Monday, March 19, 2012

Pillar 3: Philosophy of Technology

And so we come to the topic which attempts to link with the topic that is typically that most corresponds to the what is considered central to the conversation of theology and technology.

Most theologically trained academics feel more comfortable in the realms of philosophy than science or engineering. So what is considered to be the philosophy of technology. The book Readings in the Philosophy of Technology by David Kaplan has a really useful introduction.

Page xiv reads in part...

The world of technology is itself philosophically interesting - and not merely because it has important consequences. The philosophy of technology takes artifacts seriously and subjects them to the same kind of philosophical scrutiny reserved for the topics analysed by philosophers, such as language, logic and knowledge. Take for example a typical philosophy and technology concern, such as the spread of industrial pollution, stem cell research, and the environmental risks of genetically modified food. Typically, the debates focus on the pros and cons of making and using such things. We frame the issue in terms of things like costs and benefits, acceptable and unacceptable risks, desireable and undesirable consequences or sometimes as a clash between technological innovation  and traditional moral  or religious convictions . We then analyse the technology in terms of ready made philosophical concepts, usually moral and political concepts such as 'freedom', 'general welfare' and 'human nature'. This approach questions the limits of technology and asks whether or not societies should pursue this or that artifact or technical choice.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. It makes sense to analyse human creations in terms of their risks and consequences. But, from the point of view of the philosophy of technology, we can probe the matter more deeply and take into consideration the very nature of technology and not merely its external contingencies. We can question technology. We can examine it rather than take it for granted. We do not have to treat it as a 'black box', whose nature inaccessible but the engineer of technician. We can investigate the meaning, nature and moral character of technology and its practices just as we would any other object or phenomenon. We can, for example, examine why something was designed in a particular way, what technical and non-technical factors were at work; how it functions in relation to other artifacts/users/environments; how it transforms its users; and which ideas are embedded in it. Matters like these are internal to to artifacts and technological practices, not external to them. These types of issues refuse to treat technology as merely given and which we can examine only after the fact - as if things magically appear out of thin air. Instead we analyze technology like anything else that humans make or do. Philosophers and citizens have the same capacity to question things as experts. The key is to know what kinds of questions to ask and how to apply philosophical concepts to artifacts and devices. We have to question technology it is our responsibility.

Kaplan goes on later in the introduction to suggest that there have been 4 major approaches to the philosophy of technology.

1. technological neutrality - technology is only good or bad if it works or doesn't - technology is simply a tool. Moral consequences are carried by humans.

2. technological determinism. is the idea that technology drives history. Technologies 'precipitate' social development.

3. technological autonomy. Technology is an independent force that that follows its own rules and imperatives and society shapes around this. Taken to extreme - such as in sci-fi the technology literally is autonomous.

4. The social construction of technology. Society shapes and is shaped by technology. "far from being applied science, technology on this model is more like embodied humanity' (pxviii). "Almost all the contributors to the second edition of Readings in the Philosophy of Technology take a constructionist approach' (pxviii).

And that last sentence probably reflects that state of modern philosophy of technology. I certainly do not object in overall terms to the social construction picture, but what interests me is how elements of all four and perhaps others yet to be understood and labelled exist simultaneously.

Take for example the technological determinism position. In Brian Arthur's recent book on 'What is Technology' he provides some great straightforward illustrations of the machinery of technological change. Technology unfolds in a process of simpler entities to more complex ones from those based in one science (chemistry for example) to those which require knowledge of the interdependencies. These are not his but metal could not be discovered before fire etc, alloys before simpler metals. So technology does unfold in a particular order because it relies in part on an understanding of the natural world. To say it is embodied humanity is only a half truth it is also embodied - recreated nature.

Take a different example - we have the social concern at present to 'cure cancer' just as in earlier periods we would wanted cures for the black death or polio. However, treatments for these had to wait until our knowledge of the natural world was sufficiently broad and deep that we could integrate our knowledge. A cure for cancer will come quicker if it is a social concern as it is and we throw huge sums of money at it but it will only come when we know enough.

This in part explains why our ability to create digital technologies has outpaced those of energy or transport. Getting an object to fly through the air is difficult science and to make serious progress on it is hard won. The result is we made our huge gains relatively early and now each percentage point of efficiency comes with a large price tag.

Further, there are quasi autonomous or strong deterministic elements to technology. Once we do have a new technology, humans being the creature we are - it is hard for us to turn down the allure of change, new power etc.

Even, the idea of neutrality may have merits - tightly defined in particular circumstances and for particular reasons which would box off the consequences ( everything does have consequences) - because for the masses in any given population the socio-economic-technical world is constructed for a time around them in such a configuration that certain technologies are more or less neutral for them. But if you go and read you will see that I believe that use, scale (mass) and time affect these choices.

So for me the question is not which of the four is right, the question is can we discuss the boundaries of these choices and invent new ones as well.

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