Technique, technology and biotechnology

To Aristotle, “technology” meant a skill with words, which referred to rhetoric, i.e., skills to speak and perform, and grammatic. The Greek also included poetry in the definition. The etymology of the word “technique” refers to technics, art, artist, artisan, artifact, artificial, engine, ingenious, engineer, engineering.

What is technology in today’s meaning and is technique something different from technology? Surprisingly, giving simple, unambiguous definitions to everybody’s satisfaction is not an easy task. Technique could mean knowledge and ability to use appropriate and improved tools to solve practical problems; skill to design, manufacture and use of products. In its wider meaning, technique can be linked to any form of human action, which needs skills to perform. It is a means to alter the reality around us.

Is there a difference between technique and technology? Some people say that technique is science, and technology is its practical application. Other people claim the opposite. There seems to be an increasing tendency to use the word technology, which could be taken as a combination of engineering and science. However, sometimes you may want to make a difference between the two words. Kimi Räikkönen won the F1 race because of his perfect driving technique and the superior technology of the car.

How about biotechnology? The very simple definition is “biotechnology is technology based on biology”. When you give the task to a professional society, the definition transforms to a complex but still not entirely satisfactory explanation “biotechnology is application of biological organisms, systems, or processes by various industries to learning about the science of life and the improvement of the value of materials and organisms such as pharmaceuticals, crops, and livestock” (American Chemical Society).

In its most relaxed meaning, the earliest biotechnological application was the cultivation of plants. My own historical perspective is much shorter. The Technical University of Helsinki was founded in 1908, just a year before my father was born. He studied machine technique in the “polysteekki” but I am wondering if he would really have chosen biotechnology if the discipline were available at the time, as he was an enthusiastic gardener but had hands of a surgeon. However, the term biotechnology is said to have emerged only in 1919. The field of modern biotechnology was born in 1971 in California, ten years before my US postdoc work on genetic engineering. Talking about terms, my son once surprised me by saying that genetic “modification” sounds more scary than genetic “manipulation”.

To simplify, there are two kinds of people. The optimistic engineers believe that technology can solve all problems that it has created. The pessimistic humanists are afraid that the techniques destroy the human, the nature and the culture. The former people do not see or take seriously the side effects of techniques. The latter people do not comprehend that human has always used technique, in good and in bad. It is safe to conclude that we need the possibilities that technique provides, but at the same time techniques should be assessed in a responsible way to the benefit of people and good life.

Today technology covers a fascinating combination of many scientific disciplines and one should not be too concerned about a correct definition of biotechnology. The terminology is a moving target and who knows where it is heading tomorrow.

This text was inspired by the book “Tekniikan filosofia” (Philosophy of technique) written by Ilkka Niiniluoto (Gaudeamus, 2020).

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