What Is Technography?

Technography may be defined at its simplest through the spelling out of its elements, Greek τεχνο– and -γραϕία: thus, technography is the writing of technology. In its earliest uses, in classical and Hellenistic writing, the word referred to a technical treatise on rhetoric, with Aristotle’s Rhetoric to Alexander and Rhetoric being described as the two earliest examples (Kraus 2011: 279). This is still the sense in which the word ‘technography’ is employed by historians of rhetoric (Heath 2004). ‘Technography’ has been used to mean the technical language employed by a particular profession, as in a 1920 reference in a discussion of silver candlesticks in the Burlington Magazine to ‘silver mountings as they are called in the technography of the trade’ (Veitch 1920: 18). In 1963, H.C. McDaniel, an ex-president of the Society for Technical Writers and Professionals, proposed the word technography as ‘the generic descriptor encompassing all the functions normally associated with technical writing, editing, illustrating, publishing and allied operations’ (Galasso 1963: 23). The SWTP Review, the house journal of the Society of Technical Writers and Professionals was accordingly subtitled The Journal of Technography for some years.

Douglas Kahn’s use of the term (2004) to describe his study of the use of technology in the work of composer John Bischoff marks a shift to the idea of technography as an historical account of a technology. In 2007, Greenwood Press released fourteen volumes of what it called Technographies, each subtitled The Life Story of a Technology. The series, which included volumes on the railway, firearms, the car, the radio and the book aimed to provide something like a human biography, each volume outlining ‘the artifact’s antecedents or “family” background, its “youthful” development, subsequent maturation, and either its eventual absorption into ubiquitous societal adoption or its decline and obsolescence’ (Cutliffe 2007: 165).

The word has been put to work in sociological and ethnographic writing. Steve Woolgar employs the word technography to describe a method ‘to tease out the congealed social relations embodied in technology’ (Woolgar 1998: 444). The anthropologist Paul Richards introduced the term during the 1980s in his work on farming methods employed by indigenous West African peoples. In his introduction to an issue of the journal Qualitative Inquiry in 2008, Grant Kien defined the word as ‘Technology + Ethnography’ (Kien 2008: 1101), and it has more recently been used to refer to ‘the study of technoculture in everyday life’ (Vannini, Hodson and Vannini 2009: 462) and ‘the detailed study of the use of skills, tools, knowledge and techniques in everyday life’ (Jansen and Vellema 2011: 169).

The term had also been revived by the theorist of game and play Bernard DeKoven in the 1980s to mean a kind of computer-mediated collective writing – something that has become common practice (Ball n.d.). Paul A. Harris used the term in 1997 to refer to the kind of technologised writing developed by the writers associated with Oulipo, which made particular use of the mathematical diagram (Harris 1997). Technography therefore seems to involve a kind of oscillation of positions, not to say specifically of prepositions, with regard to the technical, in which writing of techne can switch into the writing in or through techne. James Purdon derives his notion of technography from ‘a union of the material and the symbolic [which] is ingrained within the concept of technology itself from the earliest times’ (Purdon 2016). His interest is in the ways in which discourse attaches to machines and mechanisms, and ‘a specific kind of discourse which prioritizes an awareness of the process of its own mediation; a kind of writing which seeks to bring to consciousness the technicity of text and the textuality of technics; the kind of writing which we have sometimes been inclined to call literature, but which encompasses symbolic operations – techniques or indeed technics – across many media forms’ (Purdon 2016). Steven Connor’s definition of technography, as ‘any writing about any technology that implicates or is attuned to the technological condition of its own writing’, is in accord with this. In this respect, technography is not just one mode or mood of literary writing; rather all the writing we tend to call literary must be regarded as technographic, in that it is ‘the engineering in writing of the particular kind of engine of writing it aims at being. So modern literary writing is ever more technographic, not in the simple sense that it is concerned with other kinds of machinery, but in the sense that it is ever more taken up with the kind of machinery that it itself is’ (Connor 2016: 18)

But, as Purdon observes, while ‘writing is technological, through and through, technology is also written, through and through’ (Purdon 2016). Technography therefore ‘seeks to bring us back to that symbiosis of the technical and the symbolic that is written into the idea of technology from the beginning’. It is ‘less a method than a resistance to settling at one or other end of the object-discourse axis’ (Purdon 2016). Sean Pryor and David Trotter accordingly define technography as ‘a reflection upon the varying degrees to which all technologies have in some fashion been written into being’. But reversibility is again apparent in technography, in that it is attuned not only to the ways in which technologies are written, but also to the ways in which they in themselves constitute styles, or kinds of writing.  As such, technographies ‘attend equally to the rhetoric sedimented in machines, to machines behaving rhetorically, to rhetoric that behaves mechanically, and to rhetoric behaving in pointed opposition to mechanism’ (Pryor and Trotter 2016: 16). As James Purdon concludes, ‘[t]echnography does not presuppose where, if anywhere, text begins, and the machine stops’. Technography encourages an awareness of the different ways in which every technology may be thought of as textual, and all machines as kinds of media. Steven Connor distinguishes one of the ways in which this may be understood:

If all writing is a kind of machinery, why might it be plausible to see every machine as a kind of writing? Because every mechanical or technical action can be seen as a procedure as well as a mere proceeding, where a procedure means a replicable operation. So a technical procedure is the styling of a process and, as such, the declarative performance of that process as iterable procedure. Every machine declares of what it does: ‘this is the way this action may be performed’. A technic, or technical procedure, is a writing in that it tracks its own technique, following in its own tracks. (Connor 2016: 18)


Ball, Geoff. n.d. ‘Technography.’ Online at http://www.geoffballfacilitator.com/technography.html

Connor, Steven. 2016. ‘How to do Things with Writing Machines.’ In Writing, Medium, Machine: Modern Technographies, edited by Sean Pryor and David Trotter, 18-34. London: Open Humanities Press. Online at http://stevenconnor.com/writingmachines.html

Cutliffe, Stephen H. 2007. ‘The Greenwood Technographies: Life Stories of Technologies’. Technology and Culture, 48: 165-68.

Galasso, Joseph A. 1963. ‘What’s In a Name.’ STWP Review, 10: 23-24.

Harris, Paul A. 1997. ‘Exploring Technographies: Chaos Diagrams and Oulipian Writing as Virtual Signs.’ In Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology, edited by Joseph Tabbi and Michael Wutz, 136-53. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Heath, Malcolm. 2004. ‘Technography’. In Menander: A Rhetor in Context, 255-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jansen, Kees and Sietze Vellema. 2011. ‘What Is Technography?’ NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 57: 169–177.

Kahn, Douglas. 2004. ‘A Musical Technography of John Bischoff’. Leonardo Music Journal, 14: 74-79.

Kien, Grant. 2008. ‘Technography = Technology + Ethnography’. Qualitative Inquiry, 14: 1101-1109.

Kraus, Manfred. 2011. ‘How to Classify Means of Persuasion: The Rhetoric to Alexander and Aristotle on Pisteis’. Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, 29: 263-79.

Pryor, Sean and David Trotter. 2016. ‘Introduction.’ In Writing, Medium, Machine: Modern Technographies, edited by Sean Pryor and David Trotter, 7-17. London: Open Humanities Press.

Purdon, James. 2016. ‘Texts, Technics, Technographies.’ Unpublished lecture, given at the TextTechniques workshop, Universität Erfurt, 13th January

Veitch, Henry Newton. 1920. ‘Sheffield Plate-II’. Burlington Magazine, 37: 18-21, 24-27.

Woolgar, Steve. 1998. ‘A New Theory of Innovation?’ Prometheus, 16, 441-52.


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