Big Ideas for D&T: Technology


In deciding what to teach in design & technology it is important to consider both the nature of design and the nature of technology. These have quite separate intellectual traditions and one of the tasks of design & technology as a school subject is to bring these two traditions together in a way that is both workable and rigorous.


Technology is not easy to define, as different philosophical positions lead to different definitions. Kelly (2010) in his provocative book What technology wants[1] discusses the idea of autonomous technology in terms of three interacting influences:

The primary driver is pre-ordained development – what technology wants. The second driver is the influence of technological history, the gravity of the past, as in the way the size of a horse’s yoke determines the size of a space rocket. The third force is society’s collective free will in shaping the technium, or our choices. (p. 181)

From Kelley’s perspective, it appears that the influence that mitigates against technological inevitability (society’s free will) is the smallest of these influences. He entrenches this position by describing technological development in terms of a set of trends that contribute to the expression of specific technologies and how they might progress. For example, in this set he includes increasing sentience. This may give cause for concern given that deeply embedded in popular culture is the idea of machines becoming self-aware and either dominating human life, as in the film Metropolis (made in 1927), or deciding that humanity is antithetical to its own existence and actively waging war on humanity, as in the Terminator films (made in 1984, 1991, 2003 and 2009).

Nye (2006) rejects this idea of technological autonomy:

From the vantage point of the present, it may seem that technologies are deterministic. But this view is incorrect no matter how plausible it may seem. Cultures select and shape technologies, not the other way around …A more useful concept than determinism is technological momentum, which acknowledges that once a system such as a railroad or an electrical grid has been designed to certain specifications and put in place it has a rigidity and direction that can seem deterministic to those who use them. (p. 212)

Arthur (2009) takes a different starting point in considering the nature of technology and the way it evolves. He argues that technology can be viewed as the exploitation of phenomena revealed by science. He rejects a simplistic “technology is applied science” view but is adamant that it is from the discovery and understanding of phenomena that technologies spring. He notes that:

It should be clear that technologies cannot exist without phenomena. But the reverse is not true. Phenomena purely in themselves have nothing to do with technology. They simply exist in our world (the physical ones at least) and we have no control over their form and existence. All we can do is use them where usable. Had our species been born into a universe with different phenomena we would have developed different technologies. And had we uncovered phenomena over historical times in a different sequence, we would have developed different technologies. (p. 66)

Naughton (in Banks, 1994) adds further weight to the rejection of a simplistic applied science view of technology when he writes that technology always involves “ways of doing things . . . a complex interaction between people and social structures on the one hand and machines on the other” (p. 12). Naughton’s description immediately complicates the design & technology curriculum in that a consideration of machines, which many would see as a basis for a technology curriculum, becomes insufficient.

Our view, informed by the preceding discussion, is that design & technology as a school subject should take seriously the following aspects of technology:

  • That technology is built on phenomena in the real world and pupils should develop understanding of the range of key phenomena that technology uses.
  • That technology is a human activity and pupils should both experience a wide variety of technological activities and learn to consider the human and social implications of such activity.
  • That our current technologies are built on previous technologies and that, in turn, the technologies being developed today will have implications for future technologies. Pupils should, therefore, develop understanding of these relationships and develop a critical mind-set about the use of technologies.

[1] What Technology Wants focuses on human-technology relations and argues for technology as the emerging seventh kingdom of life on earth. The book invokes a giant force, the technium, which is “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us”


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