Structure and Technology

by Don Friedman on September 23, 2016

I’ve used the word “technology” in a number of recent posts, including yesterday’s riff on Viking longboats. Today, I want to ask a simple question: why isn’t building structure discussed as “technology”?


High-tech:

Structural steel work in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge subway station, circa 1904.

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There are similar questions that can be asked. When did computers become the assumed meaning of the word? (For example, see the New York Times‘s Technology section.) Or, as I once heard this question phrased, when did the popular conception of an engineer change from Gary Cooper to a hacker?

This is to some degree a question of definition: since every object and process created by humans counts as a technology in the broadest sense of the word, we have to narrow the field somehow or the word is meaningless. The answer, in my opinion, lies in a moving filter. By the time something is familiar enough to be ordinary, we stop thinking of it as “technology.” Telephones, electric lights, typewriters, and steel-frame buildings were among the marvels of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. One by one, they became the background noise of modern life as newer marvels – cars, radio, airplanes – took over as the cutting edge.

The mechanical systems of buildings are sometimes seen as technology, largely where things keep changing. In lighting, for example, fluorescent bulbs replaced incandescent, and were partly replaced by halogen, and are now being replaced by LEDs. There is real improvement in that trend, with energy use decreasing as uniformity of light increases, and people notice that. On the other hand, it’s sometimes difficult to get people to see plumbing as a technological artifact even though our civilization depends on clean water.

Structural technology has advanced since the drama of the first skyscrapers, 125 years ago, but relatively slowly. Worse, from the perspective of this topic, the average person looks at an interesting new building and wonders who the architect was, because advances are seen as “design” (meaning architecture) and not as “technology” (meaning engineering).

I’m not sure that this discussion leads anywhere other than the age-old conclusion that engineers are terrible at self-promotion and need to explain their work to the general public more clearly. In the end, our work involves the technology that keep the human race housed, and that seems worthy of some interest.

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