The Separate Worlds of Science and Technology
Throughout most of human history, science and technology existed within completely separate realms of society. Science, or natural philosophy, fell within the realm of the upper ranks of society. Natural philosophers were “uncommitted to any program of useful knowledge,” developing “abstract speculations about the natural world.” Joel Mokyr calls science the sphere of savants.
In contrast, technology historically fell within the realm of the working classes, those who used their hands to earn a living, so-called fabricants: physicians, engineers, and skilled mechanics. Technology was developed as a tinkering, or learning-by-doing, process, without any understanding of the scientific underpinnings of how things worked.
Historians James McClellan and Harold Dorn describes the worlds of science and technology as being completely separate, with only a small overlap of applied science:
Only in those handful of subject areas where societies required and patronized specialized knowledge – astrology/astronomy, literacy, numeracy, aspects of engineering, and medicine for example – is it at all meaningful to speak of a limited existence of applied science. Otherwise, worlds of technology and learned science remained sociologically and institutionally poles apart. The vast bulk of technology was not applied science and had developed according to sociologically distinct craft traditions.
The Shift to Anticipating a Better Future
Throughout history, society served gods and kings. New information was presented authoritatively and simply accepted by the masses as being true. During this time, society tended to be backward-looking; that is, people looked to the past and the ancients as the ideal, rather than looking to the future as inspiration as a better time, when society would progress.
It was the Scientific Revolution (1543 – 1687) that finally ushered in a change in perspective, from a backward- to a forward-looking society: “At the deepest level, the common denominator was the belief in the possibility and desirability of human progress and perfectability through reason and knowledge.” The fundamental features of the Scientific Revolution were: (i) the social utility of science, that is, that science and knowledge could be used to improved man’s well-being, and (ii) the emergence of the scientific method, where new information was gained through experiments that explained natural phenomena.