The philosophy of technology


Phil of Tech asks what technology is: what it is for; and – as ever – who should be in control of it, and who or what is affected by it. We need to ask indeed, as E F Schumacher did in Small is Beautiful in the early 1970s, what technology is appropriate. As always, the relevant questions in part are technical/scientific and in part moral/metaphysical (what do we really care about, and why?). And we need to ask what kind of political and economic infrastructure would best support the kind of technologies that we decide really are appropriate – and forestall those that are not. 

Historically, it seems to me, starting 10,000 or 40,000 or perhaps 100,000 years ago, technology has developed and advanced according to opportunity, expediency – and whim. All along the way people have thought about what they are doing of course, and what impact whatever they are doing might have on other people and the world at large, and whether that impact would be good or bad. Such cogitation is indeed one of the main themes of Genesis. The story of Adam and Eve is largely about whether and to what extent human beings should seek knowledge, with the implication that if they have too much of the wrong kind of knowledge they might change the world in ways that God did not intend. Hence the wrath of God, and their expulsion from Paradise. More specifically, the story of Cain and Abel alludes to the relative merits of arable farming and pastoralism. God clearly favoured the pastoralist – namely Abel, the keeper of sheep (which is one in the eye for those who argue that God must be vegetarian). In effect all this is a discussion about appropriate technology – even though Genesis was written more than 3000 years before the term “appropriate technology” came on board. 

It’s been the same throughout history. With every significant step in knowledge and technique people have asked, “Should we really be doing this?”; and at every step some have argued sometimes with great zeal that whatever is on offer is just what humanity needs and has come along in the nick of time like the US 5th cavalry, while others have argued with equal passion that whatever it is that’s new is a step too far, endangering our lives, which is a practical matter, and also our souls, which matters more. 

Despite the fears and the caveats, the industrial revolution began in Britain in the 17th century and was well underway by the end of the 18th – but the objections continued. So frightened were the locals by the rumoured experiments of the cleric and chemist Joseph Priestley that they burnt his house down, and forced him to flee to America. In France Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed against modernity and in South London William Blake wrote of “those dark Satanic mills”. In the Midlands the “Luddites” broke the new spinning and weaving machines that were putting them out of work and generally lowering standards. Others, though, saw the emerging technologies as a new dawn –most notably the members of the Lunar Society (including Priestley, plus Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, James Watt and others) as described very brilliantly by Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men (2002). Various artists, too, including J M W Turner, James Ward, and Joseph Wright of Derby, revelled in the new aesthetic of fire and steam. 

Always, though, as in the Genesis story of the Fall, some have felt that each new advance was a step too far; physically dangerous and potentially blasphemous. Many in the early 19th century objected to the railways, partly on aesthetic grounds but partly for fear of life and limb. Excess speed – faster than a horse could run – was felt to be innately dangerous. Many objected to the telegraph. Many declared in the early days of aeroplanes that “if God had intended us to fly he’d have given us wings”. My father told me that in the 1920s when air travel was obviously the coming thing and aerobatics were all the rage, his Aunt Annie continued to insist that aeroplanes were “far-fetched” and refused to accept their existence even as they roared overhead trailing advertisements for Bovril and Pear’s soap.  I don’t believe that my Great-aunt Annie was unique in this. 

Yet despite all the caveats and the occasional violence, technology has marched on. Cain’s adze if such he had has evolved into armies of mega-combines, driven by computer and guided hour after hour by GPS. Alchemy has become Big Pharma. Thomas Newcomen’s early 18th century Atmospheric Engine has become HS2 (or that at least is the plan at the time of writing). The Wright brothers’ flying contraption in string and sealing wax has evolved to become the Airbus A380 and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The telegraph and Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine are now IT. And the early farmers’ forays into plant breeding, both conscious and inadvertent, have evolved via Mendel’s peas and the science of DNA into genetic engineering and gene editing with the promise from on high, not least from the Royal Society, of untold bounty to come.  (Incidentally, DNA was discovered in 1869 by the Swiss biochemist Friedrich Miescher, who guessed that it might have something to do with heredity. So it just isn’t true as Orson Welles asserted in The Third Man that the only significant technology to emerge from Switzerland was the cuckoo clock.) 

Much of the technological advance has of course been highly beneficial, at least in net. Modern medicine is a wonder and the science of DNA and all that goes with it is a key contributor. IT is able to put all human beings in instant touch with all others – a huge advance for scholarship in general and, at least potentially, a vital step on the path to democracy and conviviality. 

But of course, only too obviously, we are seeing the downsides too. Despite the excesses (was it really necessary to burn Priestley’s house down?) many of the dire predictions of the detractors have turned out to be justified; not always as bad or as permanent as was sometimes predicted but sometimes far worse. The early factories were vile and dehumanizing – and even though there is now something called health and safety and some of the pollution has been cleaned up, global warming now threatens the whole world and the dehumanization continues. The modern science and technologies of DNA are already of immense value in medicine (not least to create new antibiotics), but as applied to agriculture they have served mainly to replace the kind of farming that really could feed the world – agroecology rooted in traditional practice – with top-down corporate controlled industrial farming. Industrial agriculture is not designed or indeed intended to supply everyone with good food and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t. IT has taken us into the nightmare world of fake news and Orwellian mind control and threatens to make mere humanity obsolete (surely not extinct, as some have mooted, but at least redundant; reduced to lookers-on). 

The root cause of all this is that technologies have never been guided by a proper sense of what is good (which are matters of ecology and morality) or indeed of what goodness is (which is a matter of metaphysics). Technologists and policy makers have rarely asked in a concerted and coherent way what is likely to prove beneficial for humanity and the natural world in the long term. At least, there have been and are such discussions, but the discussions themselves tend to be framed by presuppositions of a kind that restrict the thinking. Thus among people of influence (governments, big industry, the Royal Society) discussion of the pros and cons of GMOs seem to presuppose that agriculture must be large-scale and industrial (“Get big or get out” said Earl Butz in the 1960s) and must therefore be controlled from above by corporates and must be profitable (as demanded above all by the prevailing economy of neoliberalism) and that smaller-scale operations under local control are at best an anachronism and indeed are the enemy of humankind, and should be swept aside with all possible haste. IT is largely in the hands of tycoons like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos. Technology as a whole is largely driven by the military, or as Dwight Eisenhower said, by “the military-industrial complex”.  

In other words, technology has been driven these past 10,000 or 40,000 years not by serious moral-metaphysical discussion of what is really good and worthwhile and why. It has drifted from “breakthrough” to breakthrough, subject only to “market forces”, meaning that whatever people will buy, or can be persuaded to buy, is ipso facto good; and it has been dragged and kicked along by military ambitions and the need to defend against other people’s military ambitions. Overall indeed, like politics as a whole, technology has been and is driven by the twin incentives of dominance and wealth, which simply do not lead us to green pastures, or security and conviviality, and never can. 

We do indeed need a cross-the-board re-think on all fronts – what we really want to achieve and why and how; and as a matter of urgency the fruits of this re-thinking must be applied to technology. Right now there is no subject more urgent or of greater import than the Philosophy of Technology — “Phil of Tech”. Many a conference is devoted to it one way and another, and many a think-tank, and some entire university departments. But very few do what’s really needed –which is to bring all considerations of everything that’s relevant to bear: practical, economic, political, scientific, moral, aesthetic, metaphysical, spiritual. John Ruskin in the early 19th century, William Morris a few decades later, Leo Tolstoy in the late 19th and early 20th, then Gandhi. then Ivan Illich (Tools for Conviviality) and then Schumacher have laid solid foundations and we need now to follow in their tradition. Who knows into what intriguing by-ways this may take us?

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