Friday, May 24th: CSET Hosts Professor Evan Selinger

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This Friday, May 24th, CSET will be hosting a talk by Evan Selinger, professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Professor Selinger is the author, along with Brett Frischmann, of Re-Engineering Humanity and has been widely published on matters of technology, ethics, and society.

He will deliver his talk virtually to an audience gathered at the Greystone Theological Institute in the Pittsburgh area (505 Chestnut St, Coraopolis, PA). Those who are not able to join us on site can also join the talk virtually. The talk will begin at 7PM and will be followed by a time for questions and discussion.

For more information, please visit the registration page. There is no cost, but registration is required for those wanting to catch the talk online.

Appraising a Christian Appraisal of Modern Technology

Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal by Craig Gay

Review by W. Jackson Watts

“Modern automatic machine technologies,” to use author and professor Craig Gay’s formulation, are reshaping our present, and, in so doing, reshaping the future as well. Believers and unbelievers agree on this, though some are more sanguine than others about that fact. In the face of this situation, Gay seeks to address the dearth of wisdom through his recent book, Modern Technology and the Human Future: A Christian Appraisal (IVP, 2018).

Gay is not a latecomer to the body of “tech criticism” published in recent years. His 1998 book The Way of the (Modern) World, offered substantial analysis of the nature of technology. Gay opens his new book by making clear his personal and professional indebtedness to modern technology and its many benefits. Indeed, he argues that we must acknowledge those benefits if we’re to honestly evaluate modern technology. Thus, he offers this book-length treatment in the spirit of helping readers assess both the harm and profit modern automatic machine technologies bring to human life and society (xii).

How is Modern Technology Impacting Human Beings?

In chapter one, Gay carefully reviews the multi-faceted implications of our modern technological milieu, focusing on our habits of thought, concentration, and learning; the workforce; and personal relationships. His aim in describing the impact technology is having in these areas may cause the skeptical reader to see the problems as tied solely to intent or agency: better foresight should easily forestall certain negative effects. Yet the technological narrative itself is one of good intentions and creativity coupled with our inability to imagine the possible consequences of unhinging technological development from a consideration technology’s proper ends and its true nature. As philosopher Bruce Little once remarked to me, in a technique-driven culture ends become irrelevant. A point frequently made by Jacques Ellul.

Gay cites George Grant who famously noted how difficult it is to “comprehend technique beyond its own dynamism” (34). In other words, it is very difficult to stand outside of the effects, mindset, and culture that technology creates and see it with clarity. Yet Gay manages to provide significant reasons why all parties should agree that modern automatic machine technology isn’t entirely beneficial. Drawing on the work of McLuhan, Berger, Carr, and other recent research, Gay convincingly shows the disruptive effects of technology on human concentration, the workforce, and social relationships.

These disruptive effects, however, have been offset (at least in most people’s minds) by the gains and benefits. No one wants to challenge this status quo. A hyper-technological future seems much more appealing than a pre-technological past. Progress, if defined in terms of material welfare, is hard to debate or challenge. Of course, if we begin with the assumption that whatever is easier is better, then on that basis it is hard to evaluate the true costs of machine technology, not thinking that perhaps something that requires toil may actually be good or healthy for us.

One of the more original and nuanced aspects of Gay’s book is his attention to the role of money in technological development. The logic of money is a far-reaching and often unexplored reason why we cannot “comprehend technique from beyond its own dynamism.” (58). There is too much at stake. Gay contends the main reason why “there has not been more resistance to modern technological development” is due to how closely it is connected to economic interests (57).

Where Are We Headed?

Gay utilizes two metaphors from physics to help readers understand the nature of modern technological development. The momentum of technology has increased profoundly in the last 150 years, driving civilization further into a future it isn’t prepared for. Inertia refers to the direction of this development, best known as automatism. These two dynamics, momentum and inertia, constitute factors that increasingly make embodied human beings unnecessary, and so overcoming them will require a concerted effort (60).

How this trajectory has been set is the focus of chapter two. The emergence of money and later capitalism provided a potent environment for industrialization to not only occur, but to transform the way human beings thought about time, space, and technological possibility. Ironically, many religious influences, namely the Protestant understanding of vocation, helped to underwrite this emerging mindset. As Gay explains, within the new Protestant ethic, “believers were all but mandated to improve the material conditions of life by inventing new devices, increasing productivity, diminishing the costs of production, hastening transport, facilitating communications, and opening up new markets for distribution. This ethic was naturally open to the practical empiricism of early-modern science” (71). One hears the echoes of Baconian thought here, only being worked out in a nation on the precipice of a total economic and technological transformation.

Drawing on the analysis of Lewis Mumford and Max Weber primarily, Gay explains the social and economic context created by, anticipated by, and followed by technological development. “The fact that a good deal of modern technology has developed within the context of the market economy also helps to interpret the increasingly dizzying pace of technological change, as well as the restlessness and insatiability that characterizes contemporary culture” (82). The demand for growth, combined with the ideology of human progress, and the willingness of people to believe in the promises of technology constitute the main drivers of modern technology’s momentum and inertia (77).

These developments have also produced an environment where more and more people are convinced “that ‘reality’ is something that we can redesign” (84). “The assumption that reality can be mastered also contains the implicit metaphysical assumption that no mysterious and/or incalculable forces bear upon our spheres of interest and activity” (88-89). This precludes not only God’s existence, but also the notion of a telos to the universe or any final human purpose beyond material well-being.

The Technological Worldview

How have so many found themselves caught in the momentum and inertia of modern technological development? In chapter three, Gay explains that machine technology was always intended to function automatically, mostly independent of human engagement, unhindered by human frailty or limitation. It is clear to many observers, however, that this has left behind countless laborers in our modern economy. But there is still a widespread feeling of inevitability that we must accept. Gay attributes this to a technological worldview, a worldview in which technology, as Martin Heidegger once argued, is the prevailing metaphysic of the modern age.

Our technologically-savvy milieu encourages the view that modern life is mostly a series of problems to be solved with technology. This is further exacerbated by the way the logic of money and capitalism propels people to embrace means which focus more on quantitative achievements than qualitative ones (as they are the same to many modern people). Furthermore, our commitment to progress requires such innovations. The technological worldview promotes “instrumentalism, functionalism, and the engineering mentality,” which in the end objectifies the natural world as well as people (98).

The tools themselves aren’t all that have fostered the technological worldview. Drawing on the dated but still helpful analysis of Lewis Mumford, Gay reminds us that a “change of mind, a new way of looking at the world and a new estimation of human purposes within it” predated the rise of modern machinery (99). Described as the “mechanical world picture,” Gay outlines how Cartesian thought, Protestantism’s “duty of mastery,” and other medieval-to-modern developments contributed to the means-oriented, problem-solving, technique-driven mindset which is the technological worldview. His analysis of Heidegger’s ideas of “enframing,” or the modern way of seeing the world and envisioning human purpose, is especially insightful. If the world is merely a collection of raw materials to be used, then any inherent value and telos of human life suffers the same fate as the technologies that have long since been surpassed by their modern, automated successors.

Automatic machine technology has increasingly drifted from a vision of flourishing essential to ordinary embodied human existence. Is there “something outside of ourselves that might direct and discipline—and thus give order to—human making and willing”? (129). Gay tries to point to this something in chapter four.

Where We Are and Who We Were

According to Gay, modern secular thought is in no position to offer society a credible response, protest, or critique of current technological developments or the prevailing technological worldview. However, the implications of the gospel have the unique resources to do just this. That is, if we understand the gospel not as an escape plan to an ethereal world, but the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the present age, to a reigning, resurrected Christ who first took on flesh and dwelt among us, then we have an answer.

Gay acknowledges that not all churches are equally prepared to offer this response, for so many Christians have acquiesced to modern technology due to a “mistaken ‘otherworldliness’ and this fascination with technological possibilities” (134). They have overlooked the significant of embodiment, incarnation, and resurrection. However, for Christians willing to “re-remember,” there is within the Christian faith a basis to celebrate God’s creation, the gift of human embodiment within that order, and the vocations to which we are called in this world. This recovery of memory is possible when creation, fall, redemption, and consummation are the matrix through which we understand reality, including who God is, what the world is like, who human beings are, and God’s good design for them. Gay’s main thrust continues to be the centrality of the body as the “very means by which and in which our spirits are enabled, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to love God and neighbor and to do our necessary work in the world” (153). The nature of this work is significantly altered, undermined, or even rendered unnecessary by automatic machine technology.

This latter concern is woven throughout the book. Though modern technologies no doubt make our lives easier, cheaper, and more convenient, promises of a better life often obscure the ways in which dealing with natural limits and resistance are essential to learning, development of virtues like patience, and depending on God’s grace to help us overcome adversity, not our cleverly-devised tools. Indeed, drawing on Luther’s theology of the cross, Gay suggests that while loving our neighbor often entails alleviating forms of suffering, this suffering is also the place where “the living God often chooses to meet us” (165). In other words, relief from suffering and hardship requires discernment in order to avoid some of the idolatrous tendencies bound up in technological remedies.

What Can We Do?

How might we begin to “comprehend technique beyond its own dynamism?” Naturally, the earliest chapters implicitly and explicitly provide affirmations that are essential to this discernment. But Gay offers a bit more in chapter five. Specifically, he calls for repentance when it comes to the prideful pursuit of autonomy, which is itself built on the lie that it is up to human beings to define who they are. He also says we must repent of the vision of the world in which nature is inert, raw material waiting for us to determine its value and use. Beyond these, we must “refuse to abet the disintegrating tendencies” in our world, while recognizing our responsibility to make the world “endurable so that the gospel stands some chance of being heard” (170). Christians should seek to model grace and freedom as much as possible, which constitute a rejection of the latent determinism that is often assumed in our modern technological society. Gay helps tease out what this may entail, especially when it comes to family life and social life more generally. His suggestions are more than a mere five-step plan. He insists that Christians must think deeply about what constitutes genuinely human purposes, and how those sorts of purposes might be attained appropriately. We must “insist that personal ends simply cannot be achieved through exclusively impersonal means” (188). So then in the pursuit of cultivating a vital social life, for example, constant manipulation and compression of time and space, no matter how impressive, may not be acceptable concessions to make.

The book ends with a personal conclusion and an epilogue that discusses how the Eucharist is a key Christian practice infused with the assumptions and affirmations that can help Christians see and reject technology’s false promises more clearly. Gay concludes by saying that insomuch that technology can “enable us to become more fully ourselves, more delightfully related to one another, more thoughtfully engaged in and with created reality, and better attuned to the voice and will of the living God,” then it may serve a proper place in Christian life” (227).

Response

Readers of Craig Gay’s other writings had long waited for a fuller treatment of technology, and they won’t be disappointed. His analysis ranges from the economic to the theological, from the medieval age until the present, and from the philosophical to the practical. Though some of his arguments are repetitive in places, he helpfully situates the reader to understand technology from “beyond its own dynamism,” to return to the Grant quote that drives Gay’s effort.

The book’s subtitle is important: “A Christian Appraisal.” In saying this Gay is not committing himself to a purely theological appraisal, though his work provides helpful theological insight. But this is worth pointing out as it reminds the reader that this is an interdisciplinary effort by a professor of interdisciplinary studies. It also may account for some interesting choices when theological analysis is provided. For example, Irenaeus of Lyons is utilized significantly in Gay’s perspective on creation, fall, and redemption. This early church father’s thought on these subjects is not without its tensions.

The use of Augustine alongside Irenaeus points to how the Reformed tradition could further illuminate Gay’s suggestions for how technology could appropriately foster authentic human being. The creation or cultural mandate, as developed by Reformed theologians working with Genesis 1 and 2, would have been a fruitful place for Gay to extend his discussion about how technology might have a place in human beings’ work as image bearers. This is hinted at in places, but as there are many in the Christian community who believe the cultural mandate still provides a basis after the fall, for robust cultural development, further engagement with this line of thought could have been useful.

Gay’s contribution is sweeping and impressive. He engages the most important parties, and considers layers of this discussion sometimes overlooked. Gay is right when he cites George Grant. The challenge is to make sense of technology from beyond its own dynamic impact will require honesty with history, science, economics, and Scripture. But it first requires honesty with how our own lives are so deeply implicated with the benefits of technology.


Jackson Watts (PhD, Concordia Seminary) is a St. Louis-area pastor and writer. He has written or edited two books, and is a contributor and senior editor for the Helwys Society Forum. He is interested in cultural studies, pastoral theology, and especially the relationship between technology and spiritual formation and ecclesiology. He and his wife reside in Pevely, Missouri.

Would Aristotle Own AirPods?

By Andrew Sears

Apple’s recent announcement of its second-generation AirPods brought to mind a 2016 article written by Michael Brandt on the eve of the initial AirPods release. Titled “AirPods Aren’t Headphones, They’re Apple’s First Implants,” the article argued that AirPods are designed to operate more like a device inside your head than a device worn on your ear. For Brandt, this represented “a paradigm shift […] where the seam between human and computer is disappearing.” Having now owned a pair of AirPods for about three months, I agree with him.

I purchased my pair of AirPods because I wanted a more convenient headphone. I was looking to do the same things I’d always done – listen to music while working, talk on the phone while driving, listen to podcasts while flying – with greater ease. It never crossed my mind that my AirPods might induce entirely new behaviors and habits, but that’s exactly what has happened. My AirPods have altered the way that I experience and interact with the world in subtle but meaningful ways.

Thanks to my AirPods, I now watch Netflix while doing the dishes. I listen to podcasts while grocery shopping and audiobooks while walking around campus. AirPods have made consuming digital content so convenient that I hardly ever have reason to stop. As Brandt wrote, they’re “default in, as opposed to […] default out” like traditional headphones.

My new habits are great news for tech companies whose revenue depends on consumption of digital content, but they often leave me feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Moments in my daily rhythms that used to provide important space for mental rest, passive meditation, and daydreaming are now often filled with “content.” My inner voice is drowned out by the voices of Ira Glass and Glynn Washington. I feel isolated in public spaces that once lent themselves to spontaneous encounters and human interaction.

It’s surprising that a seemingly innocuous product could affect my life in such tangible ways. But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising at all. Summarizing Aristotle’s argument in Nicomachean Ethics, philosopher Will Durant famously wrote “we are what we repeatedly do.” Our habits shape our virtues, our vices, our values, and our personalities. And, increasingly, our devices shape our habits. Any device that mediates our experience of or interaction with the world is bound to influence the way that we behave in it.

Today’s technology products are engineered to elicit particular behaviors and – over time – to inculcate certain habits that align with the revenue models of tech companies. Nicholas Carr articulates this better than anyone in his excellent essay I Am a Data Factory (And So Are You):

“Data does not lie passively within me, like a seam of ore, waiting to be extracted. Rather, I actively produce data through the actions I take over the course of a day. […] The platform companies, in turn, […]  seek control of my actions, which to them are production processes, in order to optimize the efficiency, quality, and value of my data output (and, on the demand side of the platform, my data consumption). They want to script and regulate the work of […] my life. […] And they exercise this command through the design of their software, which increasingly forms the medium of everything we all do during our waking hours.”

Within this paradigm, AirPods represent a category of product that may be particularly lucrative for tech companies and particularly insidious for consumers: novel products that feel familiar. Products that change the behavior of their users while making their users believe that nothing has changed.

People don’t buy AirPods because they want to change their media consumption habits. People buy AirPods because they want a more convenient headphone. This is evidently what Apple believes, at least: nearly every line of marketing content on the AirPods product page screams ease, simplicity, and convenience. But by making it easier to consume digital content, AirPods make it easier to keep your attention focused on your iPhone and harder for you to pull yourself away.

Perhaps this is the foundation upon which the entire smartphone era is built. Early advertisements for the iPhone focused on apps that helped people accomplish familiar tasks with greater ease: banking, shopping, calorie counting, finding where you parked your car. The phrase “there’s an app for that” worked because of its implied ending: “there’s an app for that thing you already find yourself needing to do in your day-to-day life.” Apple didn’t market the iPhone as a device that would fundamentally transform the way that people relate to each other and the world around them, but that’s exactly what it’s done. Maybe that’s exactly what it was designed to do.


Andrew Sears has driven innovation at companies like IBM, IDEO, and Genesis Mining with a focus on AI and blockchain products. He serves as an Advisor at All Tech is Human and will complete his MBA at Duke University in 2020. You can keep up with his work at http://www.andrew-sears.com/.

CSET Events to Look Forward to in 2019

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As 2019 approaches, we are in the mist of finalizing plans for our first full year of events and activities.

There are three developments we are especially excited to announce. First, beginning in January, CSET will be hosting a reading group focused on Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s Reengineering Humanity. The group will meet once monthly through the spring. The core group will meet in central Florida and will be guided by CSET’s director, Michael Sacasas. We are working on an online option for those who want to join the discussion virtually. Time and exact location will be announced soon.

We are also very pleased to announce two public lectures to be held in Pittsburgh. The spring lecture, tentatively scheduled for mid-to-late May, will be delivered by Evan Selinger, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and one of our most insightful writers on the ethical dimensions of digital technology. Along with Reengineering Humanity, Selinger has written extensively on the technology for outlets including The Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor, and BBC Future.

Our fall lecture will be delivered by Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, an Affiliate Fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project, and a member of the Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society. Like Selinger, Pasquale is a highly-respected and widely-published scholar and among the wisest voices helping us make sense of the emerging challenges posed by digital technology. In 2015, he published The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information.

CSET is honored to host these two outstanding scholars and we hope you can make it to these lectures if you find yourself in Pittsburgh.

Along with the reading group and our two public lectures, we are working on a handful of additional events bringing people together to participate in a sustained conversation about technology and the moral life. Stay tuned for more details as they become available.

Additionally, our first newsletter will be out soon (you can subscribe here) and you can also expect regular postings on the blog.

We’re excited to be ramping up our efforts! Please feel free to let others know about CSET and our work.

Mediations

The name of CSET’s blog, Mediations, gestures in two directions.

To begin with, it is helpful to think about all technologies, not just media technologies, as mediators. Technologies mediate our experience of the world. They enter into the circuit of mind, body, and world. Often they mediate our perception, shaping how we see the world or even how we see ourselves. They mediate our interactions with others, shaping our politics and our institutions. Technology also mediates our action in the world. In this mediating role, technology is never neutral. This does not mean that its consequences are necessarily positive or negative, or even consequential. But it does mean that we ought to consider how they give shape to the world we inhabit and and how we make our way in it.

There is one other consideration that explains why we chose Mediations as the title CSET’s blog. We understand our work, in part, as a work of mediation.

We urgently need to come to a better understanding of the consequences of technological change. Unfortunately, most of what passes for public discussions of technology, with some notable exceptions, remains superficial and unhelpful, often alternating between naive cheerleading or reactionary pessimism. More helpful work happens among scholars of technology, including historians, philosophers, and social scientists. There also exists a longstanding tradition of technology criticism going back more than a century. This tradition remains an important source of insight and wisdom, but it is largely forgotten.

Part of our work, then, is to take up a mediating role, bridging these gaps and making the work of contemporary scholars and forgotten writers more widely accessible. In this way we hope to deepen the public conversation about technology and introduce readers to perspectives that will help them navigate the realm of modern technology more wisely.

There is another gap we aim to bridge, another act of mediation we hope to pull off. The work of many of our most compelling critics of modern technology has been informed by their theological commitments. Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, Ivan Illich, Walter Ong, and Albert Borgmann come readily to mind. However, this work is not widely known among either people of faith or the wider public. We believe this is valuable work and we aim to bring its wisdom to bear on contemporary technology.

We believe this work of mediation will be indispensable as we try to make sense of the world we inhabit and the technology that gives it its distinctive character. We believe, as well, that this is urgent work and we trust you will find it helpful and also encouraging. Our hope is that Mediations will supply a unique voice—informed, irenic, thoughtful, patient—in our present media ecosystem, one that you can rely on to help you live wisely and faithfully with technology.

Stay tuned.

Technopoly and Antihumanism

Back in May, Nicholas Carr wrote a sharp blog post critically examining Moira Weigel and Ben Tarnoff's "Why Silicon Valley Can't Fix Itself." 

The first half of Carr's response engages an earlier piece by Tarnoff and another by Evgeny Morozov that take for granted the data mining metaphor and deploy it in an argument for public ownership of data.

Carr is chiefly concerned with the mining metaphor and how it shapes our understanding of the problem. If Facebook, Google, etc. are mining our data, that in turn suggests something about our role in the process. It conceives of the human being as raw material. Carr suggests we consider another metaphor, not very felicitous either as he notes, that of the factory. We are not raw material, we are producers: we produce data by our actions. Here's the difference:

"The factory metaphor makes clear what the mining metaphor obscures: We work for the Facebooks and Googles of the world, and the work we do is increasingly indistinguishable from the lives we lead. The questions we need to grapple with are political and economic, to be sure. But they are also personal, ethical, and philosophical."

This then leads Carr into a discussion of the Weigel/Tarnoff piece, which is itself a brief against the work of the new tech humanists.

Carr's whole discussion is worth reading, but here are two selections that were especially well put. First:

"But Tarnoff and Weigel’s suggestion is the opposite of the truth when it comes to the broader humanist tradition in technology theory and criticism. It is the thinkers in that tradition — Mumford, Arendt, Ellul, McLuhan, Postman, Turkle, and many others — who have taught us how deeply and subtly technology is entwined with human history, human society, and human behavior, and how our entanglement with technology can produce effects, often unforeseen and sometimes hidden, that may run counter to our interests, however we choose to define those interests.

Though any cultural criticism will entail the expression of values — that’s what gives it bite — the thrust of the humanist critique of technology is not to impose a particular way of life on us but rather to give us the perspective, understanding, and know-how necessary to make our own informed choices about the tools and technologies we use and the way we design and employ them. By helping us to see the force of technology clearly and resist it when necessary, the humanist tradition expands our personal and social agency rather than constricting it."

And:

"Nationalizing collective stores of personal data is an idea worthy of consideration and debate. But it raises a host of hard questions. In shifting ownership and control of exhaustive behavioral data to the government, what kind of abuses do we risk? It seems at least a little disconcerting to see the idea raised at a time when authoritarian movements and regimes are on the rise. If we end up trading a surveillance economy for a surveillance state, we’ve done ourselves no favors.

But let’s assume that our vast data collective is secure, well managed, and put to purely democratic ends. The shift of data ownership from the private to the public sector may well succeed in reducing the economic power of Silicon Valley, but what it would also do is reinforce and indeed institutionalize Silicon Valley’s computationalist ideology, with its foundational, Taylorist belief that, at a personal and collective level, humanity can and should be optimized through better programming. The ethos and incentives of constant surveillance would become even more deeply embedded in our lives, as we take on the roles of both the watched and the watcher. Consumer, track thyself! And, even with such a shift in ownership, we’d still confront the fraught issues of design, manipulation, and agency."

The discontents of humanism (variously understood), the emergence of technopoly (as Neil Postman characterized the present techno-social configuration), and the modern political order are deeply intertwined. Humanism, of course, is a complex and controversial term. It can be understood in countless ways. There is more affinity than is usually acknowledged between anti-Humanism understood as an opposition to a narrow and totalizing understanding of the human and anti-humanism as exemplified by the misanthropic visions of the transhumanists and their Silicon Valley acolytes. 

If we are incapable of even a humble affirmation of our humanness then we leave ourselves open to the worst depredations of the technological order and those who stand to profit most from it.

Technology, Law, and Ethics

It is frequently observed that developments in technology run ahead of law and ethics, which never quite catch up. This may be true, but not in the way it is usually imagined. What follows is a series of loosely related considerations that might help us see the matter more clearly.

When people claim that technology outstrips law and ethics, they are usually thinking more about the rapid advance of technology than they are about the structures of law and ethics. If we were to unpack the claim, it would run something like this: new technologies which empower us in novel ways and introduce unprecedented capacities and risks emerge so quickly that existing laws and ethical principles, both of which are relatively static, cannot adapt fast enough to keep up.

Thought of in this way, the real pressure point is missed. It is not merely the case that new technologies emerge for which we have no existing moral principles or laws to guide and constrain their use; this is only part of the picture. Rather, it is also the case that modern* technologies, arising in tandem with modern political and economic structures, have undermined the plausibility of ethical claims and legal constraints, weakened the communities that sustained and implemented such claims and constraints, and challenged the understanding of human nature upon which they depended.

To put the matter somewhat more succinctly, contemporary technologies emerge in a social context that is ideal for their unchecked and unconstrained development and deployment. In other words, technology appears to outstrip ethics and law only because of a prior hollowing out of our relevant moral infrastructure.

Social and technological forces contribute to the untethering and deracination of the human person, construing her primarily and perhaps even exclusively as an individual. However, valuable this construal may be, it leaves us ill-equipped to cope with technologies that  necessarily involve us in social realities.

From the ethics side of the ledger, it is also the case that modern ethics (think Kant, for example) also construed ethics chiefly as a matter of the individual will. A project undertaken by autonomous and rational actors without regard for moral and political communities. Political philosophy (Locke, et al) and economic theory (Smith, etc.) follow similar trajectories.

So, in theory (political, philosophical, and economic) the individual emerges as the basic unit of thought and action. At the center of this modern theoretical picture is a novel view of freedom as individual autonomy. The individual no longer bends their will to the shape of a moral and communal order; they now bend the world to the shape of their will.

In practice, material conditions, including new technologies, sustain and reinforce this theoretical picture. Indeed, the material/technological conditions likely preceded the theory. Moreover, technology evolves as a tool of empowerment that makes the new understanding of freedom plausible and seemingly attainable. Technology is thus not apprehended as an object of moral critique; it is perceived, in fact, as the very thing that will make possible the realization of the new vision of the good life, one in which the world is the field of our own self-realization.

While certain social and material realities were isolating and untethering the individual, by the mid-19th century technologies arose that were, paradoxically, embedding her in ever more complex technical systems and social configurations.

Paradoxically, then, the more we took for granted our own agency and assumed that technology was a neutral tool of the individual autonomous will, the more our will and agency were being compromised and distributed by new technologies.

Shortest version of the preceding: Material conditions untether the individual. Modern theoretical accounts frame this as a benign and desirable development. Under these circumstances, technology is unbridled and evolves to a scale that renders individual ethical action relatively inconsequential.

Moreover, the scale of these new technologies eclipsed the scale of local communities and traditional institutions. The new institutions that arose to deal with the new scale of operation were bureaucracies, that is to say that they themselves embodied the principles and values implicit in the emerging technological milieu.

It may be better, then, to say that it is the scale of new technologies that transcends the institutions and communities which are the proper sites for ethical reflection about technology. The governing instinct is to scale up our institutions and communities to meet the challenge, but this inevitably involves a reliance on the same technologies that generate the problems. It never occurs to us that the answer may lie in a refusal to operate at a scale that is inhospitable to the human person.

Something other than individual choices and laws are necessary. Something more akin to a renewal of cultural givens about what it means to be a human being and how the human relates to the non-human, givens which inform ethical choices and laws but cannot be reduced to either, and the emergence of institutions that embody and sustain individual lives ordered by these givens. It is hard, however, to see how these emerge under present circumstances.

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*Throughout the post I use "modern" to refer to Western modernity emerging c. 1600 or so (which date is certainly subject to a great deal of debate).

The Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology is Relaunching

The Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology is renewing its work at an auspicious time. Throughout the past year we have witnessed a surge of interest in the ethical and political consequences of technology. This interest has been driven by a variety of factors: revelations about misuse of user data by social media companies, widespread and systematic dissemination of disinformation, the confessions of former Silicon Valley executives about media platforms designed for addiction, fears about lack of AI accountability, anxiety about automation and unemployment, as well as concern about the negative physical, mental, and developmental health consequences of an always-on culture.

This wave of critical attention is a welcome development, but there is much work to be done.

CSET aims to advance this work by providing substantive commentary on modern technology’s ethical consequences in a variety of formats and fostering communities of reflection and practice devoted to living wisely and faithfully in a technological age.

In order to do this work well, CSET’s renewed efforts will be more explicitly grounded in our theological and ecclesial commitments. This move to foreground our theological convictions reflects our understanding that the best technology criticism flows out of a substantive understanding of the human person and of what constitutes human flourishing. We know that these are contested understandings, but it is, in our view, better to own our convictions and invite rigorous and honest debate rather than veiling them and undermining the critical rigor of our work. Too much of the work now being undertaken to understand and assess the ethical and political consequences of technological change flounders precisely because it knows only what it is against and not what it is for. It is inspired neither by any communal commitments or any explicit account of the good life.

In working from within our Christian tradition, we are in the company of some of our best thinkers about technology and modern society including such luminaries as Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Albert Borgmann, Romano Guardini, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio, and Walter Ong.

Our Christian commitments, however, do not preclude our serious engagement with other traditions of thought or the work of scholars outside the tradition, quite the opposite. We welcome all thoughtful and principled discussions of technology, and our conversations and discussions will reflect our desire to seek wisdom and insight wherever it may be found. We trust, as well, that those outside the tradition will find our work valuable and irenic.

The pace of digital culture tends to discourage serious reflection and encourage superficial responses. CSET will aim to be both timely and enduring in its analysis. This will be just one of the ways that we seek to embody the principles of the critique and alternative we will offer. This will often mean a willingness to abide unresolved tensions or be content simply to raise the right questions. We will resist the tyranny of the instantaneous and the temptation to offer neat solutions to the challenges raised by contemporary technology.

Our efforts will also reflect our commitment to thinking historically about technology. Again, under the temporal pressures of digital culture, we fail to think very far beyond our present moment. The proper temporal horizon of understanding for a given technology, however, may be decades or even centuries in the past. Without taking this long view, we are unlikely to get very far in our efforts to make sense of our technological situation. If our relationship to technology, broadly understood, is disordered, it is because of social, economic, political, and cultural patterns and trajectories that have been unfolding since at least the dawn of modernity if not before.

We must also measure current developments by their likely future consequences to the degree that these can be reasonably discerned. So we will couple this long view into the past with a long view into the future. We do not believe that there exist quick fixes to our situation. Rather, we believe that what is needed is a deep renewal of our understanding of what it means to be human. This is not the work of months or even a few years. We must take the long view. This is work worth undertaking, and we hope you will find it helpful.

You can follow our work by subscribing to our blog (email/RSS), signing up to receive our forthcoming newsletter, or following us on Twitter. In the coming days and weeks, look for news about our new research associates, a podcast, and events on the ground.

Moralizing Technology: A Social Media Test Case

Where do we look when we’re looking for the ethical implications of technology? A few would say that we look at the technological artifact itself. Many more would counter that the only place to look for matters of ethical concern is to the human subject. As noted in an earlier post, philosopher of technology, Peter-Paul Verbeek, argues that there is another, perhaps more important place for us to look: the point of mediation, that is the point where the artifact and human subjectivity come together to create effects that cannot be located in either the artifact or the subject taken alone.

Verbeek would have us consider the ethical implications of how technologies shape our perception of the world and our action into the world. Take the following test case, for example.

In a witty and engaging post at The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer assigned each of the seven (+2) deadly sins to a corresponding social network. Tinder, for example gets paired with Lust, LinkedIn with Greed, Twitter with Wrath, and, most astutely, Tumblr with Acedia. Meyer mixed in some allusions to Dante and the end result was a light-hearted discussion that nonetheless landed a few punches.

In response, Bethany Keeley-Jonker questions the usefulness of Meyer’s essay. While appreciating the invocation of explicitly moral language, Keeley-Jonker finds that the focus on technology, in this case social media platforms, is misleading.

In her view, as I read her post, the moral blame and/or praiseworthiness can only ever be assigned to people. One thing she appreciates about Myer’s essay, for instance, is that “it locates our problems where they’ve always been: in people.” “Why the fixation, then,” she wonders, “on the ways our worst impulses show up in social media?”

She goes on to explain her reservations this way:

“I am not so sure that Facebook increases our desire for approval so much as it broadcasts it. That broadcasting element is the second reason I think people worry a lot about social media. Folks have engaged in the same kinds of bad behavior for centuries, but in the past it wasn’t so easy to search, archive and share your vices with a few hundred of your friends, family and acquaintances.”

Recalling Verbeek’s discussion, we recognize in Keeley-Jonker’s analysis an instrumentalist approach that appears to take the technology in question to be a morally neutral tool. The ethical dimension exists entirely on the side of human subjectivity. The behavior is historically constant; in this case, social media just exposes to public view what would’ve been going on in any case.

Consider one more of Keeley-Jonker’s examples:

“Plenty of pixels have been spilled over the way Pinterest sparks envy (and Instagram, for that matter), but I’ve also seen it spark connection and sharing. I’ve seen it reproduce something that’s happened between women for decades or centuries in low-tech ways: here’s that recipe I was telling you about; here’s how I made this thing; here’s where I bought that thing; here’s the secret to chocolate chip cookies.”

Same old activity, new way of doing it. The technology, on this view, leaves the activity essentially unchanged. There is a surface similarity, certainly, in the same way that we might say a hurricane is not unlike a cool breeze.

Of course, we do not want to suggest that a social media platform can itself be guilty of a vice; that would be silly. Nor is it the case that moral responsibility does not attach to the human subject. But is this all that can be said about the matter? Is it really misleading to consider the role of social media when talking about virtue and vice? What if, following Verbeek’s lead, we focus our attention on the point of mediation. How, for example, do each of these platforms mediate our perception?

Verbeek turns to the work of philosopher Don Ihde for some analytic tools and categories. Among the many ways humans might relate to technology, Ihde notes two relations of “mediation.” The first of these he calls “embodiment relations” in which the tools are incorporated by the user and the world is experienced through the tool (think of the blind man’s stick). The second he calls a “hermeneutic relation.” Verbeek explains:

“In this relation, technologies provide access to reality not because they are ‘incorporated,’ but because they provide a representation of reality, which requires interpretation [….] Ihde shows that technologies, when mediating our sensory relationship with reality, transform what we perceive. According to Ihde, the transformation of perception always has the structure of amplification and reduction.”

Verbeek gives us the example of looking at a tree through an infrared camera: most of what we see when we look at a tree unaided is “reduced,” but the heat signature of the tree is “amplified” and the tree’s health may be better assessed. Ihde calls this capacity of a tool to transform our perception “technological intentionality.” In other words, the technology directs and guides our perception and our attention. It says to us, “Look at this here not that over there” or “Look at this thing in this way.” This function is not morally irrelevant, especially when you consider that this effect is not contained within the digital platform but spills out into our experience of the world.

What, then, if we consider social media platforms not merely as new tools that let us do old things in different ways, but as new ways of perceiving that fundamentally alter what it is that we perceive and how we relate to it? In the case of social media, we might say that what we ordinarily perceive are things like our own self reflected back to us, other people, and human relationships. Perhaps it is in the nature of the unique architecture of each of these platforms to activate certain vices precisely because of how they alter our perception.* Is there something about what each platform allows us to present about ourselves or how each platform manipulates our attention that is especially conducive to a particular vice?

Again, it is true that apart from a human subject there would be no vice to speak of, but it would be misleading to say that the platform was wholly irrelevant, innocent even, of the vice it helps to generate. We might do well, then, to distinguish between an ever-present latent capacity for vice (or virtue) and the technological mediations that potentially activate the vice, or, to stick with the moral vocabulary, constitutes a field of temptation where there was none before.

And we have not yet addressed how the platforms might be conceived of as engines of habit formation– generating addiction by design, to borrow Natasha Dow Schüll’s apt formulation–and thus incubators of moral character.

The first of Melvin Kranzberg’s useful laws of technology states, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Let us conclude with a corollary: “Technology is neither moral or immoral; nor is it morally neutral.”

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*A recent post by Alan Jacobs provides an illustration of this dynamic from an earlier era and its own emerging media landscape. Of Martin Luther and Thomas More, Jacobs writes, “To put this in theological terms, one might say that neither More nor Luther can see his dialectical opponent as his neighbor— and therefore neither understands that even in long-distance epistolary debate one is obligated to love his neighbor as himself” (emphasis mine).

Work, Technology, and How We Understand Human Dignity

Certain technologies generate a degree of anxiety about the relative status of human beings or about what exactly makes human beings “special”–call it post-humanist angst, if you like.

Of course, not all technologies generate this sort of angst. When it first appeared, the airplane was greeted with awe and a little battiness (consider alti-man). But it did not result in any widespread fears about the nature and status of human beings. The seemingly obvious reason for this is that flying is not an ability that has ever defined what it means to be a human being.

It seems, then, that anxiety about new technologies is sometimes entangled with shifting assumptions about the nature or dignity of humanity. In other words, the fear that machines, computers, or robots might displace human beings may or may not materialize, but it does tell us something about how human nature is understood.

Is it that new technologies disturb existing, tacit beliefs about what it means to be a human, or is it the case that these beliefs arise in response to a new perceived threat posed by technology? It is hard to say, but some sort of dialectical relationship is involved.

A few examples come to mind, and they track closely to the evolution of labor in Western societies.

During the early modern period, perhaps owing something to the Reformation’s insistence on the dignity of secular work, the worth of a human being gets anchored to their labor, most of which is, at this point in history, manual labor. The dignity of the manual laborer is later challenged by mechanization during the 18th and 19th centuries, and this results in a series of protest movements, most famously that of the Luddites.

Eventually, a new consensus emerges around the dignity of factory work, and this is, in turn, challenged by the advent of new forms of robotic and computerized labor in the mid-twentieth century.

Enter the so-called knowledge worker, whose short-lived ascendency is presently threatened by advances in computers and AI.

This latter development helps explain our present fascination with creativity. It’s been over a decade since Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, but interest in and pontificating about creativity continues apace. What I’m suggesting is that this fixation on creativity is another recalibration of what constitutes valuable, dignified labor, which is also, less obviously perhaps, what is taken to constitute the value and dignity of the person. Manual labor and factory jobs give way to knowledge work, which now surrenders to creative work. As they say, nice work if you can get it.

Interestingly, each re-configuration not only elevated a new form of labor, but it also devalued the form of labor being displaced. Manual labor, factory work, even knowledge work, once accorded dignity and respect, are each reframed as tedious, servile, monotonous, and degrading just as they are being replaced. If a machine can do it, it suddenly becomes sub-human work.

It’s also worth noting how displaced forms of work seem to re-emerge and regain their dignity in certain circles. I’m presently thinking of Matthew Crawford’s defense of manual labor and the trades. Consider as well this lecture by Richard Sennett, “The Decline of the Skills Society.”

It’s not hard to find these rhetorical dynamics at play in the countless presently unfolding discussions of technology, labor, and what human beings are for. Take as just one example this excerpt from the recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen (emphasis mine):

Global unemployment is rising, too—this seems to be the first industrial revolution that wipes out more jobs than it creates. One 2013 paper argues that forty-seven per cent of all American jobs are destined to be automated. Andreessen argues that his firm’s entire portfolio is creating jobs, and that such companies as Udacity (which offers low-cost, online “nanodegrees” in programming) and Honor (which aims to provide better and better-paid in-home care for the elderly) bring us closer to a future in which everyone will either be doing more interesting work or be kicking back and painting sunsets. But when I brought up the raft of data suggesting that intra-country inequality is in fact increasing, even as it decreases when averaged across the globe—America’s wealth gap is the widest it’s been since the government began measuring it—Andreessen rerouted the conversation, saying that such gaps were “a skills problem,” and that as robots ate the old, boring jobs humanity should simply retool. “My response to Larry Summers, when he says that people are like horses, they have only their manual labor to offer”—he threw up his hands. “That is such a dark and dim and dystopian view of humanity I can hardly stand it!”

As always, it is important to ask a series of questions: Who’s selling what? Who stands to profit? Whose interests are being served? Etc. With those considerations in mind, it is telling that leisure has suddenly and conveniently re-emerged as a goal of human existence. Previous fears about technologically driven unemployment have ordinarily been met by assurances that different and better jobs would emerge. It appears that pretense is being dropped in favor of vague promises of a future of jobless leisure. So, it seems we’ve come full circle to classical estimations of work and leisure: all work is for chumps and slaves. You may be losing your job, but don’t worry, work is for losers anyway.

To sum up: Some time ago, identity and a sense of self-worth got hitched to labor and productivity. Consequently, each new technological displacement of human work appears to those being displaced as an affront to the their dignity as human beings. Those advancing new technologies that displace human labor do so by demeaning existing work as below our humanity and promising more humane work as a consequence of technological change. While this is sometimes true–some work that human beings have been forced to perform has been inhuman–deployed as a universal truth, it is little more than rhetorical cover for a significantly more complex and ambivalent reality.