This crossed my desk earlier:

It's amazing how technologists can be so forward-looking but so geopolitically tone deaf about implications of our work

To which I replied:

My feeling is that's part of the definition of technologist, a term that has no meaning other than to delineate that state.

I agree wholeheartedly with the statement that technologists are politically tone-deaf, geo- or otherwise. I have an issue with the term. The word technologist is a long-standing point of contention for me, as well as the relentless use of the word technology to refer to some crap to do with computers. If, on the other hand, we consider technology as the communicable systematization of any method or process, the term technologist becomes extremely murky.


If you use technology, you are a technologist.
Literally every human being that has ever existed, across all time, from the most urban to the most remote jungle tribes, uses some form of technology. Based on this criterion, as a means of delineating one person from another, the term technologist is meaningless.
If you invent technology, you are a technologist.
In my own profession, I deal, proximately, with plenty of crap to do with computers. I find myself inventing, in the strictest legal sense—as far as the patent office is concerned—new technology, on an almost continual basis. That I invent new technology so embarrassingly frequently is merely an accident—nay, constraint—of the medium. On the surface, all I'm ever doing is defining rules and policies. If we say that technology is any process you can systematize and communicate the resulting system to another person—a necessary condition to be granted a patent, by the way—then any person who has ever defined a policy, for use by other people, whether novel or not, whether they sought to commercialize it or not, has invented a technology, thereby making them a technologist. Again, this enormous and diverse swath of potential candidates renders the term functionally meaningless.
If you intermediate technology, you are a technologist.
Presuming a definition of technology as the systematic description of method into a uniform set of instructions that others can consume, any doctor, lawyer, architect, electrician, plumber, or any other tradesperson or professional is intermediating technology as a byproduct of economic specialization. They may not only be intermediating technology, as they accrue copious unwritten and/or incommunicable skills during their careers, but they are definitely intermediating some. Again, the epithet technologist cuts across so many disciplines and aggregates so many individuals as to be meaningless.

Then in what context is the term meaningful?

The word technologist seems to be used, in the vernacular, to refer to people who use, invent, and intermediate specific types of technology, namely those which are novel, or at least those which the general populace remains, for one reason or another, ignorant about. A necessary condition for the epithet technologist, therefore, is to be part early adopter, part inventor, and part specialist.

There is another distinguishing feature of the technologist, that in the process of getting their technology to work, they are preoccupied, leaving them few cognitive resources to attend to essential societal concerns like the social and political implications of their efforts. This puts the concept of a technologist precariously in line with a certain definition of technocrat:

A word which means what it says, but perhaps not as we normally understand it.

The roots appear to be describing someone who has power (crat) thanks to their specialized knowledge or skills (techne). Observation of the technocrat at work is enough to tell us that the roots have been inversed. This is someone whose skill is the exercise of power. It follows quite naturally that there is no suggestion of purpose, direction, responsibility or ethics. Just power.

John Ralston Saul, The Doubter's Companion

I bring up this delightfully cynical definition to illustrate the remaining point of contrast between technologist and technocrat. Namely, the vernacular technologist hasn't discovered power. They're too busy fiddling with semi-functioning gadgets. By focusing on their current, and more perniciously, future capabilities, their apprehension of the ramifications of those capabilities becomes attenuated. Without purpose, direction, responsibility or ethics, a technologist who learns how to wield power invariably graduates into a technocrat.

Technologist as power-broker

In physics, power refers to the amount of energy—force over distance—you can apply in a given period of time. In the sociopolitical realm, power is an analogous concept, referring to an alignment between what a person can will, and reasonably expect to have happen. When I made my first information system which was directly attributable to the conferral upon my employer of millions of dollars in revenue, it became clear to me that my power lies in making other people more powerful. It didn't take me long after that to consider that it necessarily matters who.

I, and anybody else in my position, can choose whose ends I wish to support, and whose to ignore. This is another form of power. I don't see it exercised very often.

The Hazards of Meaninglessness

Herein lies the nub of the problem with the concept called technologist: the very word places the focus on technology and takes it off of what technology does, namely increase the power of the person or group that uses it. In the most concrete sense, technology multiplies the application of force over distance over time, like a car or bulldozer. In the more ephemeral sense, technology is a means to make our aspirations stick. A person who regularly intermediates and/or invents technology helps make that possible. That is their role in society. They can be emancipators or kingmakers, and often are a bit of both. It would be more appropriate to call these people facilitators, enablers or empowerers than technologists.

What distinguishes a technology from a skill is that anybody who gets their hands on the manual, at least in theory, can use it. Technologies are always accompanied by a manual; that's what makes them what they are. Technology itself is not a skill. Formalizing processes into structures and systems is a skill, but it's a skill that has no content—no meaning—of its own. No meaning, that is, besides the conferral of power. It's up to those who have cultivated this skill to imbue it with any meaning beyond.

I encourage those in the business of reducing processes to practice to consider their actions in terms of whose interests they serve. If your job is to invent or intermediate technology, it's a safe bet that somebody, at least on the aggregate, is benefiting more than you are. It's a worthwhile exercise, for obvious reasons too numerous to mention, to figure out who. From there you can fashion a title for yourself, before somebody else does it for you.