tech != technology != engineering != applied sciences

Because I style myself as “consultant in technology-based economic development,” I’m often asked my opinion on this or that development in the “tech” world. Sometimes I can answer, but sometimes not, because “tech” is not what I’m primarily about. To me, the word “technology” means the full range of practical arts enabled by advanced scientific knowledge and engineering skill. When I use the word, I’m pretty certain I mean something different from what the general public and the media now mean by “tech.” ((Of course: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”))

Back in the dot-com boom, the public and the investment community began using the word “technology” as a shortcut for what was really just “information technology,” and “technology” soon shortened further to just “tech.” Actually, in Silicon Valley, “tech” seems to have a broader meaning than here, because there it encompasses not just the big Web successes like eBay, Facebook and Yahoo, but also a broad range of firms that actually manufacture materials, systems, and devices based on a wide array of modern technologies (think Intel, Cisco, or even Tesla Motors). But here in the Big Apple, because our local venture capitalists have rightly perceived that our economy’s comparative advantage lies in those technologies that hold potential to “disrupt” our world-beating advertising, media, financial, and fashion sectors, “tech” has come to mean largely “soft” technology: Web 2.0, social media, and now, above all, mobile apps. In a word, software.

All this raises some points I’ve wanted to make about New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “applied sciences” initiative, which I’ll write up in a subsequent blog post some time before he leaves office, but I before I do, I need to clear some linguistic underbrush. As a long-ago undergraduate historian of science, I have a stake in clarity. ((Oh, and that headline for this post is a kludge/joke: apparently you can’t put HTML character codes like ≠ into WordPress headlines, so I borrowed the “bang-equals” symbol from software coding which requires no special characters.))

Let’s start with technology, the oldest of the terms. The Greek root is τεχνολογια, the systematic study of any practical art, skill or craft — the development of problem-solving tools based on the full range of human knowledge. Some social critics call it simply “technique.” This concept long predates the western ideas of either science or engineering, let alone the narrow sub-discipline of information technology. While it’s traditional in economic-policy circles to group “science & technology” together, the history of technology is studied separately from the history of science. (My late junior advisor Mike Mahoney would be happy I got those links in, though as a historian of both Fermat and computing technology, he’d probably disagree the studies are so very separate.)

Now, how about engineering? The Romans had road-builders before civil engineering existed as a discipline, but the word had not settled yet. The linguistic roots of engineering are all about what we’d now call the engines of war and siege: catapults and later — after the invention of gunpowder — cannon and other field artillery. The first use of the word “engine” in this context comes from the same Latin/Romance language roots as the modern word “ingenious,” and the earliest uses of “engineer” applied to those who had the creativity and craft to invent, design, and maintain or improve these tools of destruction. Later, related words would apply to the builders of large civil works (roads, cathedrals, etc.) — again prior to the existence of architecture or civil engineering as a profession. Still later, engines were steam engines, and engineers were those who conceived, designed and built them.

From Medieval times through the Enlightenment, engineers stood in relation to “natural philosophers” (proto-scientists) in roughly the same manner as barber-surgeons stood to physicians. The former in each pair were the practical, dirty-handed street-fighters who solved real-world problems, while the latter were academicians who studied and debated book knowledge. Only as the modern, industrial era unfolded did science and engineering (sometimes then called applied sciences) coalesce as closely related professions of their own, each with book learning and a research agenda of its own. While the range of recognized engineering disciplines fluctuates with the state of scientific and technological knowledge, to gain a sense of the current set, consider that the U.S. National Academies taxonomy of doctoral research programs recognizes the following top-level categories of engineering: aerospace; biomedical/bio; chemical; civil/environmental; computer; electrical/computer; materials; mechanical; operations/systems/industrial; and also the “emerging fields” of computational, nano, nuclear, and information.

Note that when the mayor and his friends in “tech” say they need more “engineers,” what they seem really to mean — at least in the current times and investment climate — is “software engineers” or more plainly, well trained computer programmers skilled in modern, relatively “soft” contexts like Web and mobile. Now software engineering isn’t even really a uniformly recognized academic and research discipline, although the same Academies taxonomy implausibly recognizes it as a subfield of computer science, a highly theoretical study that as much resembles mathematical logic as any other discipline. In actual practice, software engineering is very often studied and taught as a practical art — a technology, if you will — without significant attention to research or graduate study beyond the master’s degree (a focus of the mayor’s applied sciences initiative). Incidentally, the mayor’s use of the term applied sciences has an oddly “retro” feel to it, harkening to a time a century ago when applied sciences was nearly a synonym for engineering. Indeed, the phrase still lingers in the name of many long-established schools of engineering, but in few modern ones.

Back to tech (or not). Because our ecosystem here in NYC still lacks depth and breadth in the full range of engineering disciplines (several-year-old essay here), our strongest plays in “tech” are usually not about actual, engineered physical technology, but rather about the application of cloud-based, mobile-enabled IT services to some other sector, often though certainly not always a service rather than a manufactured product. I’ll come back to all this in a subsequent blog post. Vocabulary clearer or muddier? Comments welcome.

  • J Blaho May 8, 2013, 1:34 pm

    This is why I must always say “we don’t focus on tech, only physics, chemistry, bioscience, engineering, and computer science…”

  • David Hochman May 8, 2013, 1:35 pm

    Bravo, John! You feel my pain.

  • Joe Montemarano May 8, 2013, 2:25 pm

    Nice job! Your comments on software reminded me of a NJ AEA presentation a few decades ago by pre-divestiture AT&T on the global communications opportunities for optical fiber. Bascially, they thought they were going to “fiber-up” China. I don’t know why, but I walked away from the presentation with the thought that was there was only one materials science/engineering question left unanswered: “Was there enough sand in the world”? One doesn’t need a Bell Labs to answer that question, so I was probably least surprised to see AT&T “give” the Labs to Lucent. Then AT&T Research Labs went on a hiring binge for software engineers. Was this focus on software (or is NYC’s for that matter) enough?

    After all, software is part of the “service economy” and you probably recall in the early 80s we were told that a “service” economy was all our country needed — the end-product/the only “thing” we needed to make was supposed to be lots of money. So we sent our manufacturing (and the jobs) overseas, and for a while a lot of money was made. Maybe some insights on the wisdom of this focus can be gained if we bother to look at our economy today.

  • David Hochman May 8, 2013, 2:29 pm

    Right on, Joe!

  • Bruce Bernstein June 18, 2013, 4:06 pm

    This is an excellent piece.

    There has been a movement over the years to establish “software engineering” as a full-fledged engineering discipline. Like any engineering discipline, it is an “applied science.” Carnegie Mellon, one of the top Computer Science schools in the country, has a PhD program in SW engineering. I personally support these efforts, as they are aimed at professionalizing the field and making the IT creation process more reliable and bug free. An interesting sidelight would be to contract this to the internal FB philosophy, which is encapsulated by slogans like “HACK!” and “Move fast and break things.” Thus the buggy product.

    My impression of what Mayor Mike considers “tech” is: “anything VCs will invest in.”

  • Bruce Bernstein June 18, 2013, 4:08 pm

    ironically, I “moved too fast” in typing my previous comment and thus left in a bug. I meant “contrast this” with the FB philosophy, not “contract”.

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