This is dedicated to my former students. In case I didn’t quite make clear my message about technology being good, bad, or neutral, let me sum up…
Philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and even some savvy technologists (engineers included), have long debated the neutrality of technology: Is it inherently good or is it inherently evil? Even as I am writing this, an article just appeared in my inbox asking “Is The Digital World Hurting Us Or Making Things Easier?”
As you might imagine, the arguments range from the miracles of modern medicine to the incomprehensible scale and dehumanization of modern warfare. More nuanced arguments recognize that the designer’s morals and ethics are embedded in the technology, because humans are social and cultural creatures; we create according to our experiences. I know, right? Sooooo, obvious, why need to even discuss it?!?!?!?!
Somewhere in all of this though, there are others who argue technology is neither good nor evil. Technology does not have a mind to make up. Technology cannot make a moral judgement. Technology may reflect the designer’s morality or the user’s ethics, but cannot be judged as the purveyor of good or evil.
I have touched on this before in a post titled Banal. It was for a sociology class that I was taking. I ended the post with my interpretation of Nancy Spero’s sketch, S.U.P.E.R.P.A.C.I.F.I.C.A.T.I.O.N., that “the very neutrality of technology is itself detrimental.” Whether or not technology is good, bad, or evil is irrelevant, and the North American news of this past week confirms this for me.
In the US, accusations about the causes of the Connecticut shooting are being bandied about like a kernels in an air popper. It’s the gun laws! It’s lack of health care! It’s bad parenting! In the same week, up here in the Great White North, Canada is digesting a 1400-page inquiry into the serial killings of 20 women plucked from Vancouver’s notorious Downtown East Side. Huffpost Canada’s Media Critic, JJ McCullough summarizes the report as a document that points the finger at police incompetence, public apathy, and political bias, but that it still misses the mark. McCullough argues the fault lies with the media.
Sure. Let’s blame the media. As soon as we figure out who not what “the media” is. Just like every other technology, the media is neutral. Guns are neutral. Medical technology is neutral. Even the space we call the Downtown East Side is neutral. We are in a systemic dilemma, and within that system, we are the actors, and our technology is nothing more than our means of carrying out our actions.
Weapons, health care, and media are no more responsible for deaths than cars. For the very reason that technology cannot make moral or ethical decisions, it is up to us to take responsibility for tragic events. Last year, my family lost a beautiful, kind, generous member who was doing his job to protect society. He died not because of a decision by the mini-van, but by the driver. The mini-van still doesn’t care, but the driver, his family, and my family do.
My Dad once explained that owning a dog is “like having a two-year-old that never grows up.” Technology never grows up either and it doesn’t even deserve the credit of a two-year-old’s capacity. No matter how “intelligent” or “smart” we think we can make it, technology does not, cannot, and will never evolve of it’s own volition.
Humans are the only elements of this system who aren’t neutral. We are the ones responsible for caring for one another and helping members of our society who need our empathy not our judgements. We need to stop pointing fingers and start putting a finger on all of the factors and elements in our social systems that repeatedly lead to tragic losses.
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