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Philosophy is a game with objectives and no rules.
Mathematics is a game with rules and no objectives.
Theology is a game whose object is to bring rules into the subjective.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Philosophy of Technology

The current debate about technology and its assessment is dominated by two extreme points of view. On the one hand, some people believe that mankind must restrain the self-propelled dynamics of technological development. These considerations are guided by the apocalyptic nightmare of the possible destruction of mankind (possible causes for such scenarios: the greenhouse effect; nuclear winter; nuclear catastrophe; the effects of genetic technology). Others see technology as a chance for self-realization—a liberating from the constraints placed upon us by our nature. As long as it remains unclear, however, what the actual domain of the word "technology" is, we are not in a position to decide between the peril and the potential, between the Luddite and the technophile.

A brief look at the current discussion about this domain, in systematic order, shows the following spectrum. I distinguish between two different theses about technology; the first one I call the "thesis of autonomy" and the second the "thesis of heteronomy." Each of these theses is further subdivided into two classifications.

1) The thesis of autonomy :

According to this thesis decisions about technological development are based upon constraints which are independent of human interests and desires. This independence can in turn be interpreted in a relative or in an absolute sense.

According to the relative independence approach technology establishes a realm of quasi-autonomous decisions; it has a rationality of its own. Technological developments, although triggered by human interests and beliefs, are in respect to their technological decisions something neutral and value-free. This is the instrumentalist view of technology. Seen in this way, technology is just a tool, a rule-governed procedure guided by rational purposes. For technology, interpreted as a problem-solving procedure, human interests are found at the beginning or at the end of a technological development, but not at its core. As a consequence, questions of technology assessment are restricted to the outcome of technological development. We may, for example, decide to use raw material as a source of energy. But the specific technology we apply depends exclusively on facts and information based on technical considerations. Following this view, technology is nothing but a means of solving problems such as the production and processing of raw materials, problems of transportation and so on. As far as human interests are concerned, technological decisions are relatively autonomous. This means that the decisions of the engineer depend on the goals of human interests, but the choice of the means depends only on technical considerations. From the standpoint of humanities and social research, technology in its inner decision logic is just a black box of no further interest for the scientist. Behind this view is the conviction that technology like the natural sciences can be separated from human interests. The engineer and the scientist make their decisions unbiased by external factors. The natural sciences and technology form a realm of logical autonomy. Technology is at the same time independent of natural science because of its more pragmatic goals.

b) According to the second view—total autonomy of technology— technology is not an instrument at all. On the contrary, human beings are completely in the hands of technological productions which develop with law-like necessity. This view is sometimes called technological determinism. But it is not clear what the subject of technological determinism is. The interpretation of the grounds for this necessity depends on particular philosophical positions and I will therefore not go into more detail. Within the scope of this view one finds such different positions as those of Martin Heidegger and Hermann Schmidt.

2) The heteronomy of technology thesis :

Before going into this thesis in detail, I want to sum up the basic ideas behind this position. Generally speaking, the heteronomy thesis says that technical decisions are at their inner core triggered by human interests, desires, and paradigmatic worldviews. In contrast to the instrumentalist approach, technological decisions are not autonomous in regard to the means. The choice of the means depends on non-technical assumptions. Technological decisions are not a black box for humanities and social sciences; they are in themselves an integral part of their research domain.

Technology assessment is therefore not restricted to the outcome of technological development; instead, it has to take into account the direct dependency of the technological decision-making process on human interests and worldviews. These interests and worldviews need not always be manifest. They form the tacit background on which the engineer bases his decisions. Let me give an example. I refer to a study of Kluge and Schramm, Wassernöte: Eine Umwelt- und Sozialgeschichte des Trinkwassers (1986). In this study a controversy is reported about the question whether drinking water resources should be centralized or decentralized. As it turned out, most of the engineers preferred a centralized solution. But the arguments they put forward for their decision were not entirely rational. Their advocacy of a central solution was, on the contrary, grounded in the idea of an undivided, self-contained, and circular watercourse. The motives behind their decision were grounded in ideological assumptions like the uniformity of nature. The open question in the heteronomy thesis of technology is, however, how these human interests and worldviews which inform technological decisions are defined. There are, as far as I can see, two alternatives for this definition.

a) Products of technology are nothing but an objective mirror and materialization of ideas in our head. Technological decisions are based upon the psychological state of people who produce technical artifacts. If we want to criticize products of technology, we have therefore to criticize those inner ideas in the head of the engineer. The human-made technological artifacts are not problematic; the problem is human beings. They are responsible for their products.

b) According to the second alternative of the heteronomy thesis of technology, technological products are not just a mirror of ideas in our head. But neither is there a blind course of technological development which determines our mental state, as technological determinism might assume. Mental states and products of technology are created by a third factor. This third factor comprises the social habits and rituals which shape not only our individual mental states but also the products of technology. The crucial point of this position may be shown by the following example which I call the "Eliza-effect." Weizenbaum's program Eliza allows us to communicate with a computer in a way similar to a natural language. The idea behind this program is to install a psychotherapeutic conversation in a computer. Now as it turned out, Eliza was very successful. But the actual reason for this success was not the intelligence of the computer program, nor was it the stupidity of the people who communicated with the program. The actual reason for the success was the social role in which the psychotherapeutic conversation, especially in accordance with the method of Carl Rogers, takes place. Only if the conversation happens in a quasi-automatic manner can we personally believe that the conversation is a machine-like communication, and only then is the substitution for a natural-language conversation by a computer conversation possible. To put it in a nutshell: the success of Weizenbaum's Eliza is grounded in the machine-like behavior of our social roles, not in the machine.

Now that I have given this classification scheme for the various definitions of the domain of technology, one additional remark may be in order. My two-fold scheme is only a rough sketch of standard views. An account of the actual range of the term "technology," in contrast to these four ideal types, will be a more or less vague mixture of the listed standard views. I am sorry, but I cannot produce more clarity than there is.

What is especially missing is a clear distinction between technology as a science, the process of technological development, and the products of technology. The reason for this vaguessness is that such a clear-cut distinction can be made only after the domain of technology has been defined, and not before. Technological determinism or instrumentalism, just to give an example, may simply stress different aspects of the concept "technology."

A definition of the range of technology is necessary in order to establish the degree of freedom we have to control technological development. Technological determinism and instrumentalism, obviously, give different answers.

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