Technology and Ethics

While there is a robust debate in American society over the relation between technology and such ethical issues as democracy, localism and the environment, the introduction of technologies admits of no debate. Jerry Mander writes, “It is a melancholy fact that in our society the first waves of descriptions about new technologies invariably come from the corporations and scientists who invent and market these technologies and who have much to gain by our accepting a positive view” (Mander, 1996, 345). This is a central point: the basic issue is that the introduction of new technologies is far removed from any real democratic discussion. Such discussion always occurs in a sterile environment, always after the fact.

For example, the development and mass production of the automobile was hailed almost universally as a revolutionary development. It was supposed to provide freedom of movement and make our world smaller. Such slogans also met the development of air travel, television and the internet. Such things were accepted in society almost without discussion, save for a few marginalized traditionalists and agrarians who were speaking into the wind. Nevertheless, the automobile has recreated the American landscape, demanded thousands of miles of paved roads, brought civilization to small towns whether they wanted it or not, killed many millions in traffic accidents worldwide, massively increased the dependence on oil and created a massive oligarchy of corporate capital who benefits from all this.

It [industrialism] also led, and leads. . . to social and political consequences: the squeezing of farm populations and the uncontrollable growth of cities, the evisceration of self-reliant communities, the enlargement of central governments, the enthronement of science as ruling ideology, a wide and increasing gap between rich and poor, and ruling values of profit, growth, property, and consumption. (Sale, 1996)Now, the general point is had all of this been known (or theorized) in 1920, and a national discussion had taken place, would we have the mass production of automobiles?

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In addition, Mander also holds that technologies, such as nuclear power and air travel, are inherently biased politically. He writes, “To build and operate nuclear power plants requires a large, highly technical and very well-financed infrastructure. . . It can only be done by huge, centralized institutions. Without such institutions, nuclear power could not exist” (Mander, 2006, 347). Mander sees the same problems in the development of the internet.

Such speed in communications and access to information does little but assist the continued centralization of political and economic power. “In fact, it is my opinion that computer technology may be the single most important instrument ever invented for the acceleration of centralized power. While we sit at our PCs. . . .transnational corporations are using their global networks, fed by far greater resources. . . .they operate on a scale and at a speed that makes our own level of cyber-empowerment seem pathetic by comparison” (Mander, 2006, 355).

Even more, such global interconnectedness, long lauded as a path to freedom and unity, brings instead, cultural leveling and a destruction of diversity. The computer revolution is a revolution that permits a handful of major cultural centers such as Hollywood to impose their view of the world into every corner of the world, and the results of this are just beginning to be seen. The issue of Hollywood and New York imposing its view of the world to the plant is a given: the facts speak for themselves. But one then must grapple with the issue of whether or not this is a good thing? What gives Hollywood the right?

The general point is that the mega-technologies have brought the world closer together and sped up the speed at which we receive information. But what are the concrete results? Could any of these results have been foreseen in the late 1970s when this technology was being developed? And if not, what does this say about democratic governance? After all, computers and automobiles have revolutionized our society with far more direct results than who gets elected president. But again, there is no democratic control over these intimate invasions of our lives and the technologies themselves not only assume centralized control, but provide the agencies of centralization with greater and greater resources.

Mander’s thesis is that technology is already biased in terms of centralization and statism. In other words, the technological revolution, which clothed itself in the mantle of freedom and progress, in fact needs a huge centralized apparatus of physical, technical, educational, political and economic forms. The technologies that have revolutionized our society have both created and in fact, assumed the existence of a radically altered landscape that touches every element of human life.

The technical apparatus that must be in place to electrify an entire continent must be huge, not to mention the standing armies that must be in place to defend the corridors of energy transmission such as oil pipelines. Technology is political, and most certainly, is not isolated from the remainder of life. Technology has, in the20th century “second industrial revolution,” touched every aspect of human life without a vote taken.

All technologies have consequences, inevitable and built in, and imperatives, just as inevitable, essentially separate from human dictates and desires. Norbert Wiener, the mathematician who was the founder of modern cybernetics, has written about “technical determinants” dictated by “the very nature” of machines, and of the steam engine he noted that it automatically leads to large and ever larger scales because it can power so many separate machines at once, to ever increasing production because it must pay back its high investment and operating costs, and to centralization and specialization because factors of efficiency and economy supersede those of, say, craftsmanship or esthetic expression. (Sale, 1996).

Nevertheless, there can be no discussion of these topics without that of ideology. Technology does have its own ideology, and it needs to be “unpacked.” One might summarize this point of view this way: First, that technology has its own trajectory that is independent of the will of mankind. This can be challenged by the simple fact that all technological innovations of recent memory have been developed in a corporate setting under corporate rules for profit. Men have financed and created these things. But they have not financed or created these things blindly, as part of some “natural and inevitable process.” They have been created according to a scheme of thought.

Second, this scheme of thought is that happiness is a matter of technological progress and the accumulation of capital. In other words, the person that has the better car, high tech stereos and I-Pods, must, in general, be happier than one that does not, or has older, outdated equipment. Yet, there is no evidence for this, one would have a tough time pointing to research that says people are happier or less stressed now than they were 1,000 years ago.

Third,  the “market” is in control over whether or not technology is accepted and hence, democratically justifiable is often heard. In other words, the “democracy” problem is solved by the market itself. If new technologies are invented and marketed, people can choose to buy or not to buy. But is it that simple? One who buys the latest inventions is progressive, while the other is regressive. To have an 8-track player in one’s car is an occasion for mockery, regardless of the satisfaction one gets from having such “vintage” equipment. Advertising and marketing campaigns are not projected to one’s reason, but to one’s base passions, to be considered acceptable, lovable and intelligent, rather than boorish and ignorant. The acceptance or rejection of technology also partakes of these components as well.

I think that in general, these arguments are universally seen as undergirding and justifying the immense power of technology in modern societies, and in fact, even defining what “modern” actually is. While technology is taken for granted, the beginnings of a serious discussion can only begin when the basic assumptions of a technological life are unpacked. What are the assumptions and promises, and to what extent has the high-tech society succeeded in meeting these expectations? It might be unreflectively held that people who lived 1,000 years ago were uniformly miserable and ignorant, yet serious research into that field has succeeded in smashing that silly myth, but it still remains the domain of eccentric specialists.

Yet such a view undergirds much discussion on the question of technology and its role in society. Technology and its thought-apparatus have succeeded even in rewriting history to suit itself: people were miserable and ignorant up until the 19th century. It is difficult to see how the high-tech society can justify itself in any other way. But the nature of any “discussion” must have teeth. In other words, it must be attached to the ability of communities and families to break away from the grid and being living different, wholesome lives. Sterile academic “discussions” do nothing but justify faculty salaries. Such talk must have a revolutionary purpose, to shift the movement of progress as Bookchin sees it: from technological gigantism to miniaturism, starting with the means by which the machines are powered.

Given the above arguments, Kirkpatrick Sale has written substantially on the rebellion, both historical and modern, of the land versus the machine, the ultimate bi-modality in this discussion. His argument nicely dovetails with Mander in many respects. The first question is the difference between technology and a system of production. Mander holds that there is no difference, that machinery depends on a huge, centralized system of life and thought, the “bureaucratic man.” On the other hand, Sale holds that the real revolution was in the development of the steam engine.

For him, this was the first time that an invention came into existence completely independent of nature, rather than actually using it. Just as importantly, this invention also made the quantum jump from the world of local machines to an entire system of production and life. Steam created the modern factory and its discipline that derive from it (Sale, 1996). In other words, the development of steam took the organic community and plugged it into a world of production dominated by a handful of elites. But this should be noted: that it has been the issue of how machines are powered that led to the creation of the first “grid.”

Again, the issue comes back to that of energy. With this, the more optimistic view of Bookchin makes more sense, since it is really not machinery per se, but the means by which they are powered that is non-liberatory in its tendency. Bookchin seems to say that the reduction of power to solar and wind sources (among other natural sources) is both inevitable (as oil runs out and coal is too dirty) and morally demanded if decentralization and true local democracy are to become a reality.

In his “Five Facets of a Myth” Sale asks the simple question: has the 400 years since the Industrial revolution produces more or less happiness for humanity (as a whole)? Has it produced more equality, more justice, less work, less stress, more mental stability, for humanity as a whole? What were the promises of the technological revolution? These arguments, from Bacon to Compte have been nothing less than plenty, peace, less work and stress, a veritable utopia of production where drudgery would disappear. Diseases would be cured, wars ended and mental illness a thing of the past. But has industrialism and technology carried through on these promises? And what has been the cost of the convenience that industry has created?

It seems that Mander, Bookchin and Sale would all agree that the promises of industrialism and the technological revolution have not been fulfilled. As one sort of knowledge is brought forward, some others are left behind. All that does not conform to the English model of industrialization (or industrialization in general), is dismissively called “backward” and “primitive,” as terms of abuse.

II. Society, Churches and the Technological Revolution

As a matter of course, society seems to be a passive victim of the propaganda of the industrialists. Technology has invaded every corner of human life, altering landscapes of entire continents. All of this has been done long before any kind of debate has been engaged. This is the central problem. On the whole, churches have accepted the technological revolution with little protest. There are small exceptions: the Russian Old Believers, the Amish, some traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox writers have detailed the problems, both moral and social, of technology and its dominance over life.

One promising area of research has been developed by the green anarchists, who have taken at least some of their material from the erstwhile Murray Bookchin, who advocated a humanized technology detached from centralized structures. Solar power is the perennial example, since it is relatively easy to install and is off a grid, in other words, it need not be connected into any larger structures of power. Bookchin, in his 1970 Post Scarcity Anarchism, contains a powerful essay called “Toward a Liberatory Technology.”

The early date of this publication makes it of great interest in modern writings against the technological revolution. Bookchin is far more optimistic than Mander, and holds that the movement in this revolution is toward the small scale: computers and machinery in general are getting physically smaller and using less and less energy. This movement is a good thing and can assist in the building of a new, decentralized society (Bookchin, 1970, 59).

A liberated society, I believe, will not want to negate technology precisely because it has liberated and can strike a balance. It may well want to assimilate the machine to artistic craftsmanship. By this I mean that the machine will remove the toil from the productive process, leaving its artistic completion to man. The machine, in effect, will participate in human creativity. . . In a liberated community the combination of industrial machines and craftsmans tools could reach a degree of sophistication and of creative interdependence unparalleled in any period of human history (Bookchin, 1970, 80).

The distinction between Mander and Bookchin in clear: For the former, technology is inherently biased, at least in its present manifestation. Mander, like Bookchin, holds that solar and wind power is the wave of the future, and, in general, can mean that life “off the grid” is quite possible, enhancing independence and local control over events. The central issue here is democracy and local control: off-grid means local control, and cultural and economic lives are not necessarily dictated by distant banks, the Federal Reserve or the global economy, none of which the average community has any control over. But in Bookchin’s case, the industrial revolution already contains the seeds of its decentralization and hence, sees in the industrial revolution seeds of a new, liberated society. In general, by the term “liberated” Bookchin means independent of centralized sources of control.

One interesting source of Christian radicalism has been the monastery. Here, especially in its Orthodox foundations, the technological revolution has been held at bay. For example, the Platina, California monastery of St. Herman is completely off grid. They have no running water or electricity, and grow most of their own food (Damascene, 2002). Their grounds are beautiful and spacious, and since they are vegetarians, hunting is prohibited (as is the case for all Orthodox monasteries). Their diet is very simple yet extremely healthy, and the community is growing. They run a major publishing house on generator power run by solar panels. The Platina experience has become central for giving an example of how to live a happy, healthy life without dependence on the system of interlocking systems of control which is meant by the term “grid.”

Another example might be the St. Mary’s community in St. Mary’s Kansas. This is a Roman Catholic community that only partially controls the small town of St. Mary’s. They seek to live their lives simply and peacefully in prayer and honest labor. It is not a monastery and families thrive there, but they have already received several visits from the FBI, paranoid that a “cult” was at work there. If anything, such communities have an uphill climb from the state as well as the media, whose coverage of the community has been uniformly hostile and uncomprehending. (cf. http://www.smac.edu, St. Mary’s Academy page, with some information on the community as a whole).

One can surmise with a great deal of justification that the average American family has embraced technology as “inevitable,” without fully understanding the complex consequences of such technologies. Slowly but surely however, the rather marginalized monastics, anarchists and greens have made somewhat of an impact. But if Bookchin is correct, the smaller scale of newer technologies will make a freer life possible with rather small changes in social consciousness. What seems to be at the center is the nature of power. If power can be locally created through bio-mass or solar energy, then technology can become liberatory. The grid seems to be based on power, i.e. energy, more than anything else though it cannot be limited to that.

Every community would approximate local or regional autarky. It would seek to achieve wholeness, because wholeness produces complete, rounded men who live in a symbiotic relationship with their environment. Even if a substantial portion of the economy fell within the sphere of a national division of labor, the overall economic weight of a society would still rest with the community (Bookchin, 1970, 83).

The central good here is independence. But it is difficult to square the American interest in “environmental politics” with anything other than a fashionable political cause. It is hard to see how such a superficial commitment can be brought to bear on the rather humane anarchism and communitarianism of Bookchin. It seems that for the moment, the experiments such as Platina will remain marginalized and unappealing to the masses. The debate might continue, but, for better or worse, that does not stop the “inevitable wheel of progress” from spinning.

A recent study from Cornell University suggests that most of Americans are strongly beginning to question the issue of genetically engineered foods. This technology was gradually introduced into food production largely unbeknownst to the American public. Hence, since about two-thirds of American food is so processed, the “debate” is largely a moot one. Nevertheless, Cornell claims that there has been a “slight but significant shift over time towards a little less support [for genetically engineered foods] and more risk perception” (Bio-Medicine, 2005).

What are the conclusions we can reach here? The first might be that the more practical questions of the ethic of technology must be brought under a more general heading: this heading has been dealt with above and is the relationship of technology to liberty and democracy. All other goods flow from this. If one can show that technology has led to a stressed, mentally unbalanced and mechanized society, then one must be able to reform the system and bring to bear new insights. If machinery is harmful to democracy and local control, then it needs to be eliminated, or at least, highly modified in the way that Bookchin proposes. Hiding behind arguments about the  “inevitable” nature of “technical progress” will not do, but these only beg the question.

Second, the question of technology and ethics is central to modern societies, and needs to be taken out of the classroom and into the Congress and the public square. These issues are not about the “environment” per se, but the environment is just an appendage of the more important questions concerning the nature of centralized economic control (whether from the state or corporate America, or an alliance of both) and its intimate relation to the history of technological progress. This is the bedrock issue of technology and its relation to ethics, that is, to freedom and autonomy. Freedom and autonomy, therefore, must also be the bedrock of a democratic order.

A Model Syllabus: A Brief Introduction

This seminar is entitled Technology and Democracy, and will meet five times. It will incorporate film, written work and discussion. All points of view are welcome and encouraged. Nevertheless, it should be made clear that the basic issues are defined as the relationship of technology and the sources of its creation and marketing with democracy, equality and safety. The issues below are meant to illustrate these basic themes from varying fields of study. This syllabus is meant to take the basic insights above, that is, the relationship of democracy to technology (as the center of technological ethics) and bring it to bear on more practical pursuits such as medicine or computer science.

Day I

The question of technology and children

Readings to have prepared beforehand:

Parens, Eric (2006) Surgically Shaping Children: Technology, Ethics and the Pursuit of Noramality. Johns Hopkins University Press

This work will be the main topic of the first meeting. Discussion and workshops will follow concerning the impact of technology on raising children. Topics will include, sex selection and abortion, genetic engineering and, importantly, the medicating of children, especially boys. Basic issues of sexism (especially anti-male bias) will be discussed

Day II

Ethics and Health Care Technology

Readings to have prepared beforehand

Anderson, James (2002) Ethics and Information Technology: A Care Based Approach to a Health Care System in Transition. Springer Books.

The discussion will center upon the nature of genetic engineering in the realm of medicine and ethics. But what needs to be stressed is the connection between the corporate or state control of medicine and the nature of ethics and centralized power.

A video will also be shown:

Sulmasy, Daniel (2004) Dignity, Vulnerability and Care of the Patient. St. Vincent’s Medical Center. 55 min (available at http://www.providence.org/oregon/programs_and_services/ethics/e15clips.htm)

Day III

Readings to have prepared beforehand

Ethics and Weapons Technology

Brigetedy, Ruben (2007) Ethics, Technology and the American Way of War. Routledge.

This component will concern technology and the development of weapons. There is no separate between the industrial revolution and the development of mass warfare and extremely high-casualty wars. Technology must face this element of itself, its promises to bring humanity peace and plenty are belied by the fact that technology has all of the most deadly weapons known to man. Science, in other words, is not intrinsically liberating, it can also enslave.

Day IV

Ethics and Information Technology

Readings to have prepared beforehand

Stamatellos, Giannis (2007) Computer Ethics: A Global Perspective. Jones and Bartlett

This part of the seminar will deal with the issues involved in computer technology and privacy. This is a central issue in today’s economy and must be dealt with. Issues such as Pay-Pal and Ebay will be discussed, as well as the potential for fraud and abuse.

Day V

Ethics and mental Health

Readings to have prepared beforehand

Dyer, Allen (1988) Ethics and Psychiatry. American Psychiatric Association Publications

Mental health and pharmaceuticals are important areas of ethics today. Tens of millions throughout the world are currently on legal, pharmaceuticals for mental illness. Hence, the issue goes right to the heart of this course: the intimacy of technology to the average person. In this case, the technology goes straight to the brain and manipulates the chemistry, altering the personality for better or worse. But at the same time, these medications are marketed for profit, hence creating a moral quandary: is the prescription of these medications medically necessary or even proper? Is the profit motive center stage here, or the science of medicine, and even more, to what extent has this science been controlled by the profit motive itself?

Students will end the seminar with a brief presentation concerning one of the these five topics relative to the main topic: the relation of technology to democracy and liberty.

Bibliography:

“American Opinions are Split on Genetically Engineered Food.” Bio Medicine News. 2005. (Bio-medicine.org)

Bookchin, Murray (1970) Post Scarcity Anarchism. AK Press.

Damascene, Fr. (2003). Fr. Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works. St. Herman’s Press (Fr. Seraphim founded the settlement at Platina, CA)

Mander, Jerry (2006). “Technologies of Globalization.” in Mander, ed. The Case Against the Global Economy. Sierra Club Books. 344-359

Sale, Kirkpatrick (1996) Rebels Against the Future. Basic Books

(nd) “Five Facets of a Myth.” Primitivism Online Journal. (Primitivism.org)

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