what is commonly called technology or engineering (efficient product development). It is also incorrect to assume that at any given time the most efficient methods have been discovered--or even that an optimum technique for something exists at all.

These insights assist in more properly placing science and technology within a spectrum of related human activities, demythologizing them to an extent, and of partly removing the notion that technique irresistibly and inevitably progresses to all-encompassing and dignity-destroying final goals. They lead to a more open-ended and continually changing scenario for the future. They also lead to a more realistic view of the practice and practitioners of science and technological development.

Profile on . . . Society and Technology

The Telephone

What is it for? March 10, 1876: Alexander Graham Bell becomes the first person to transmit speech electrically. The powerful telegraph companies, seeing no business applications, refuse to have anything to do with the "electrical toy." Even its inventors seemed at first not to know what to do with the new machine.

A new occupation: Early telephone subscribers were connected to one another's lines by central operators. Since they could (and usually did) listen to the conversations, operators became powerful and important in their communities, for they were the primary information clearing houses.

Women and the telephone company: Early operators were usually well-educated single women with a status comparable to school teachers. They were well cared for, but generally required to leave upon marriage and few entered management. However, the sheer size of this work force contributed to the acceptance of women working outside the home.

Depersonalization: As exchanges grew in large cities, it was no longer possible for operators to know their customers. They became detached and impersonal handlers of routine switching chores, many of which were ultimately taken over by automated machinery. Today, even the operator's voice is synthesized.

An information medium: The early practice of transmitting concerts and sermons to homes and hospitals became the forerunner of similar entertainments on radio and television. It was no longer necessary to go to an event to experience the pleasure of having attended.

Business practice: Once in use, the telephone was not seen as a social medium, but as a tool for conducting business. For instance, installed at resorts, it allowed businessmen to keep in touch with their offices. Cellular telephones and facsimile allow instant communications anywhere. Large businesses can be cohesive, and small ones can compete using telephone technology.

Urban development: The suburbs and the upper floors of high buildings were not practical as locations for doing business before the telephone. It has contributed to the growth of cities both upward and outward.

Old technologies obsoleted: Telegraph usage, which peaked in the late 1920s, and again in the mid forties, declined steadily thereafter. Today, the use of the telephone growing even as the amount of first class mail declines.

Better services: The telephone permitted the creation of efficient emergency services over large areas. Medical aid, firefighting, and policing all improved dramatically because of the ability to communicate requests for help quickly.

Crime: The telephone enabled new forms of crime. Prostitutes became call girls. Obscene calls became a problem. Gambling networks became more widespread. Wire-tapping became a new kind of crime and a new method of law enforcement.

Environmental issues: From very early, complaints were often heard that wires, poles, and towers were disfiguring the countryside. Today, automated calling equipment allows the individual's personal environment to be invaded by junk phone calls.

It changes social behaviour: If two people are talking and a third enters the room, the newcomer must wait for the chance to talk. If instead the third calls on the telephone, most people cannot ignore the demand and will drop whatever they are doing to answer immediately.

It is difficult to regulate fairly.

(1) How is a fair rate for service determined? Flat fees give business and other high volume users a quantity discount, causing home users to subsidize them. On the other hand, metering local calls requires more equipment and raises the rates for everyone.

(2) How are costs and fees split properly between long distance and local service? This is especially hard to determine when two or more companies are involved.

(3) Should telephone service be a monopoly so as to ensure greatest efficiency and uniformity of service? Or should it be competitive, so as to ensure the lowest prices?

(4) Should telephone service be closely regulated as an essential public utility, or should free competition be allowed. Which is most in the public interest?

(5) In either case, should it be government owned or private?

(6) Should all long distance directory service calls be free? Credit bureaus are heavy users of this service, reasoning that a phone listing is an indicator of creditworthiness. These are commercial operations, yet they pay nothing to use this service.

The telephone changes society.

(1) It is an instrument for organizing and socializing people.

(2) It converges space and time, making rapid communications with remote places as effective as those with next door.

(3) Mail order shopping became important. "Let your fingers do the walking" is not simply an advertising slogan, but a new way of life.

The telephone spawns new technologies:

(1) Demand for long distance and transatlantic service gave rise to copper wire, undersea cables, microwave transmission, and then to satellite transponders.

(2) Demand for new services produces picture telephones (not widely used), improved facsimile service, cellular telephones, and phone company sponsored information networks.

Telephones empower the individual.

(1) They are sophisticated, but anyone can operate them.

(2) They create mobility, allowing people to find and apply for jobs at remote locations.

(3) They provide access to information stored in distant computing systems.

(4) The telephone system guarantees that

Everyone is connected to everyone else.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises