Inquiry question: How does technology, when viewed as merely instruments and tools that are used in assisting human beings to achieve their ends or in other human activities,, obfuscate the ethical issues that arise from within it?
As anyone who is involved in the top level of the informational technological sciences can tell us, it is impossible to work in the field without engaging in social engineering or cybernetics. One of the aspects of cybernetics is the creation of “communities” within which human beings feel the “freedom” to create themselves, to be “empowered”, but with the corollary consequence of their dehumanization through lack of empathy and humanity, or their sense of “otherness” and “owingness”.
The instrumental view of technology sees technology as a tool like any other and that it can be used for good or ill. As we have gone along our path to thinking of technology, we have seen that technology is more of a “fate”; it is a mode or way of being-in-the-world that has arisen from particular historical conditions (Western European sciences) and social circumstances (historical contexts). The view of information technology examined here arrives from the view of reason and nature that came from these mastering sciences. Such a view cuts human beings off from any notion of a transcendent good (the Sun in Plato’s allegory of the Cave) and from any notion of a transcendent justice (a standard of justice other than that of our own making). The ethical implications should be made clear from this understanding of what allowed the technological to become possible. The essence of the technological is not left behind when its results are brought into being. It is these technological products and activities (techniques) that we view as what technology itself is, but this view is insufficient.
The situation in which we find ourselves currently seems obvious: we are faced with calamities concerning climate, the environment, population, resources, and pollution if we continue to pursue the policies that we have pursued over the last few centuries. The attempts to deal with these interlocking emergencies will require a vast array of skills and knowledge; and that is what most of you are being educated towards. Technological mastery will need to be used to solve the problems that technology has created. The focus of this mastery will be in the human sciences with efforts to change human behaviour. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has pointed out, the governing and determining science of the future is inevitably going to be cybernetics.
The realization of the cybernetic future will find its place most securely in the medical profession, particularly the biomedical field. We here in Singapore see a realization of this through the Singapore government’s focus on bio-medicinal research as one of its core industries of the future. What has been called “late stage capitalism” increasingly attempts to establish itself as “the mental health state” with the necessary array of dependent arts and sciences. The practical wisdom of politics was called by Plato “the royal techne”—that art which is higher than all particular arts because it is called to put the other arts in a proper order of least important to most important. It established a hierarchy. We have noticed in the TOK that the hierarchy established is “our self” as knower in the centre along with “ourselves” or “a community of knowers”. Our living in communities is “politics”, both in the ancient and modern sense. So what had been called “politics” by the ancients has been replaced by “social psychology” for the moderns. This “social psychology” is “cybernetics”—the mastery and manipulation of humans by other humans through various machinations. From this perspective, we get our terms “human resources” or “human capital” which appear benign in themselves but really are not.
In most of the TOK discussions that occur (and will occur), the difficult choices which will be necessary in the future are discussed within the assumptions of the ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ which shall direct our creating of history. If we are to deal with the future “humanely” (that is, in a “human” fashion), our acts of ‘free’ mastery in creating history must be decided within the light of certain ‘ideals’ so that we can preserve certain human ‘values’ and see that ‘quality of life’ and quantity (economic prosperity) is safeguarded and extended. Clearly, the problem of dealing with these future crises involves great possibilities of tyranny, and we must be careful that in meeting these decisions we maintain the ‘values’ of free government.
In our TOK discussions, the way we put the questions/themes that relate to the tasks of the future, the future of our students (your futures) as the leaders of that future, involves the use of concepts such as ‘values’, ‘ideals’, ‘persons’ or ‘our creating of history’. The use of these concepts obscures the fact that these very concepts have come forth from within the ‘technological world-view’ to give us an image of ourselves from within that within. These terms are used “unthinkingly” from within this “world-view” and do not allow us to gain the openness necessary to be able to discuss the questions in any meaningful way.
The task in TOK is thus a negative one: to allow the concepts to come to light in their essence so that we may be free for something positive beyond them.
To do this we will look at “information technology as a fate” or a destining of human beings. This discussion arises from our radio show from last year, in which our two guests, experts in information technologies, both held the instrumental view of technology: that the information technology does not impose on us the ways that they should be used. They believed that human beings have the command and choice to determine whether information technologies will be used for good or ill.
The use of the word “should” implies a choice. The statements made by these men came from their intimate knowledge of information technology. But such a statement transcends that intimacy in the sense that the statement is more than a description of any given information technology or what is technically common to them as machines; the question goes beyond hardware and software. Because our guests wished to make statements about the possible good or evil purposes for which information technologies can be used, they expressed what information technologies are in a way which is more than a technical description. According to our guests, they are instruments made by human skill for the purpose of achieving certain human goals. They are “neutral” instruments in the sense that the morality or ethics of the goals for which they are or can be used is determined outside of them.
In expressing the instrumental view of technology, we can see that information technologies are obviously instruments because their capacities have been built into them by human beings; and it is human beings who must set up the operating of those capacities for the purposes that they have determined. All instruments can potentially be used for wicked purposes and the more complex the instrument, the more complex the possible evils. But if we apprehend information technologies for what they are, as neutral instruments, (according to these gentlemen) we are better able to determine rationally their potential dangers. That is clearly the first step in coping with these dangers. We can see that these dangers lie in the potential decisions human beings make about how to use information technologies, and not to the inherent capacities of the machines themselves.
This view is the instrumental view of most of us regarding technology and it is so strongly given to us that it seems common sense itself. It is the box. We are given an historical situation which includes certain objective technological facts. It is up to us as human beings in our freedom to meet that situation and to shape it with our ‘values’ and ‘ideals’, to put our IB Learner Profile into action and to act ethically .
Despite the decency and common sense of the statement “Information technologies do not impose on us the ways they should be used”, when we try to think about what is being said in the statement, in our thinking it becomes clear that information technologies are not being allowed to appear before us for what they are. They remain in the “shadows” for us.
The “not” or negation in the statement “information technology does not impose” concerns information technology’s capacities or capabilities, not its existence. Yet, clearly, information technologies are more than their capacities or capabilities. They are put together from a variety of materials, beautifully fashioned by a vast apparatus of fashioners. Their existence has required generations of sustained efforts by chemists, metallurgists, and workers in mines and factories. They require a highly developed electronics industry and the physics that lies behind that industry in the history of science and technique and their reciprocal relations. They have required that human beings wanted to understand nature, and thought the best way to do so was by putting it to the question as object so that it could reveal itself. They have required the discovery of modern algebra and the development of complex institutions for developing and applying that algebra. Nor should this be seen as a one-sided relationship in which the institutions necessary to the development of the machines were left unchanged by the discovery of algebra (here I am speaking of the universities and the more recent colleges of applied arts and technology).
To understand our educational system is to know that the desire for these machines shapes our institutions at their heart in our curriculum, in what the young (you) are encouraged to know and do (any view of the universal student choices in Group subjects in the IB Diploma indicates this). The information technology’s existence has required that the clever of our society be trained within the massive assumptions about knowing and being and making which have made algebra actual. Learning within such assumptions is not directed towards a “leading out” (educare + ation = that which is responsible for the “leading out” i.e. “education”) but towards an “organizing within”. This means and entails that those who rule any modern society will take the purposes of ruling increasingly to be congruent with this account of knowing. The requirements for the existence of information technologies is but part of the total historical situation (the word ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ might be too ambiguous to be used here) which is given to us as modern human beings. The conditions of that historical situation are never to be conceived as static determinants (as something which cannot be changed), but as a dynamic interrelation of tightening determinations (the “box” gets smaller in terms of choices).
Information technologies are, obviously, within modern common sense, instruments, and instruments are always things which are made to be at human disposal. However, when the capacities or capabilities of these machines are abstracted from their historical existence, and when their capacities or capabilities are morally neutralized in the negative ‘do not impose’, we shut ourselves off from what ‘instrumentality’ has come to mean and how it has changed its meaning in the modern world.
Information technologies are one kind of technology. But “technology” is a very recently arrived word. Two Greek words, techne and logos are brought together in a combination that would have been unthinkable until recently. The word ‘technology’ is not to be found anywhere in the Greek lexicon. The new word ‘technology’ is able to stand and perdure because it brings forth to us the new situation: a quite novel dependence of science upon art and a quite novel dependence of art upon science—in fact, a quite novel reciprocal relation between ‘knowing’ and ‘making’. Look at the Mac Book Pros, hand phones and tablets in front of us and one can see the flowering of this reciprocal relationship. One can see here how aesthetics meets physics, how the “knowing” and the “making” come together.
This novel relationship of making and knowing stands at the heart of the modern era (by the “modern era” I mean since Newton’s science). The simple characterization of information technologies as neutral instruments makes it sound as if instruments are now what instruments have always been and so hides from us what is completely novel, unique and new about modern instrumentality. This gulf in our understanding was made explicit by our guests’ use of the discovery of fire as an example of technology’s neutrality. In comparing the discovery of fire to the making of information technologies, our guests hid from us (not in any malevolent way) what we have to understand if we are to understand technology, as if the instrumentality of modern technologies could be morally neutral. This account of information technology as neutral rises up in the statement, in opposition to that neutrality, an account of human freedom which is just as novel as our new instruments.
Human freedom is conceived in the strong sense of human beings as autonomous—the makers of our own laws and our own selves. This is also a quite new conception. It is first thought systematically in the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. It is also a conception without which the coming-to-be of our modern civilization would not and could not have been. But it is a conception the truth of which needs to be thought because it was not considered true by wise men of many civilizations before our own. The statement “information technology does not impose” holds a view of the world with neutral instruments on one side and human autonomy on the other. But it is just this view that needs to be thought if we are concerned with understanding the essence of technology and of understanding the essence of modern instrumentality, and if we are to see these as being a ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.
How widely are we being asked to take the word ‘ways’ in the assertion that information technology does not impose the ways? Even if the purposes for which the tools or gadgets of information technology’s capabilities should be used are determined outside of itself, are not its inherent capabilities determinative of the ‘ways’ it can be used? We use information technologies to record students’ skills and ‘behaviours’. We use the data to control or assist teacher training in our PYP, MYP, and DP programs. The facts of our day-to-day instruction are abstracted so that they may be classified. Where classification rules, identities and differences can only appear in its terms (results as data). Classification is used by us both in our desire to know but also because of the convenience of organization. As our institutions of education grow larger, this ‘convenience of organization’ will come to dominate and will eliminate the heterogeneity of what those institutions were in the past: uni-versities become multi-versities. The point being made here is simply that the statement about information technologies tends to hide the fact that their very capabilities entail that the ways they can be used are never neutral. They can only be used in homogenizing ways. And the question about the goodness of homogenization or decentralization is excluded from thinking about the essence of technology.
A clearer example might be in using the automobile: “the automobile does not impose the ways it will be used”. All of us have experienced the inconvenience in this part of the world of societies in which the automobile has not, as of yet, come to dominate. Societies where automobiles dominate tend to be much the same as each other and we find these societies much more efficient and convenient for ourselves. Yet, we cannot represent the automobile to ourselves as a ‘neutral instrument’. Here in Singapore, 20% of land use is given over to the infrastructure required for the automobile. But also, if we represent the automobile as a neutral instrument, we have abstracted the productive functions of Honda, Toyota and General Motors or Standard Oil and the other major oil conglomerates from their political and social functions, just as their public relations people would want. Moreover, we would have abstracted the automobile from the relations between such corporations and the public and private corporations of other countries. After all, to any sane person, the Iraq War was over oil; and the subsequent loss of lives, according to the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, was one and a half million Iraqi citizens, a number significantly higher than that given by the members of “the coalition of the willing”. When one thinks of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ from within technology, one cannot ignore the continued homogenization of the central corporations in our everyday lives and the tremendous growth in their power over our lives, including the ability of driving us into wars.
Aristotle has pointed out that human beings are the ‘religious animal’, and the religion for most human beings who have lost any kind of transcendental faith in a god is the ‘belief in progress’. This belief can be described as the good progress of the race in the direction of the universal society of free and equal human beings, that is, towards the universal and homogeneous state. It is captured in the phrase “the ascent of man”. The followers of this religion of progress assert that the technology, which comes out of the account of reason given in the modern European sciences, is the necessary and good means to that end. That account of reason assumes that there is something which we call ‘history’ over against nature, and that it is in that ‘history’ that human beings have acquired their rationality. In the thought of the French philosopher Rousseau about the origins of human beings, the concept of reason as historical makes its extraordinary public arrival. Darwin’s Origin of Species is not possible without, first, the thought of Rousseau. Technology and The Human Sciences Pt 2: Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx
The German philosopher Heidegger has said that capitalism and communism are simply predicates of the subject technology: the Presidents of the USA and China float down the same river (technology) in different boats (political ends). To put this in the context of our discussion, the same apprehension of what it is to be ‘reasonable’ leads human beings to build information technologies and to conceive of the universal, homogeneous society as the highest political goal. The ‘ways’ such machines can be used must be at one with certain conceptions of political purposes, because the same kind of ‘reasoning’ made the machines and formulated the purposes or the ends. To put the matter extremely simply: the modern ‘physical’ sciences and the modern ‘human sciences’ have developed in mutual interpenetration, and we can only begin to understand that mutual interpenetration in terms of some common source from which both sciences found their grounding. This common source is technology understood as a way of knowing the world and as a way of being-in-the-world.
To think ‘reasonably’ about the modern account of reason is of such difficulty because that account has structured our very thinking over the last centuries. Because we are trying to understand reason in the very form of how we understand reason is what makes it so difficult; that is, we are trying to use reason to grasp the essence of reason. The very idea that ‘reason’ is that reason which allows us to conquer objective human and non-human nature controls our thinking about everything; in other writings we have called it the principle of reason. This principle of reason is the box that we are required to try to somehow to think out of.
The root of modern history lies in our experience of ‘reason’ or the principle of reason and the interpenetration of the human and non-human sciences that grew from that root, or what has come to be called “the reduction thesis”. It is an occurrence that has not yet been understood, and it is an event that must come to be thought here in TOK. The statement ‘information technologies do not impose on us the ways they should be used’ hides that interpenetration. To repeat: the instrumental understanding of technology simply presents us with neutral instruments that we in our freedom can shape to our ‘values’ and ‘ideals’. But the very concepts of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ come from the same form of reasoning that built the information technologies. ‘Information technology’ and ‘values’ both come from that stance which summoned the world before it to show its reasons and bestowed ‘values’ on that world. Those ‘values’ are supposed to be the creations of human beings and have, linguistically, taken the place of the traditional concept of ‘good’ which was not created but recognized. Information technologies do not present us with neutral means for building any kind of society. All their alternative ‘ways’ lead towards the universal, homogeneous state. Our use of them is exercised within that mysterious modern participation in what we call ‘reason’, and it is this participation that is most difficult to think in its origins.
TOK Question: Should we hold people responsible for the applications of technologies they develop/create?
The strongest ambiguity in the statement ‘ information technologies do not impose on us the ways they should be used’ is presented to us as if human beings ‘should’ use these machines for some purposes and not for others. But what does the word ‘should’ mean in advanced technological societies? Is not the essence of our difficulty contained in that this ‘shouldness’, as it was once understood and affirmed, can no longer hold us in its claiming?
‘Should’ was originally the past tense of ‘shall’. It is still sometimes used in a conditional sense to express greater uncertainty about the future than the word ‘shall’: (‘I shall get a raise this year’ is more certain than ‘I should get a raise this year’.) ‘Should’ has gradually taken over the sense of ‘owing’ from ‘shall’. (In its origins ‘owing’ was given in the word ‘shall’ when used as a transitive verb. See the concepts of ‘indebtedness’ and ‘responsibility’ in the discussion of technology in the unit blog on technology as a way of knowing.) In the sentence ‘information technology does not impose on us the ways it should be used’, we are speaking about human actions that express ‘owing’. If we change the statement to a positive form “information technology does impose on us the ways it should be used’, the debt would probably be understood as from human beings to the machine. We can say of a good car that we ‘owe’ it to the car to lubricate it properly and maintain it properly if we want the car to do what it is fitted for—which is, in the traditional usage, its good—then we must look after it. But the ‘should’ in the statement about information technology is clearly not being used about what is owed from human beings to the machine. What is, then, the nature of the debt spoken? To what or to whom do we human beings owe it? Is the debt conditional? For examples, if human beings ‘should’ use information technologies only in ways that are compatible with constitutional government and never as instruments of tyranny, to what or to whom is this required support of constitutional government owed? To ourselves? To other human beings? To evolution? To nature? To history? To reasonableness? To God?
To characterize the great change that has taken place among those who consider themselves to be ‘modern people’, ‘goodness’ is apprehended in a much different way from previous societies. ‘Goodness’ is now apprehended in a way which excludes from it all sense of ‘owingness’ or ‘indebtedness’. What was the traditional Western view of ‘goodness’ is that which meets us with an excluding claim and persuades us that in obedience to that claim we will find what we are fitted for as human beings i.e. justice. Macbeth, for example, knows that he should not kill Duncan. The modern view of ‘goodness’ is that which is advantageous to our creating ‘richness of life’ or ‘quality of life’ i.e. it is exactly the choice Macbeth does make in choosing to kill Duncan because by doing so he believes he will increase his richness and quality of life.
What is true of the modern conception of goodness (which appears in advanced technological societies and distinguishes them from the older conceptions of goodness and the societies realized within those conceptions) is that the modern conception of goodness does not include the assertion of an ‘owed’ claim which is intrinsic to our desiring. ‘Owing’ is always provisory on what we desire to create. Our discussion of Aristotle’s conception of causality in our attempts to understand the essence of technology are relevant here. OT 1: Knowledge and Technology
Obviously, we come upon the claims of others and our creating may be limited particularly by the state because of what is currently permitted to be done to others. However, such claims whether within states or internationally, are seen as contractual, that is, provisional. This exclusion of non-provisional owing from our interpretation of desire means that what is summoned up by the word ‘should’ is no longer what was summoned up among our ancestors. It always includes an ‘if’. The arrival in the world of this changed interpretation of goodness is interrelated to the arrival of technological civilization. The liberation of human desiring from any supposed excluding claim, so that it is believed that we freely create ‘values’, is a face of the same liberation in which human beings overcame chance by technology—the liberty to make happen what we want to make happen; to change the world through mastery.
The statement ‘information technology does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ asserts the very essence of the modern view (the human ability to freely determine what happens) and then puts that freedom in the service of the very ‘should’ that the same modern apprehension has denied. This is only possible with the conception of technology as instrument. The resolute mastery to which we are summoned in ‘does not impose’ is the very source of difficulty in apprehending goodness as ‘should’. Therefore, the ‘should’ has only a masquerading resonance when it is asked to provide moral content to the actions we are summoned to concerning information technologies. It is a word carried over from the past to be used in a present that is only ours because the assumptions of that past were criticized out of existence. The statement therefore cushions us from the full impact of the uniqueness it asks us to consider. It makes us forgetful against wondering and questioning about the disappearance of ‘should’ in its ancient resonance, and what this disappearance might portend for the future.
The commonality of statements in our modern world and in our education such as ‘information technology does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ are needed to buttress our morality in our daily decisions. The more it becomes possible to conceive that we might not be able to control the immensity of the technological apparatus and the constant emergencies it presents us with, the more intense become the calls for moral ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ as is demonstrated in the Guide for May 2022. Technological society is presented to us as a neutral means, something outside ourselves, and human beings are presented as in touch with some constant or permanence, from out of which they are called upon to deal with the new external crises. But obviously, all that is given us in the technological sciences denies that constancy or permanence, that standard, that eternality. What happens is that constancy is appealed to in practical life and denied in intellectual life. The language of the ‘eternal’ or ‘standards’ that we do not measure but by which we are measured is removed from all serious public realms. The residual and unresonant constant appealed to in the statement about information technology is ‘should’, but the intellectual life that allowed the coming into being of that information technology has also made that ‘should’ unthinkable.
When we speak of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ in education as a way of approaching technological situations, we must realize that ‘values’, ‘ideals’, ‘persons’, and ‘the creating of history’ are at the very heart of what technological civilization is and are a language that has developed from out of this technological civilization.
Ontology refers to our way of being in the world. Every scientific discovery or application emerges from an ontology which so engrosses us that it can be called our Western destiny. Technology is not something over against ontology; it is the ontology and metaphysic of the age. It is for us an almost inescapable destiny. The question is: what is the ontology which is declared in technology since technological civilization enfolds us as our destiny?
Coming to meet us out of the very substance of our past, that destiny has now become not only our own but that of the species as a whole. Moreover, this destiny is not alone concerned with such obvious problems that we can blow ourselves up or can cure diabetes or have widespread freedom from labour or watch our distant wars on television or other media devices. It is a destiny that presents us with what we think of the whole, with what we think is good, with what we think the good is, with how we conceive insanity and madness, beauty and ugliness. It is a destiny which enfolds us in our most immediate experiences: what we perceive when we encounter a bird or a tree, a child, or a road. This destiny is not one in which we can pick and choose: it is a package deal. As the Greeks said, “the future comes to meet us from behind”.
 Martin Heidegger in 1935 defined the political movement of National Socialism in Nazi Germany as “the meeting of modern man with a global technology”. Today, we define this coming together of man and technology as ‘globalization’. Having an opportunity to change this definition of National Socialism in 1953 with the publication of An Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger chose not to do so.