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Neutral vs. Neutralized Technology

March 28, 2010
Class with Oliver O’Donovan last week was unusually enlightening even by the high standards of that class.  Deep insights and great quotes poured from the sage professor in a sparkling effusion, and I couldn’t take notes fast enough (especially as I had to use pen and paper).  Some of the most interesting thoughts came on the question of how we should view technology from an ethical standpoint--is technology neutral?  (The texts for the class were two fantastic essays on technology by the Canadian philosopher George Grant).  
It is a standard platitude among--well, among most anybody in mainstream Western thought, but particularly among conservatives, including, more often than not, Christian conservatives--that “technology is a neutral tool; it isn’t good or evil in itself, it depends on how you use it.”  The problem with that seeming truism is that the two halves of the statement are not saying the same thing.
It is a truism that any technology is not good or evil in itself, for indeed, only actions, not objects, are good or evil.  But it does not follow from this that the object or technology is a neutral tool--that is to say, that we can use it however we would like, for good or evil, that it does not incline, by its nature, toward certain good or evil uses.
Take, for instance, a large nuclear warhead.  In itself, it is neither good nor evil.  I could build one simply to put in my backyard as a piece of decoration.  It might be imprudent and wasteful, but not necessarily evil...certainly, the weapon in itself wouldn’t be evil.  But this would be basically because I had decided not to use the weapon, since sticking it in my backyard would hardly constitute a use.  It would be impossible to use this piece of technology, at all sensibly, in a way that was not evil.  So, a large nuclear weapon is not simply a neutral tool like a hammer--it is a tool that works for certain purposes, and that cannot be morally used for those purposes.  
This is an extreme example, but it proves the point--all technologies that we develop are inclined to work in certain ways, and to force us to use them in certain ways rather than others, if they are to be at all useful.  If they are significant enough, they will begin to mold our lives in certain new and fundamental ways, and these will not be “neutral”--they will have, perhaps, certain features that we could call “good,” and others that will certainly be “evil” and lamentable. 
The computer, of course, is a preeminent example (and is the one that Grant himself chooses).  The computer has of course had a profound impact on how we live our lives--we are as much subject to it as it is subject to us.  It is certainly not a mere tool in our hands, for us to do with as we will, like the hammer (if even the hammer is that).  And while this impact has been good in certain ways, in other ways it has been terrible--according to O’Donovan, especially on the university.  The computer’s predisposition to record what is measurable and quantifiable has meant that its adoption by the educational system has driven the educational system to focus on precisely what are the least significant features of education--those that are measurable and quantifiable.  The result, according to O’Donovan, is that the university, historically understood, is now in its death throes.  This is not a “neutral” development.  For some, it might be a good development.  For those with more sense, it is almost certainly an evil development.  The email, too, as O’Donovan discussed, is a tremendously convenient innovation, yet one with an almost limitless capacity for harm, posing entirely novel temptations and risks for our society.  Technology, then, is not neutral; it is quite perilous.  
A blithe confidence in technology, then, a careless indifference to the way it shapes our lives in directions that we may not wish to go, is not a responsible ethical posture for Christians.  Does this mean that we must be Amish and flee technology?  Does this mean that if we foresee the risks of the computer, of email, of mechanized agriculture, etc., that we must simply slam on the brakes and retreat from these non-neutral developments?  
No, because, though they may not be neutral, that does not mean they cannot be neutralized, in O’Donovan’s terminology.  If we do not naively imagine that the computer is a neutral tool, and we embrace it as a society with open eyes, well aware of the changes we are facing and the risks we are incurring, then we will be in a position to make careful moral judgments and establish social disciplines and limitations to neutralize the harm that might be caused by a careless use of the new technology.  For instance, we might seek to consciously establish social conventions regulating the use of email, or make decisions within communities and institutions what sort of dialogues and functions could be legitimately carried out by email.  We might seek to develop computer technology in directions that would counteract its tendency to promote institutional homogeneity (as has in fact now begun to happen with the tools the internet has provided).  
This posture, however, would require three things that we are not necessarily willing to do as a society: 1) establish limitations on the ways that new technologies can be used--e.g., the kind of internet censorship that everyone acts like is a short step from Stalin; 2) be willing to say an absolute “no” to certain kinds of technology--just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should do it (e.g., a lot of the issues surrounding genetic engineering); 3) be willing to slow down the pace of technological growth.  As it stands now, we are simply innovating far faster than we as a society can digest what new technologies mean, craft appropriate responses, and cultivate the moral discipline to use them properly.  All sides of the political spectrum seem to presuppose that unhampered innovation is the way to go, and that the solution to all our problems is more and faster innovation.  But, if we are not going to be destroyed by our own creations, we must be willing to focus less of our energies on developing new technologies, and more on learning how to wisely use the ones we have.  
This posture, recommended by O’Donovan, seems to me to be the clearest and most intelligent an approach to the ethics of technology that I have yet heard.  Commonsensical, really, and avoiding the unnecessary radicalism of an Amish approach, yet, when you get down to it, still very radical in its own way; perhaps too radical for our inebriated technological society to ever hear.  

10 comments:

That sounds about right. Technology leans beneficial or harmful in different areas and different ways, and we need to be careful.

Practically, I think it's really just a matter of maturity. If people are patient, aren't carried away by fads, and recognize that just because someone tells you a new web technology will save you time doesn't mean it actually will, then technological innovation slows and filters down to what is actually good and helpful.

Really, there's two things at play here. First, being able to look down the road and see how technology effects things. Email is great, and so are blogs, because they make communication easier. But they also multiply and cheapen it. Second, because no one can predict all the results of technology, being able to realize when something is having a bad effect on you and pulling back from it, in spite of its advantages.

And that's why it's a matter of mature individuals and good communities. If good relationships, sabbath feasting, and proper perspectives on work and rest are a part of your community, then people won't get carried away with trying to save another 15 minutes in their day so they can squeeze out that much more work. And sexy applications will be just that: good-looking programs without a whole lot of substance.

Sorry, that was a bit of a rant. Working with web technology makes me simultaneously grumpy about web technology, but also pleased with products that are actually helpful. Blogging should be resisted more. Twitter just seems like the natural result of people wanting to talk too much on the web. And then there's the applications where you can update your location, so everyone knows where you are, one of the stupidest applications I've heard of yet.
That being said, blogging is helpful. So are web applications that help you build web sites (Squarespace is excellent). E-commerce is an excellent innovation, for some products. The the internet does wonders for video and music, without destroying the market for live music.

And I'll stop there, because I'm still rambling.

March 28, 2010 at 7:34 PM  

Hey Donny, thanks for the ramble. And thanks for having the politeness to add near the end "blogging is helpful." ;-)

The only thing I'd add (augmenting, rather than correcting what you've said) is that I don't want us just to say it's a matter of mature individuals; we need to have mature communities capable of dealing with technology on a public level. Conservatives talk as if "personal responsibility" is the solution to all problems, but this isn't Biblical--Biblically, we show concern for and protect the weaker brother. This means that we don't just say, "Oh, I'm mature enough to handle this new technology in an appropriate way, and everyone else should be too"--rather, we say, "This technology can have harmful effects on those who are not able to use it prudently; therefore, we have a responsibility as a community to promote a disciplined use of it for the protection of society."
Now, this kind of language raises all kinds of nanny-state alarms for conservatives. And I need to think through a bit more how to deal with those alarms...as an initial point, I would say that the main problem with the nanny-state is its scale, not its goals. If we had a small city-state deciding to censor the internet for the protection of its citizens, I wouldn't have the same fears I do with giving that power to an entity the size of the US gov't.

But now I'm in danger of rambling.

March 30, 2010 at 10:27 AM  

And that's where you lose me. Maybe on an incredibly small scale, as in, pockets of hundreds of people. And even then, not so much as laws/restrictions, but just having a communal discussion about it so we can exhort one another.

Aside from that, I just don't see the point. You'd just squash too many good things in the name of safety, or you'd let so many bad things by, it would defeat the purpose. Public law just isn't very agile.

And to illustrate it, can you think of a law that would actually do what your saying? Better than an exhortation? Without crippling legitimate progress?

March 30, 2010 at 4:39 PM  

Yes, Donny, I can think of several, and I think that if
you thought about it, you would realize that you are not as against this principle as you claim to be (unless you are a radical libertarian, and I don't think of you that way).
So, some examples.
--speed limits on automobiles.
--prohibition of internet porn. This is not law, but I think we would agree that it ought to be.
--agreements limiting the number and size of nuclear weapons
--decisions to forbid human cloning, or certain kinds of embryonic research
--limitations on who is allowed to buy and use certain guns and explosive materials.

All of these are laws limiting how we can use certain technologies and trying to impose a discipline on us to use them wisely. The only reason we don't think of them as such is because we take them for granted and they seem eminently sensible. There is no difference in principle between laws like these and a law, say, forbidding anyone under 30 to buy or operate a computer; the only difference is that we think this will do more harm than good, whereas we generally think that a similar law relating to automatic weapons will do more good than harm.

April 1, 2010 at 8:18 AM  

Oh, I meant more along the lines of technological advances like blogs, Twitter, etc. Law seems too clumsy to deal with those kinds of issues.

As far as the laws you mentioned go, similar points could be made on a number of those, too, but I'd rather not get into those issues. I'm more familiar with web technology than nuclear warheads.

April 1, 2010 at 3:44 PM  

Sure, I agree, there should not be laws against Twitter; perhaps we were talking past each other.
(Though I have no problem with smaller organizations--say, schools or colleges--banning their students from Twitter. I know--just call me Bob Jones. :-D)

April 1, 2010 at 4:47 PM  

Not Bob Jones. Just a commie-fascist progressive.

April 1, 2010 at 5:04 PM  

I have to say something in defense of the Amish.

You said things like, 'Does this mean that we must be Amish and flee technology?', describing their stance as '...the unnecessary radicalism of an Amish approach.' Perhaps you aren't aware of the nuances of the Amish philosophy. (Disclaimer: Take everything I'm about to say with a grain of salt; I derive it wholly from personal conversations with Amish and Mennonite men and women. Therefore, I'm unsure how representative it is of their respective theologies as a whole.)

Amish communities do not flee from technology wholesale. Their elders and leaders carefully consider new technologies, analysing how they may affect the life of the church or community (either positively or negatively), and then proceed to discuss and vote on measures to take on either allowing, banning, or limiting the use of said technology. This is why you see practices and rules in Amish and Mennonite communities that look 'inconsistent' to outsiders. Our Amish carpenter, for example, was allowed to use a telephone for his business so long as it was a part of the big telephone pole outside next to his barn, and never came inside the house. His community had decided that telephone technology would probably be detrimental for home, family, and the immediate community, but probably positive for the carpentry business. Likewise, he used electric saws and woodworking equipment freely, because his church had decided such technology had only foreseeably good effects on the community and Church.

Bradford, the advice you described in this post was, and I quote: 1) establish limitations on the ways that new technologies can be used; 2) be willing to say an absolute “no” to certain kinds of technology; 3) be willing to slow down the pace of technological growth. Personally, I know of no better description of the Amish posture. Granted, their decisions on when to limit technology and when to say 'no' might be more conservative than your decisions....but to my knowledge, this is basically the Amish position.

April 6, 2010 at 1:06 PM  

Thanks, Brad, for the qualifier. Yes, that was careless of me, especially because Dr. Northcott said some things last term that described the Amish position much as you have here. I more meant the references to them as a kind of shorthand to refer to "the anti-technology extreme, which many associate with the Amish," but I shouldn't have reinforced the stereotype for convenience's sake.

April 6, 2010 at 6:36 PM  

Yes, thanks Brad. Now I have a new category in my mind: Amish Anglo-catholic.

April 6, 2010 at 6:40 PM  

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