Blog Post

Arnold Pacey's "Technology-Practice"

In The Culture of Technology, Arnold Pacey argues that the term “technology” has, itself, served as a barrier for meaningful dialogue about the role of technology in society.  A “catchword with a confusion of different meanings” (p. 3), “technology” can refer both to specific tools and broad systems of practice creating a web of interchangeable definitions that actually represent a wide spectrum of meanings. 

Borrowing from the field of medicine, Pacey demonstrates that other disciplines have sorted out similar definitional problems by making distinctions between the techniques and knowledge sets that they use (“medical science”) and the more general sets of values and ethics that guide their work (“medical practice”).  Pacey suggests borrowing the concept of “practice” and applying it to discussions of technology as a way to make visible the facets of technology having to do with values and organization (p. 5).  Thus, technology-practice can be understood as “the application of scientific and other knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems that involve people and organizations, living things and machines (p. 6).” 

Pacey neatly diagrams this concept (p.6) as a triad of “aspects” (technical, organizational and cultural) that work together to comprise technology-practice.  The “technical aspect” is the aspect that is most often associated with what Pacey describes as the “restricted meaning of ‘technology’” (p.6).  This aspect is the “knowledge, skill and technique; tools, machines, chemicals, liveware; resources, products and waste (p.6).”  The “organizational aspect” concerns itself with social and political organization including administration, public policy, designers, workers, users and consumers (p.5).  These two aspects have historically been more visible in technological discourse, so it is the third aspect, the “cultural aspect,” that Pacey emphasizes in this book.  This aspect deals with the ideological aspects of technology, thus comprising values, ideas and creativity—all of which are organizing factors of culture (p. 5). 

Culture is, by definition, invisible, and Pacey’s aim is to foreground its interwoven effects on technology.  He specifically points to the ways in which cultural values about progress, expertise and beliefs about resources have a major impact in the Western master-narrative about the nature of technology.  Pacey correctly identifies these values as the ones that stand behind political discourse that drives the “so-called technological imperative” (p.12).  These are key points to understanding the power dynamics and political commitment to the technocistic, or technocentric, narrative of technology. 

I really appreciate Pacey's framework and articulation of "technology-practice" as a way to make visible the often glossed over and invisible aspects of technology in technology studies.  This substantive (or ecological) approach to dismantling the technical apparatus is simple in concept, but has rich applications for tracing power, politics, and mythos in technologies.



Pacey, Arnold. (1985). The Culture of technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


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