The World We Make With Tech

Langdon Winner suggests that we should be more aware of the consequences of our technological creations. Technology, he says, is far less benign and neutral than we often assume.

How much does technology shape the way we live our lives? Technology often makes specific actions easier: a ballpoint pen is far simpler than the ink-and-quill combination we that had been the previous standard; Bifocals are far more convenient than carrying two pairs of glasses around everywhere. In some cases, advancements are that simple. They take an older, complicated problem and solve it with a simpler and more-convenient approach. These minor improvements in existing technologies rarely attract attention or criticism; in fact, many seem to be manifestations of a certain inevitable yet slow progress. Langdon Winner, in his contribution to Epistemology, Methodology, and the Social Sciences, writes that our society often views minor progress as nothing to think much of. We see each small change as an “occasional, innocuous, nonstructuring occurrence, and any further questioning seems irrelevant.” We don’t see a need to question the cause of each change or the consequences of the new technology.

But other technological developments are more significant, both in terms of their difference from what precedes them and in how society adapts to them. These advancements take a different—not just an improved—approach to a problem. A notably different approach sometimes requires a notably different structure of support to make it practical. I am reminded here of Henry Ford’s explanation of innovation: he said that if he gave people only what they knew they wanted, he would have made a faster horse. By re-thinking the possibilities of the problem of automotive production, he developed the mass-produced Model T, rather than additional versions of the expensive vehicles being produced one at a time by other manufacturers. However, the mass production and greater affordability of automobiles brought with it a greater need for road surfaces that are more resilient than dirt, better controls for traffic and driving permissions. The eventual development of traffic jams and a national reliance on processed petroleum fuels likely goes without saying. Our society now expects nearly everyone to have access to personal transportation. Suburbs, now a common fixture in most metropolitan areas, are possible only because their residents have their own cars. A technological development literally rearranged our cities.

Not all technological advancements are so obvious in their influence, and that added subtlety means the changes can be more difficult to detect. If we consider the more recent development of smartphones, we can see changes not in the layout of buildings but in the nature of our expectations. Numerous authors have written about our modern thinking being accustomed to instant access to information (see Nicholas Carr) or one another (see Sherry Turkle), which I discussed in a post about the cost of increasing speed. There is no physical manifestation of an internal desire for immediacy, so we cannot watch as the changes happen. Changes from modern technology are hidden from view, but not from everyday life. While the ability to be “plugged in” all the time was nearly unthinkable before 2007, today, unplugging completely is nearly impossible. New cellular towers on land continue to improve reception. Airlines are rolling out onboard wi-fi, and cruise ships often provide both cellular and wireless access. These invisible signals are impossible to see, but they increasingly make relaxation and a separation from one’s work equally elusive.

Many people consider technology to be innocent and innocuous. We often believe that technology, because it exerts no will of its own, is only a device to be used by people as we see fit; we believe the people make technology “good” or “evil” by its use. As Winner puts it, “because technological objects and processes have a promiscuous utility, they are taken to be fundamentally neutral as regards their moral standing.” Because technology is so often divorced from moral judgements, it can be seen as impartial, innocuous, even inevitable. If advances in technology are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, they can simply continue to happen without any need for concern. Or so the thinking goes. Winner calls this willing suspension of concern over the implications of technological advancement a kind of “sleepwalking”, and he argues that allowing unquestioned progress can fundamentally alter society, and that by ignoring it, we risk changing our society in undesirable ways. Winner points out that “We so willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence.” To him, the technological determinism that many people feel—the idea that progress is inevitable and neutral—is a kind of intentional, unchecked ignorance with frightening implications.

Technology is making our lives easier, but it’s also creating a world in which we are almost permanently attached to our gadgets and separated from one another. The “advances” of modern society could arguably be considered detrimental. While we have more information at our fingertips than generations past ever knew, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know how best to manage that information. While communications technology is making it easier than ever before to remotely connect with other people, it is changing the nature of our relationships and our ideas of closeness. When it used to be that an in-person conversation was the only way to stay in touch, we then came to accept long-distance phone calls as near replacements. Now, text messaging is a more-convenient, less-intrusive, more-immediate form of communication, the popularity of which seems inversely proportional to the user’s age. The fact that our mobile phones can place phone calls now seems almost trite or inconsequential.

The rest of what our mobile phones now do is hardly so mundane. Winner separates technology by influence.

“It is important to ask, Where, if at all, have modern technologies added fundamentally new activities to the range of things human beings do? Where and how have innovations in science and technology begun to alter the very conditions of life itself?” (emphasis in original)

I can’t help but wonder whether, when developing new technology, we’re able to determine the scope of influence as Winner demands. As a fan of Apple products since the late 1990s, I’ve seen my share of claims that such-and-such a device is “revolutionary”. However, when I look back on the introduction of the iPhone, for instance, I see a quality to the introduction that suggests Apple was well aware of the scope of what it is introducing. Steve Jobs very deliberately presented the iPhone as a device able to offer “fundamentally new activities” to human actions. The question, according to Winner, is whether they sufficiently considered the implications of those new abilities.

Winner tells us that “it always pays to ask in advance about the qualities of the artifacts, institutions, and human experiences currently on the drawing board.” Because Apple seems to have one of the largest and most creative drawing boards in the technological industry right now, this concern is particularly relevant to their corporate strategy. Winner’s call to action is that “we must admit our responsibility for what we are making.” When the world we make is being made by a multi-billion-dollar corporation, accountability for such questioning is very difficult to trace. When it comes to modern technological advancements, I wonder who would feel qualified to take responsibility for the world we are making.

This entry is the seventh in a continuing series of responses to chapters from Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, a collection edited by David M. Kaplan, © 2004 Rowman & Littlefield. Other responses are filed in the Philosophy category of blog posts. This post includes no external links because I am attempting to take my own advice and unplug a bit; this entry was composed on a ship moving at about twenty knots through the Caribbean Sea.
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