06.24.19 | Philosophy of Technology

Uncanny timing, to be sure. The club's June 7 Weekly Newsletter announced the roll out of a brand new mobile-based operating system including an app to "allow you to manage many aspects of your club experience such as electronic entry door access . . . ." That very same week Google saw errors or slow performance due to "high levels of network congestion" which, among other consequences, resulted in owners of some so-called smart houses unable to enter their homes. They had to break in by other means. It was Space Odyssey's HAL 9000 acting up on earth: "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that." 

Our Member Monday discussion topic on the philosophy of technology will be on how human societies have incorporated technology i.e. the choices about which ones to take on, how to regulate them, and how such decisions end up shaping societies themselves. Our focus piece is a compact survey covering five of the finest books on the subject (click here: Evgeny Morozov on Philosophy of Technology Books - Five Books). Spoiler alert: we're left somewhat hanging when it comes to the Internet.

The survey starts with the earliest book (published in 1934) that started the debate on the effect that technologies have on society. The example used would hardly seem to qualify as technology at all: the clock. Yet, the clock is cited as the technology that allowed capitalism to emerge by providing for synchronization and the means for people to cooperate. It also shared a downside common to later technologies in that it facilitated centralization and the establishment of control over humans e.g. the rise of databases to categorize people in 1930s Europe. This book was among the first attributing technology to the rise of authoritarianism. Many will recall our discussion (MM 9/17/18/Tyranny of the Drones) regarding the role of Artificial Intelligence as a threat to democracy. 

The survey then goes on to address appropriate democratic control over technology, the subject of the second (pre-Internet) book assessing how various thinkers saw technology as a social force. That book was early in its regard of technology as far more than an apolitical question of efficiency but a means by which the societal deck could be stacked. A self-reinforcing world was in the making i.e. errors and excesses of technology resulted in demands for even more technology e.g. climate change and geo-engineering. The issue comes down to moral and ethical oversight. The rapid-fire implementation of new technology would seem to be at the expense of any such meaningful evaluation. Facebook's dismissal of such was revealed in its one-time motto: move fast and break things. 

The third book in the survey thus addresses quality of life through its distinction between the device paradigm (mediated by gadgets) and focal paradigm (on the experience). The key here is the avoidance of entrapment where one's life experience, indeed enjoyment, becomes "commodified." So how does free will (discussed MM 5/13/19) fit into the technological picture? It's just another commodity. Per Eric Schmidt, "what you expect from Google is not to show you what your choices are but to make the choices on your behalf." Your free will is an algorithm.

We are left to our own devices to come up with a philosophy of the Internet, arguably so broad and unique a subject that it requires its own set of principles and assumptions. Per HAL, I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.

(Please note: Member Monday will be taking a summer break. Click here to access all previous sessions MM

Steve SmithComment