Future Fundamentals of Philosophy of Technology; Or, Un-disciplined (Public) Philosophy of Technology

And yes, the following will sound like a manifesto.

Philosophy of technology needs speakers espousing a variety of normative positions, and these normative agendas should be fully elucidated in a manner that they are comprehensible to more than academic audiences.


Once normative agendas have been explained and discussed, these same philosophers of technology must engage critics of their normative positions in order to further clarify the various positions. The multiple positions on each topic should be presented by supporters of those particular claims in order to ensure they receive their strongest reading and pronouncement (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, 1859, pp. 67-70). Martha Nussbaum also speaks to this idea.


A solely descriptive philosophy of technology is insufficient to help shape the direction of thought regarding human-technology relations.


Philosophers of technology must teach, and be taught, to engage more than other philosophers of technology, academics and policy makers. Philosophers of technology have a social responsibility to broader publics that requires them to engage and provide, at minimum, a normative agenda directing future thought and action regarding technologies, both developed and developing.


Academic and pedagogical curricula must be developed for teaching philosophy of technology to undergraduate and graduate students. Technological literacy?


Because technological development is neither deterministic nor teleological, all normative positions regarding human-technology relations must be held as tenable. Therefore, they will require future defense and explication when such social, economic, political and philosophical criteria that serve as their base are altered by future conditions.


Suspension of judgment regarding human-technology relations shall be a last recourse, and any such suspension will have definite and explicit temporal limits.


From J. S. Mill (1859) On Liberty: pp. 96-97

I do not pretend that the most unlimited use of the freedom of enunciating all possible opinions would put an end to the evils of religious or philosophical sectarianism. Every truth which men of narrow capacity are in earnest about is sure to be asserted, inculcated, and in many ways even acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world, or at all events none that could limit or qualify the first. I acknowledge that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest discussion, but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby; the truth which ought to have been, but was not, seen, being rejected all the more violently because proclaimed by persons regarded as opponents. But it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil; there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood. And since there are few mental attributes more rare than that judicial faculty which can sit in intelligent judgment between two sides of a question of which only one is represented by an advocate before it, truth has no chance but in proportion as every side of it, every opinion which embodies any fraction of the truth, not only finds advocates, but is so advocated as to be listened to. (pp. 96-7)

Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies

Steve Fuller’s 2006 Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies served an important function in my first year studying Science and Technology Studies (STS). First, it gave voice to some sentiments  I had regarding the place of philosophy in STS. It also provided an extended, if somewhat intellectually daunting, overview of the history of STS into the early 2000s. I quickly became lost in Fuller’s references to positivist tendencies, 19th century sociologists, science wars debates and a host of other thinkers and themes. In short, I was just starting in STS and had no real bearings on what had come before I arrived.

As I go back to the text five years later, I realize first that, though still somewhat daunting, Fuller’s review of intellectual thought relating to knowledge formation, practices and theory makes much more sense now that I have more contact with the epochs and writers he describes. I also see that many of the questions I began asking my first year still tug at me: why is philosophy not as strong a component of STS as I wish it to be? where, outside of activism (and I in no way wish to belittle that important and crucial function), do normative claims in STS arise?  

Fuller (2006) argues that STS practitioners, and texts, provoke us “to engage in theory rather than philosophy. ‘Theory’ consists of serval possible frameworks for doing STS research, whereas ‘philosophy’ constitutes a more basic inquiry that asks embarrassing questions about the relative merits of particular frameworks vis-a-vis the reasons we have for wanting to do STS research in the first place” (p. 5). Yet, philosophers and philosophical questions are at the core of why STS emerged as a discipline (at least at Virginia Tech, my current institution) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2009, at the 4S conference (Society for the Social Studies of Science), I presented a talk “Toward a Philosophy of Technology Studies,” claiming that STS needed such a philosophy. One commenter remarked that STS already has a philosophy, Actor-Network Theory. Though I do not mean to imply that everyone would agree with that commenter, it struck me as odd for two reasons: 1. no one in the audience disagreed with him; and 2. ANT is a theory, perhaps even a methodology, but not a philosophy.

In the subsequent years since that 4S conference, I have alternated between disillusionment with STS and its lack of direct philosophical orientation, and hope that there may be a way to bring normative discussions about the creation, mediation and transfer of knowledge/values back into STS discussions–if you follow, as I do, the idea that such discussions are not already part of STS. Fuller’s Social Epistemology (SE), not Alvin Goldman’s Analytic Social Epistemology (ASE), opened up a way for me to bring in normative discussions of STS issues. Unfortunately, as Fuller (2006, p. 8) notes, his philosophy of STS and SE do not explicitly deal with technology studies. Readings in philosophy of technology introduced me to STS in the first place, so I was filled with hope–that there was a topic for me in SE that had few people working on it, and thus a place for my ideas–and hesitation–that there was a topic for me in SE that had few people working on it, and thus where would I find basis and support for my ideas. 

in progress…

‘particle physics’ is taped before a live studio audience

what do we learn when experiments, like those at cern, are taped to be broadcast (like the documentary ‘particle’)? scientists get even more nervous than they might performing in a lab in front of only their colleagues. they feel as if they are being observed to closely (they should talk to performers: theatre, music, sport, academics(?). attention, cameras, and audience affect their science (again, should we say the same about synchronous and asynchronous online classes?). they want to do experiments once or twice, test runs, to practice before anyone watches them. understandable. but should that happen?

scientists are increasingly connected on scales transcending campus, country, culture, language, and paradigm. yet, many of these scientists will hear about first discoveries/results on twitter or facebook. and why is that bad in the sense that otherwise they might have had to wait for in-depth blog posts or, much longer, journal articles. the ‘data’ coming in, so heralded, lauded and fawned over, comes in very fast. so fast individuals and teams cannot understand–nor even would they have a chance to ‘observe’ it by looking at the recorded data in anything like what we would now consider a ‘reasonable’ amount of time (years, perhaps, not weeks or months). and algorithms to interpret the data are born. but the algorithms are a collection of current ideas. do the programs change themselves, adapting, without human intervention? human intervention would require reanalysis of the data. something no one likely wants when so much more information keeps coming in from new experiments. 
and what is all the data about, actually? the scientists talk of nature being revealed: nature revealing itself. confirming, again, what i would consider a bane of much modern philosophy: the subject-object dichotomy. many scientists have a realism forged through faith: that there is a real explanation, if only we become subtle and attentive enough to listen. that there are laws governing, confining, reassuringly buttressing us, an edge to lean upon. belief. desire for a regularity yet hoping for more to discover and explain. test tube buccaneers. particle pirates. because they need rules/boundaries to push against. something to take from the unsuspecting. 
the scientists would have to become media savvy. many likely don’t want that. so what? does it make the more social and outgoing of their number into better scientists? because they are exposed to more scientists from different cultures and groups? we could go into the idea that pluriculture is not just preferable, but actually the reality. that multiple cultures do not just exist independently of each other. the pluriculture, where separate cultures interact with each other, weaving technologies, ideas, religions, economic schemes, values, etc. 
the cern experiment itself is fascinating in its social scope–countries, languages, cultures, values, paradigms, ethics. how much are they interacting? how much are they collaborating? how much should they be? is it only the data that are uniting them? without the experiment, would they not talk? 
i wonder if there are more technologies at work on the project than there are people. likely so. yet humans made ways to integrate them (sometimes at least), enable them to perform seamlessly. from the size of a building to smaller than an eye can see, and then into a different plane–programming and computational–that is hidden (black-boxed and made opaque) from vision in a way that may, perhaps, mimic the microchip.
wild. sometimes things just align. just saw this article and line from Dr. Ben Goldacre:
“The world of public science is changing fast. Anyone can engage with the public, and this presents new challenges, but huge opportunities. There is now a vast army of nerds who are popularising science online and in pubs, theatres, cafes and more. They are often able to do pop science better than the big names of mainstream media. I look forward to working with the BSA to give this nerd army the respect, support, and love it deserves.”