Ethics of Technological Mediation

Early on in Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things (2011), Peter-Paul Verbeek briefly outlines the emergence of the field known as “ethics of technology.” “In its early days,” Verbeek notes, “ethical approaches to technology took the form of critique (cf. Swierstra 1997). Rather than addressing specific ethical problems related to actual technological developments, ethical reflection on technology consisted in criticizing the phenomenon of ‘Technology’ itself.” Here we might think of Heidegger, critical theory, or Jacques Ellul.

In time, “ethics of technology” emerged “seeking increased understanding of and contact with actual technological practices and developments,” and soon a host of sub-fields appeared: biomedical ethics, ethics of information technology, ethics of nanotechnology, engineering ethics, ethics of design, etc.

This approach remains “merely instrumentalist.” “The central focus of ethics,” on this view, “is to make sure that technology does not have detrimental effects in the human realm and that human beings control the technological realm in morally justifiable ways.” It’s not that these considerations are unimportant, quite the contrary, but Verbeek believes that this approach “does not yet go far enough.”

Verbeek explains the problem:

“What remains out of sight in this externalist approach is the fundamental intertwining of these two domains [the human and the technological]. The two simply cannot be separated. Humans are technological beings, just as technologies are social entities. Technologies, after all, play a constitutive role in our daily lives. They help to shape our actions and experiences, they inform our moral decisions, and they affect the quality of our lives. When technologies are used, they inevitably help to shape the context in which they function. They help specific relations between human beings and reality to come about and coshape new practices and ways of living.”

Observing that technologies mediate perception, how we register the world, and action, how we act into the world, Verbeek  elaborates a theory of technological mediation, built upon a postphenomenological approach to technology pioneered by Don Ihde. Rather than focus exclusively on either the artifact “out there,” the technological object, or the will “in here,” the human subject, Verbeek invites us to focus ethical attention on the constitution of both the perceived object and the subject’s intention in the act of technological mediation. In other words, how technology shapes perception and action is also of ethical consequence.

As Verbeek rightly insists, “Artifacts are morally charged; they mediate moral decisions, shape moral subjects, and play an important role in moral agency.”

American Technological Sublime: Our Civil Religion

David Nye is the author American Technological Sublime (1995), a classic work in the history of technology. Except that it is not a work of history in the strict disciplinary sense. Nye draws promiscuously from other fields — citing for example Burke, Kant, Durkheim, Barthes and Baudrillard among others — to present a wide ranging and insightful study into the American character.

The concept of the technological sublime was not original to Nye. It had first been developed by Perry Miller, a prominent mid-twenieth century scholar of early American history, in his study The Life of the Mind in America. There Miller noted in passing the almost religious veneration that sometimes attended the experience of new technologies in the early republic.

Miller found that in the early nineteenth century “technological majesty” had found a place alonside the “starry heavens above and the moral law within to form a peculiarly American trinity of the Sublime.” Taking the steamboat as an illustration, Miller suggests that technology’s cultural ascendancy was abetted by a decidedly non-utilitarian aspect of awe and wonder bordering on religious reverence. “From the beginning, down to the great scenes of Mark Twain,” Miller explains, “the steamboat was chiefly a subject of ecstasy for its sheer majesty and might, especially for its stately progress at night, blazing with light through the swamps and forests of Nature.”

Leo Marx also employed the technological sublime, but again in passing. It fell to David Nye, a student of Marx’s, to develop a book length treatment of the concept. Nye looks to Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant in order fill out the concept of the sublime, but it is apparent from the start that Nye is less interested in the philosopher’s solitary experience of the sublime in the presence of natural wonders than he is in the popular and often collective experience of the sublime in the presence of technological marvels.

Nye, with a historian’s eye for interesting and compelling sources, weaves together a series of case studies that demonstrate the wonder, awe, and not a little trepidation that attended the appearance of the railroads, the Brooklyn bridge, the Hoover Dam, the factory, skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, the atomic bomb, and the moon landing. Through these case studies Nye demonstrates how Americans have responded to certain technologies, either because of their scale or their dynamism, in a manner that can best be described by the category of the sublime. And perhaps more importantly, he argues that this experience of the technological sublime laced throughout American history has acted as a thread stitching together the otherwise diverse and divided elements of American society.

If the philosophers provided Nye with the terminology to name the phenomenon, he takes his interpretative framework from the sociologists of religion. Nye’s project is finally indebted more to Emile Durkheim than to either Burke or Kant. Nye notes early on that “because of its highly emotional nature, the popular sublime was intimately connected to religious feeling.” Later he observes that the American sublime was “fused with religion, nationalism, and technology” and ceased to be a “philosophical idea” instead it “became submerged in practice.”

This emphasis on practice is especially important to Nye’s overall thesis and it is on the practices surrounding the technological sublime that he concentrates his attention. For example, with each new sublime technology he discusses, Nye explores the public ceremonies that attended its public reception. The 1939 World’s Fair, to take another example, appears almost liturgical in Nye’s exposition with its carefully choreographed exhibitions featuring religiously intoned narration and a singular vision for a utopian future.

This attention to practices and ceremonies was signaled at the outset when Nye cited David Kertzer’s “Neo-Durkheimian view” that “ritual can produce bonds of solidarity without requiring uniformity of belief.” This functionalist view of religious ritual informs Nye’s analysis of the technological sublime throughout. In Nye’s story, the particular technologies are almost irrelevant. They are significant only to the degree that they gather around themselves a set of practices. And these practices are important to the degree that they serve to unify the body politic in the absence of shared blood lines or religion.

All told, Nye has written a book about a secular civil religion focused on sublime technologies and he has presented a convincing case. Absent the traditional elements that bind a society together, the technological sublime provided Americans a set of shared experiences and categories around which a national character could coalesce.

Nye has woven a rich, impressive narrative that draws technology and religion together to help explain the American national character. There’s a great deal I’ve left out that Nye develops. For example: the evolving relationship of reason to nature and technology as mediated through the sublime or the diminishing active role of citizens, and especially laborers, in the public experience of the technological sublime. But these, in my view, are minor threads.

The take-away insight is that Americans blended, almost seamlessly, their religious affections with their veneration for technology until finally the experience of technology took on the unifying role of religion in traditional societies. Historically American’s have been divided by region, ethnicity, race, religion, and class. American share no blood lines and they have no ancient history in their land. What they have possessed, however, is a remarkable faith in technological progress that his been periodically rekindled by one sublime technology after another all the way to the space shuttle program and its final mission.

The question we're left with is this: What happens when the technological sublime runs dry? As Nye points out, it is, unlike the natural sublime, a non-renewable sublime. In other words, the sublime response wears off and must find another object to draw it out. If Nye is right — and I do think it is possible to overreach so I want to be careful — there is not much else that serves as well as the technological sublime to bind American society together. Perhaps then, part of our recent sense of unraveling, our heightened sense of disunity, the so called culture wars — perhaps these are accentuated by the withdrawal of the technological sublime. Perhaps, but that would take another book to explore.

Remembering Jacques Ellul

Writing in Comment magazine in 2012, David Gill considered the legacy of Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist and theologian best known for his searching critiques of modern technology, most notably in The Technological Society.

Gill summarizes Ellul’s diagnosis of modern society this way:

In The Technological Society and many subsequent works, Jacques Ellul detailed the emergence and the universal, global, intensive, and extensive dominance of la technique [his term for the all-encompassing nature of technology as artifact, system, and mode of thought] in our civilization. Technology affects every aspect of our lives and every part of the world. It is the defining characteristic of the general milieu in which we live and think. It is not just that technological tools and machines are everywhere, he says, but that technological rationality dominates our every thought and activity (political, religious, therapeutic, artistic, sexual, and otherwise).

Elsewhere, Ellul described the sacred as “the unimpeachable, inviolable order to which man himself submits and which he uses as a grid to decode a disorderly, incomprehensible, incoherent world that he might get his bearings in it and act in it.” This was, in his view, precisely the function technology had assumed in modern society. Technology, Ellul believed, is “not merely an instrument, a means. It is a criterion of good and evil. It gives meaning to life. It brings promise. It is a reason for acting and it demands a commitment.”

In keeping with technology’s sacred status, Ellul wrote, “All criticism of it brings down impassioned, outraged, and excessive reactions.” “Whenever anyone suggests that technology presents certain disadvantages,” he added, “people rush to its defense …. One can call everything in our society into question (including God), but not technology.”

Some have accused Ellul of describing a situation so dire that it was unavoidable and unredeemable. That was not quite the case. As Gill explains,

Ellul says we should “profane” and desacralize false gods and idols. Treat them as ordinary and profane, joke about them, ignore them, refuse to sing their praises or bow down to them, limit their presence and position in our life (and organization). Question them. There is a time to attack and mock a false or predatory god. To get free, we may need to taunt it, profane it, take its name in vain, commit sacrilege, and brashly break its commandments. Words must be accompanied by actions.

For more on the life and work of Ellul, including a discussion of the values embedded in technology, read the rest of Gill’s essay.

Human in Scale

In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale…. It is the unaugmented body that is rare now, and that body has begun to atrophy as both a muscular and a sensory organism. In the century and a half since the railroad seemed to go too fast to be interesting, perceptions and expectations have sped up, so that many now identify with the speed of the machine and look with frustration or alienation at the speed and ability of the body. The world is no longer on the scale of our bodies, but on that of our machines, and many need—or think they need—the machines to navigate that space quickly enough.

— Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), via Topology Magazine