Visioneers and Un-disciplined Philosophers of Technology

The main themes in philosophy of technology (PoT) over the last century and a half have gone from technological utopianism (such as views from Thorstein Veblen and the later works of Karl Jaspers) to dystopian nightmares (Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse) to a mix of wary enthusiasm and criticism (Albert Borgmann, Andrew Feenberg, Don Ihde, Philip Brey, Peter-Paul Verbeek). Hard and soft varieties of technological determinism mark both the utopian and dystopian views—each taking, in part at least, a macro view of Technology. The last thirty years have seen a shift to micro studies and practice-oriented PoT (examining technologies, not Technology).[1] This is often performed as a kind of postphenomenology, in the hopes of incorporating constructivist accounts of technological development and human impact (Verbeek, 2008, 2011, 2012). But is postphenomology, or as Verbeek describes his own contribution, mediation theory, the future of PoT? What does SE have to contribute to PoT that might move the latter away from micro-analyses and back toward broader claims that might help us organize our thoughts and views regarding how we want to develop technologies, including incorporating values into the technological designs themselves? One answer lies in the shift, espoused by contemporary philosophers of technology like Feenberg (1995, 2002), Brey (2010) and Verbeek (2012), to examining the ‘things’ (technical artifacts) themselves. Rather than seeking a broad pattern or theory of technological development, advance, etc., these contemporary philosophers of technology focus on the different contexts in which technologies develop and achieve integration. Unfortunately, the consumers of contemporary PoT are still academics and, occasionally, policy makers. A social epistemology of philosophy of technology would seek to include more voices that are not typically found in academic journals but rather in the popular press—the likes of Kevin Kelly, Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, and Evgeni Morozov.

Whereas classical philosophers of technology like Heidegger (1979) searched for the essence of Technology and looked nostalgically to the past to find societies that had ‘better’ interactions with technology in the hope of making current and future societies have more control over themselves and their world, Peter-Paul Verbeek (2005, 2008, 2012) would argue that technology use is simply part of being human. Verbeek’s technical mediation is a “forward looking” approach that rejects what he calls “transcendentalist” classical views. He instead sees mediation as “not simply something that happens to occur when technologies are used; it can have important social impacts, and therefore it deserves careful attention in practices of use and design” (Verbeek, 2012, p. 392). Although careful to avoid utopian perspectives on technology which held sway well into the twentieth century and have resurfaced in transhumanist movements (Dorrestijn, 2012), practitioners of philosophy of technical mediation presume that focusing on instances of particular technologies permits them to influence their use and design. In a sense, the philosophy of technical mediation brackets off broader discussions of Technology as non-starters because such discussions rely on past evidence and examples that may or may not shed any light on current contexts.

Without proposing a return to the study of Technology (as opposed to the current move of studying differentiated technologies), can SE salvage those broad discussions of technologies’ impact on the human condition or should SE follow the trend in contemporary PoT and focus instead on particular instances? Heidegger, Ellul and Marcuse each found something unsettling about the rising “techno-rationality”—a style of thinking that focuses on efficiency and profitability over other values. Recent criticism of current trends in PoT highlights its lack of attunement to political theory, political philosophy and ethics (Coeckelbergh, 2012). The turn to practice and micro-studies has left a gap that connects particular technologies to broader social, cultural, political and ethical themes. Focusing on the things themselves (a quasi-motto for Ihde’s postphenomology taken from Hegel) has blinded us to macro interactions. In a sense, techno-rational thought has won out. So far.

Thus, what could SE bring to PoT that might help connect the macro and the micro? Without simply returning to the as yet fruitless search for the essence of Technology (Heidegger, 1979), is there anything interesting and important we can say about the broad effects technologies have on our societies, cultures and individuals? Technological determinism is once again on the rise (if it ever left), particularly among those internal writers about technology (coders, engineers) and visioneers like Ray Kurzweil, and they propose a form of ‘hands-off’ view that appears to wish for us to let ‘technologies run their course’—as if they have a teleology and will of their own.[2] The false dichotomy many of these writers set up—either you are enthusiastic for technological advances or you are a Luddite—will permeate the publics unless offset by oppositional views. SE has the potential to offer such opposition by analyzing the multiple micro-studies and forming broader normative theories about the types of values we wish to impose on, and integrate into, our technologies and, thus, our societies. Though certainly context-dependent, human views of our world and ourselves are shaped by the technologies we use to see and interact with the world around us. The shift we need to make, emphasized by academic philosophers of technology like Feenberg (2002) and ‘un-disciplined’ philosophers of technology like Kelly, Lanier and Morozov, is toward examining the values that our technologies promote and determining whether or not these are the values we want to advocate. Because many of the proposed ‘solutions’ to environmental and social problems are often technical solutions (finding non-petroleum energy sources, increasing education opportunities for under-served segments of populations through MOOCs and other online venues, and assuming since so much ‘information’ is available that everyone will learn how to access, assess and utilize such information) that do not address the non-technical causes of the problems, our solutions will remain temporary. Devising and implementing such new technologies attract our attention because these technological solutions do not require people to change themselves. We have not addressed our increasing energy consumption habits or the social conditions that make education (higher or otherwise) difficult to achieve. With each technical solution, further economic, environmental, ethical, social and political issues will arise. What we need are discussions of the values we wish to promote in our societies in conjunction with the development of technologies.

Peter-Paul Verbeek’s (2005) call for philosophers of technology to work with designers of technologies and technological systems is a step toward infusing philosophical insight into the design process. Exploring the ethical dimensions of the proposed technologies, however, is not something left only to philosophers and/or engineers. Designers of technologies cannot accurately predict the uses of those same technologies (Feenberg, 1995), but that does not mean more philosophical input in the design phases of technologies will provide more accuracy. Instead, and here SE enters the discussion, questions about the need for specific technologies, and normative discussions of how these technologies will alter our worldview, should take place before and during the design phases of technologies.

As individuals and institutions plan, design, and implement—visioneer—future technologies, it is important to explain the theoretical and normative positions inherent in these visions. For general publics to be included in the design phases of future technologies, it is important to understand the normative foundations and goals of those people visioneering future societies in order to better understand the implications of such changes and goals. The historical perspective is crucial to such understanding, like that offered by McCray (2012), but equally important are analyses and critiques of these ventures. What type of future do we want and how do we best design that future? These questions must be addressed by philosophers of technology as the publics should understand what they take on when they endorse and fund such projects.

It is not simply a matter of visioneers offering fresh perspectives or slightly updated versions of socially accepted technologies. The visions of the future they endorse have profound social, economic, ethical and political reverberations. Informed publics are essential, we argue, because of the effects these technologies will have on individuals, communities, and cultures. Human-technology relations must be explained and understood as vital to all visioneering projects in order for broad publics to accept and ultimately implement these technologically designed lifeworlds. Historians of technology like McCray (2012) offer the necessary descriptive components for public (un-disciplined) philosophers of technology, sufficiently informed by SE, to debate and publicize. A way beyond the deterministic and teleological current coursing through the works of visioneers, including Fuller (2012, 2014b), involves public debate and discussion of the ethical, economic, political and social theories found at the base of visioneering projects. We posit a quasi-contructivist view whereby we recognize the values humans design into developing technologies and assess whether these are the values we should instill in them.

One need not be an engineer or philosopher to participate in such discussions or to have her criticisms taken seriously. The rush to production, because it appears more efficient or profitable, must be balanced with other values and desires derived from different contexts, i.e., how these technologies will affect individuals and cultures in different parts of the world. Social epistemologists, straddling multiple academic traditions, seem poised to enter such deliberations at the design phases. Thus, a key concern SE could address in philosophy of technology would be how to ensure that more voices and options can be incorporated into the design of our technologies because these technologies will affect us all in different manners. One step in this direction would be directly addressing general publics in non-academic journals and books.

‘Un-discplined’ philosophers of technology like Kelly, Lanier, Morozov and Kurzweil all reach broader audiences than their academic counterparts, and much could be learned from their rhetorical maneuvering (the outlets they publish their work in, their style of writing, how they engage various audiences). A social epistemology of philosophy of technology should seek to infuse more of the style and content of these ‘un-disciplined’ philosophers of technology if it wishes to engage audiences outside of academia. Otherwise, we risk leaving the design of our technologies, which will have important and far-reaching impact on the world, in the hands of internalists—economists, engineers, policy makers, academic philosophers, etc. Social epistemology has championed the notion that our world needs more public intellectuals unafraid of voicing contrary opinions in order to foster and develop different viewpoints and perspectives (Fuller, 2006). A social epistemology of philosophy of technology provides the opportunity for just such engagement, but key questions remain regarding just how this will be accomplished.

Philosophy of technology needs speakers espousing a variety of normative positions regarding technological developments (both specific cases and general trends that have widespread impact), and these normative agendas should be fully elucidated in a manner that is comprehensible and clear to more than just academic audiences. Patrick McCray’s (2012) work describing visioneers as “enthusiasts” is an adequate description, but it also insufficient. By choosing the label ‘enthusiast’ rather than ‘determinist,’ McCray utilizes a rhetorical strategy of—partly at least—concealing the normative agendas of the visioneers he describes, perhaps because of the historical, philosophical, and sociological baggage that determinism carries with it. Describing Stewart Brand’s normative vision, McCray draws from Brand’s personal diary:

After seeing the first space shuttle at Rockwell International’s factory in Palmdale, California, [Brand] wrote: ‘Technology, kiddo. This is to today what the great sailing ships were to their day. Get with the program or stick to your spinning wheel.’ (p. 356)

Brand’s normative implications are clear: get involved in technological progress—or, at the very least accept it—or get out of the way of those who do want such technological changes. McCray passes over this assessment of the visioneer Stewart Brand, but such assessment is necessary in order to elucidate the normative position Brand advocates. The false dichotomy of ‘enthusiast’ or ‘luddite’ promotes the attitude that those not in favor of new technological developments wish to return to some technologically inferior past. Visioneers possess no greater predictive powers than anyone else, but they do, as stated earlier, have the means to bring their ideas to fruition. The social epistemologist as analyst of visioneering projects must explicate the normative implications of these plans to non-academic and non-engineering audiences. Policies and rules to govern developing technologies need not wait until the ‘end of the day’ when the technologies have been implemented and affect humans and societies. Social epistemologists have the opportunity to help set future policy agendas by scrutinizing the impacts such developing technologies may have on humans and institutions.

Once normative agendas have been explained and discussed, public 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]. Because technological development is neither deterministic nor teleological,[3] 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.

[1] I follow Hans Achterhuis’s (2001) demarcation of philosophy of technology, but this distinction also has roots in Carl Mitcham’s Thinking through technology (1994). Mitcham distinguishes engineering philosophy of technology and humanities philosophy of technology. Though useful distinctions, his “Notes toward a philosophy of meta-technology” (1995) begins to demarcate philosophy of technology in ways that closely resemble how Achterhuis (2001), Brey (2010) and Verbeek (2011) distinguish classical and modern philosophy of technology, now a commonly accepted distinction.

[2] As mentioned earlier, Steve Fuller’s own proactionary and transhumanist writings evince similar agendas (c.f. Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0 and The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism).

[3] This ideas serves as a central tenet of contemporary philosophy of technology and STS generally.