Restless Device: A Podcast about Extraordinary Technology

Technology can be strange, wonderful, and amazing. On Restless Device, I explore extraordinary technologies, past and present, and look at what they can tell us about larger questions. Technology is an imaginative and expressive project and, like literature or art, can tell us a lot about the world we live in and what it means to be human.

Who I Am

Restless Device is written and produced by me, Dave Unger, in Seattle, WA. I’m a historian of technology by training, a public historian by trade, and a tinkerer by inclination. I believe that understanding where things come from and how they change (history) and taking a close look at their underlying nature (philosophy) can make it easier to navigate our world. I have a long list of things I’m curious about and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

The views expressed in this podcast are my own and don’t represent the views of any particular institution or affiliation.

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About the Title

As an etymological aside, the origins and constellation of meanings of the words in the podcast’s title and subtitle are evocative and maybe informative.

Restless: This comes from philosopher of technology Hans Jonas. He sees “restlessness” as one of the underlying features of modern technology. By this he means that at the core of modern technology is a belief in endless progress. Technology never reaches a point of rest (when all the problems are solved) because there are always better solutions and new problems. This description captures some key elements of both the hopeful and worrying aspects of technology.

Device: In part this is just a great word that is more concrete than “technology” and more interesting than “machine.” It is a word, though, that has a suggestive history and collection of meanings. It comes out of an old French word (devis) that meant a division or separation, like the partitions of a coat of arms. As a verb (deviser), it meant to divide and arrange something, which evolved into the modern word “devise.” “Device” carries elements of this history. Most generally it is something made of parts that have been arranged. More specifically, in addition to the common meaning of a piece of equipment, it can also mean a plan or a drawing. These meanings suggest something that is divided and assembled– both a whole and parts.

Extraordinary: In addition to the general meaning of “great,” this word could also be taken literally (extra-ordinary) as meaning “outside the usual order.” For example, the German academic hierarchy has a position called “extraordinary professor,” which means a professor without a full appointment (a “chair” in the institutional jargon)– a kind of extra professor. Extraordinary technologies could be those that are simply amazing, but more interestingly, they are also those that are outside the mainstream.

Technology: This word is a problem. It originally meant simply “the study of technical things,” the same way “biology” is the study of biological things. The contemporary usage, meaning something like “the set of all technical things,” developed during the 20th century. Its creation is completely tangled up with the evolution of 20th century technical systems.

Historian Leo Marx argues that the term “technology” first comes into use with thinkers like Thorstein Vablen who were arguing for “technocracy” (the use of engineering design to solve social and political problems), and catches on as a way to describe new big technical systems, like the railroads, electrical grids, and telegraphs. Unlike older arrangements in which a technical thing could be seen as just a thing in a location (like a steam engine in the basement), the new systems seemed to be everywhere at once. These new systems also encompassed mechanical, organizational, economic, and legal arrangements. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what or where a railroad network is.

The term “technology” brings with it many assumptions and worries from that early usage. The term makes it easy to imagine the technical things as all being part of an abstract, uniform thing– as all being Technology (with a capital “T”). It would probably be better to say “technologies” or “technics,” but for reasons of simplicity, recognizability, and search engine readability, I’m going to stick with “technology.”

For more on the history of the term, see Leo Marx, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” Technology and Culture, Volume 51, Number 3, July 2010, pp.561-577

For a more general attempt to define technology, see Stephen J. Kline, “What is Technology,” reprinted in Robert C Scharff and Val Dusek, ed., Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition : An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2003).