Technology and ethics: a moralist proposal

One of the problems with thinking about technology is that because we are born into a world of technology, this clouds our ability to see how it restricts our ability to think beyond what is right in front of us. We have difficulty thinking clearly about it in and of itself, and so all our difficulties with it are effectively distributed. Accordingly we have an ethics of technology, latched on to the side of the big machine. We think of specific problems with technology, we even expand this into the biggest of spheres, and discuss the existential risks attached to technology, or the risks which are integral to certain types of technology.

This is not the fault of philosophers of technology. It is simply another symptom of how our thought about the implications of all our actions are farmed out to different areas. Morality as a universal, the discussion of categorical concerns, has been put out to pasture in diverse fields. The “ethics of” has become the dominant, in an undeniably fashionable desire for pluralism. Words such as decentralise, distributed, bottom-up, emergent, local, self-directed are all implicated in this nexus of thought. It is the need to avoid the dark stain of morality as a meta-narrative. This is not just so for those who have read their Lyotard; it is the essence of a liberal, secular outlook. But the yearning to be non-judgemental, non-moral can easily serve the amoral. We don’t want to tell anybody what to do, fine, but we don’t actually know what it is we want to do…and the less scrupulous always profit by such vacillation. This leads to the next problem.

Such is our apparently all-consuming concern to overcome the negative results of our actions that practicality overrides all. We do this for the best of all possible reasons. We want to be effective. We want to make a difference. We want to solve specific problems (even problem is too strong, maybe they’re just “issues”, or cuter, “bugs”!). This is the matter of seeing how with the concern for the theoretical it is easy to lose sight of the practical. The “ethics of” is a corollary of this, because just as we have come to see that the temptation of meta-narratives is to subsume difference, to elide detail, we want to bring our analysis to a level of such precision that nothing slips through the cracks. The fact that it is the nature of reality for things to elude our grasp is seen as – at best – unhelpful. Actually, the recognition of this fact is so impolitic, that it is almost impossible to articulate an alternative perspective, such is the fear that one might be seen as reactionary. Our modern catechism teaches us to say nothing, as all will be worked out in the end. Trickle-down thought.

So, we have neither the macro, nor the micro. We have a world-view that is functional, in the barest sense, but devoid of sophistication or nuance. It works for us on a day to day basis, and we think that we have the details in hand, we think that things are under control. We have made thought into a network because we have faith in this as How Things Work (Graham Harman has written about this). What this fails to grasp is that this metaphor of the network as our coordinating ideal is letting us down badly. The “ethics of” is a distributed ethics, and this is what ethics simply cannot be. A network can be undirected, and yet function, but this is because of massive redundancy. Redundancy is what makes a network robust. A great number of nodes can be destroyed before the network itself is destroyed. But have we truly considered the implications when we translate this aspect of the network metaphor over to the human sphere? Rewrite the above definition, and we read: “any amount of humans can be destroyed before humanity itself is destroyed.” Hardly something that any thinking person would agree with. This is the psychopathy of the utilitarian philosophy. It is theodicy, working backwards from the presence of evil to posit the existence of goodness.

William James writes of Descartes specifically, and the c17th in general, that for “thinkers of that age, ‘God’ was the great solvent of all absurdities”. All difficulties could be swept away with one reference to ‘God’ as that which cohered all. There is a plan. We just have to divine it, and for just €19.99 you can read all about it in my new book! Technology has become our universal solvent. It certainly is for Raymond Kurzweil (John Gray looks at this in passing in his new book), and he is the prime exponent of what I call the ideology of technology, the harder, better, faster, stronger argument. This is laissez-faire philosophy, and it is as mythical is philosophy and culture as it is in economics.

If we must apply a metaphor of the network to all we do, then let us be circumspect, and let us be reflective. Let us be self-reflective even, yet not to the point of the paralysing stasis of naval-gazing (this makes for good music, tolerable poetry, but terrible philosophy). There must be a meta-network, then, a goal that co-ordinates the the network. Indeed, we already have such a meta-network even when we discuss the distributed network of veins (reticulate venation) in the vascular tissue of a leaf. We know that there is no real goal, we know that each capillary is just doing what it does in its own restricted domain, and yet we do not really believe this. We believe we know better, and so we say that the local rules of the capillaries leads to a global behaviour of the leaf, the branch, the tree. This “global behaviour” is in fact the meta-network to which I refer.

Tertiary or reticulate veining, which is often understood in the terms of primary or secondary veins.

So, how is this of relevance to technology? Am I once again simply discussing a rhetoric of technology? Well, how we talk about a thing influences how we think about it, but it is not just this. From the above observations, I propose the following:

  1. We need a formal, categorical approach to technology: we need to think about technology as a field unto itself. The temptation is always to attach technology to something else, but this is misleading. Just because technology is the practical application of a natural phenomenon (I am taking this from W. Brian Arthur‘s definition of technology), this does not imply that it is unthinking or that it cannot be thought. It is the application of theory, perhaps, but it is not some parasitic twin (as I have written elsewhere). Technoscience as a field is witness to this, and we need to carry through on the implicit realization here. The philosophy of technology must take place on a less piece-meal, more structured footing. We have taken the pragmatic approach long enough, and this “I know what I know” viewpoint is too parochial to make for interesting and expansive thought.
  2. We need a formal, categorical approach to morals: our squeamishness when it comes to using the concepts morals or morality is overdone. To be sure, ethics is important, but this distributed, decentralised view can only take us so far…and I do not believe it has taken far enough. It works as a field of study, as an area of expertise, but beyond this it is not something which can be of popular use as a coordinating ideal. This is as true within philosophy in general, as in the broader conversation of ideas which we call culture. Not all ideas which are of popular use are irredeemably debased. Abuse of the concept of morality is not morality proper. For every reactionary thug with a book that they think gives them the right to inflict a cramped and hateful bastardization of morals on the rest of us, there is a Levinas who in their writing and actions can show that in the confrontation with another human face there is an ‘irreducible relation’ in which we each of us know for ourselves what it is to be moral. We have approached morals in this manner in the past, so we can pick up this work again, with some new awareness of its limitations.
  3. With these individual approaches, a combination of the two becomes possible: understanding something approaching the objective structural conditions of the fields under consideration will allow us to proceed towards formulating a position that does not hold either to be superior. This means there would be no “ethics of technology” or “morality as technology” (possible though these are), but rather there would be what we might consider as a conversation about technology and morality. It would allow for what I hope will become an ecology of philosophy. This is the best term I can think of for what combines the recognition of the function of networks with the recognition that when we are implicated in a network (the meta-network) then our orientation is fundamentally altered, and our thought must follow from this.
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