A search for limits in an age of high technology
#3586 Created 04/13/2014 Updated 05/29/2014
Langdon Winner starts his book, The Whale and the Reactor, musing about the Philosophy of Technology. "One might expect, for example," he wrote, "that the philosophy of technology would be a topic widely discussed by scholars and technical professionals, a lively field of inquiry often chosen by students at our universities and technical institutes. One might even think that the basic issues in this field would be well defined, its central controversies well word. However, sch is not the case. At this late date in the development of our industrial/technological civilization the most accurate observation to be made about the philosophy of technology is that there really isn't one."3
"Technology has never joined epistemology, metaphysics, esthetics, law, science, and politics as a fully respectable topic for philosophical inquiry. 4
Much of the answer can be found in the astonishing hold the idea of progress" has exercised on social thought during the industrial age. In the twentieth century it is usually taken for granted that the only reliable sources for improving the human condition stem from new machines, techniques, and chemicals. ... It is still a prerequisite that the person running for public office swear his or her unflinching confidence in a positive link between technical development and human well-being and affirm that the next wave of innovations will surely be our salvation.
There is, however, another reason why the philosophy of technology has never gather much steam. According to conventional views, the human relationship to technical things is too obvious to merit serious reflection. The deceptively reasonable notion that we have inherited from much earlier and less complicated times divides the range of possible concerns about technology into two basic categories: making and use. In the first of these our attention is drawn to the matter of "how things work" and of "making things work," We tend to think that this is a fascination of certain people in certain occupations, but not for anyone else. "How things work" is the domain of inventors, technicians, engineers, repairmen,and the like who prepare artificial aids to human activity and keep them in good working order. Those not directly involved in the various spheres of "making" are thought to have little interest in or need to know about the materials principles, or procedures found in those spheres. 5
What the other do care about, however, are tools and uses. This is understood to be a straightforward matter. Once things have been made, we interact with them on occasion to achieve specific purposes. ... The proper interpretation of the meaning of technology in the mode of use seems to be nothing more complicated than an occasional, limited, and non-problematic interaction. 5-6 If the experience of modern society shows us anything, however, it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning. 6
Judgements about technology have been made on narrow grounds, paying attention to such matters as whether a new device serves a particular need, performs more efficiently than its predecessor, makes a profit, or provides a convenient service. 9
In the technical realm, we repeatedly enter into a series of social contracts, the terms of which are revealed only after the signing. It may seem that the view I am suggesting is that of technological determinism: the idea that technological innovation is the basic cause of changes in society and that human beings have little choice other than to sit back and watch this ineluctable process unfold. But the concept of determinism is much to strong, far too sweeping in its implications to provide an adequate theory. ... Being saddled with it is like attempting to describe all instances of sexual intercourse based only in the concept of rape. A more revealing notion, in my view, is that of technological somnambulism. for the interesting puzzle in our times is that we so willingly sleepwalk through the process of constituting the conditions of human experience. 9-10
But we have already begun to notice another view of technological development, one that transcends the empirical and moral shortcomings of cause-and-effect models. It begins with the recognition that as technologies are being built and put to use, significant alterations in patterns of human activity and human institutions are already taking place. New worlds are being made. There is noting "secondary" about this phenomenon. It is , in fact, the most important accomplishment of any technology. The construction of a technical system that involves human beings as operating parts brings a reconstruction of social roles and relationships. 11
What we see here instead is an ongoing social process in which scientific knowledge, technological invention, and corporate profit reinforce each other in deeply entrenched patterns, patterns, that bear the unmistakable stamp of political and economic power. 27
The things we call "technologies" are ways of building order in our world. 28
In that sense technological innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a framework for public order that will endure over many generations. 29
Engels finds that far from being an idiosyncrasy of capitalist social organization, relationships of authority and subordination arise "independently of all social organization, [and] are imposed upon us together with the material conditions under which we produce and make products circulate. 30
In Engles' argument, and arguments like it, the justification for authority is no longer made by Plato's classic analogy, but rather directly with reference to technology itself. 31
With the passage of time the cornucopia of modern industrial production began to generate some distinctive institutional patterns...
First is the ability of technologies of transportation and communication to facilitate control over events from a single center or small number of centers. ... there has been an extraordinary centralization of social control in large business corporations, bureaucracies, and the military, ... Without anyone having explicitly chosen it, dependency upon highly centralized organizations has gradually become a dominant social form.
Second, is a tendency for new devices and techniques to increase the most efficient or effective size of organized human associations.
Third is the way in which the rational arrangement of socio-technical systems has tended to produce its own distinctive form of hierarchical authority.
Fourth is a tendency of large, centralize, hierarchically arranged sociotechnical entities to crowd out and eliminate other variety of human activity. Hence industrial techniques eclipsed craftwork; technologies of modren agribusiness made small-scale farming al but impossible; high-speed dtransporatatino crowded out slower means of getting about. It is not merely that udeful devices and techniqeus of earlier periods have been rendered exsinct, but also that patterns of social existence and individual experience that employed these tools havde vanished as living realities.
Firth are the various ways that large sociotechnical organiations exercise power to control the social and political influences that ostensibly control them. 48
Over many decades technological optimists have been sustained by the belief that whatever happened to be created in the sphere of material instrumental culture would certainly be compatible with freedom, democracy, and social justice. This amounts to a conviction that all technology--whatever its size, shape or complexion--is inherently liberating. 50
The prevailing consensus seems to be that people love a life of high consumption, tremble at the through that it might end, and are displeased about having to clean up the messes that modern technologies sometimes bring. 51
As a way of beginning that project, I would suggest that a simple heuristic exercise. Let us suppose that every political philosophy in a given time implies a technology or set of technologies in a particular pattern for its realization. And let us recognize that every technology of significance to us implies a set of political commitments that can be identified if one looks careful enough. What appear to be merely instrumental choices are better seen as choices about the form of social and political life a society builds, choices about the kinds of people we want to become. Plato's metaphor, especially his reference to the shipwright, is one that an age of high technology ought to ponder carefully: we ought to lay out the keels of our vessels with due consideration to what means or manner of life best serves our purpose in our voyage over the sea of time. .
(Plato quote: "Let us now speak of the manner of teaching and imparting them, and the persons to whom, and the time when, they are severally to be imparted. As the shipwright first lays down the lines of the keel, and thus, as it were, draws the ship in outline, so do I seek to distinguish the patterns of life, and lay down their keels according to the nature of different men's souls; seeking truly to consider by what means, and in what ways, we may go through the voyage of life best. ")
(Plato quote:"So much for the subjects of education. But to whom are they to be taught, and when? I must try, like the shipwright, who lays down the keel of a vessel, to build a secure foundation for the vessel of the soul in her voyage through life.")