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.”


*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).