Monday, 9 October 2017

On technological choices

Even though it is easy to argue that I may not be alive today were it not for modern western medecine, I have always been skeptical of the assumed benefits of technologies. Rather, I would contend that they simply bring a different context to life: they do not hold the power to make it happier, nor, for example, to make me a better person. My skepticism increases dramatically when watching the news. There the destructive powers of modern technologies, backed up by corporations and the establishment, is on daily display: our arsenals able to destroy the planet many times over, our increasingly destructive fossil fuel extraction methods. 

Yet working alongside engineers and witnessing their enthusiasm, I am faced with the fact that technologies are an unalienable part of life: a way for human creativity to express itself. This realisation shifted my focus from the technologies themselves to understanding the motivations behind technological choices. Technologies are a means to an end, but there are many ways to solve a given problem: to use a topical example, we can take the risk to frack for gas or invest in renewables. Given the current planetary context, it is urgent to understand by whom and how the decisions are made and much is to be learned from the social history of technology.

The common, predominant view is that of ‘technological determinism’: technologies develop ‘naturally’ as a by-product of scientific progress or following their own logic. They provide the best possible solution and society merely adapts to them. This position, simplistic at best, is convincingly challenged in MacKenzie & Wajcman’s collection of essays The Social Shaping of Technology [1]. They argue that technological determinism is not only wrong, but also dangerous since it encourages passivity in front of technological developments and impoverishes the public debate. 

Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of Plato’s version of the myth of Prometheus [2]. In this story, seeing how defenseless people were at the dawn of creation, Prometheus stole for them the fire and crafts from Hephaestus and Athena. Each person received a different ability so that together people were able to feed, clothe and protect themselves. Groups formed, but too small to defend efficiently against predators, yet when people tried to unite into larger communities, they would inevitably disagree and fight for they did not know how to organise themselves. Eventually Zeus took pity on them and sent the gift of civic arts to all people, so that everyone would share a sense of justice and the ability to take part in politics. Adapted to our discussion, the point here is that technological development should be subordinate to the political debate in its ideal form: the art of reaching agreements for the common good. All of us have the right, and the duty, to be a voice in that debate.



[1] D.A. MacKenzie & J. Wajcman, The Social Shaping of Technology, 2nd edition, Open University Press, 1999.
[2] Plato, Protagoras in Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 3 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1967.

No comments:

Post a Comment