Philosophy of Technology

Below is my first essay for PHIL401, Philosophy of Technology. It is a rebuttal to another essay, and I thought it turned out well enough to share:

According to Winston, the most important reasons for the philosophical investigation of science and technology are that a) science and technology are socially constructed; the biases of any given society will determine how much and in what areas scientific advancement will be made, as well as determining how that knowledge will be practically adapted into technology; b) that new technologies might be used in dangerous ways (such as the atomic bomb); and c) new technology carries a risk of unforeseen, dangerous impact on our lives(such as the destruction of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons).

I agree with Mr. Winston that the first point is important, although I’m not sure that it’s as important to “philosophically examine technology” as it is to keep epistemology up to date with scientific investigation. As for the second point, Mr. Winston himself shows how hollow it is: a toaster, as he says, can be used to “lightly burn bread… or as a hand-warmer or a murder weapon.” Technology is completely amoral. It is entirely up to the human being whether the toaster is used to burn bread (which might also be accomplished with an open flame), to warm hands (which could be done by simply rubbing them together), or to commit murder (which can be done any number of ways without the toaster, or any technology at all). As for the third point, every negative impact Mr. Watson lists is an unintended, indeed unforeseeable, consequence. The only way to prevent unforeseeable consequences of technological advancement is to prohibit all technological advancement, which is neither possible nor desirable. As much as some people like to complain, the fact is that the more technologically developed any given society is, the longer, more accomplished and more comfortable are the lives of the members of that society.

I am neither a “techno-optimist” nor a “techno-pessimist,” and I believe that these are false choices. I cannot be a “techno-pessimist,” because I can see that the constant advancement of technology has a generally positive impact: even if a job is lost to a bank teller, for instance, because of an ATM, that ATM now needs people to stock it with money, to service it mechanically and electronically, to program it, to provide security for it… etc. Similarly, while the air in New York City is generally unpleasant due to the constant exhaust of industry and automobiles, it is far less unpleasant than it was 100 years ago, when New York was full of smokestacks and the diseases and parasites carried in tons of horse manure. Nor can I be a “techno-optimist,” since the idea that technology can solve all of humanity’s problems is simply ridiculous. Even if we were able to craft perfect, undying bodies with perfect knowledge… what would we do? We would succumb to utter boredom.

Mr. Winston would say that his reason for “critically examining” technology is to keep people safe. This is, of course, nonsense; as I’ve pointed out, technology itself doesn’t harm people, it is the use to which people put it; further, any unforeseeable consequences of such use are, well, unforeseeable. The simple fact of the matter is that Mr. Winston believes that people must be kept under control, and in particular under the control of himself and people who think like him.

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2 responses to “Philosophy of Technology

  1. Nicely done. Toasters don't kill people, Pop Tarts kill people…Technology, much like money, is, for the most part, an intensifier. It allows humans to have more impact, whatever the intent. However, technology also can be an driver of social forces, not just a tool. I'm wondering where all this texting and internet interaction will lead our society…

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