In his book on policy-making, Geoffrey Vickers talks about three related types of judgment – reality judgment (what is going on, also called appreciation or sense-making), value judgment and action judgment.
In his book on technology ethics, Hans Jonas notes “the excess of our power to act over our power to foresee and our power to evaluate and to judge” (p22). In other words, technology disrupts the balance between the three types of judgment identified by Vickers.
Jonas (p23) identifies some critical differences between technological action and earlier forms
- novelty of its methods
- unprecedented nature of some of its objects
- sheer magnitude of most of its enterprises
- indefinitely cumulative propagation of its effects
In short, this amounts to action at a distance – the effects of one’s actions and decisions reach further and deeper, affecting remote areas more quickly, and lasting long into the future. Which means that accepting responsibility only for the immediate and local effects of one’s actions can no longer be justified.
Jonas also notes that the speed of technologically fed developments does not leave itself the time for self-correction (p32). An essential ethical difference between natural selection, selective breeding and genetic engineering is not just that they involve different mechanisms, but that they operate on different timescales.
(Of course humans have often foolishly disrupted natural ecosystems without recourse to technologies more sophisticated than boats. For example, the introduction of rabbits into Australia or starlings into North America. But technology creates many new opportunities for large-scale disruption.)
Another disruptive effect of technology is that it affects our reality judgments. Our knowledge and understanding of what is going on (WIGO) is rarely direct, but is mediated (screened) by technology and systems. We get an increasing amount of our information about our social world through technical media: information systems and dashboards, email, telephone, television, internet, social media, and these systems in turn rely on data collected by a wide range of monitoring instruments, including IoT. These technologies screen information for us, screen information from us.
The screen here is both literal and metaphorical. It is a surface on which the data are presented, and also a filter that controls what the user sees. The screen is a two-sided device: it both reveals information and hides information.
Heidegger thought that technology tends to constrain or impoverish the human experience of reality in specific ways. Albert Borgmann argued that technological progress tends to increase the availability of a commodity or service, and at the same time pushes the actual device or mechanism into the background. Thus technology is either seen as a cluster of devices, or it isn’t seen at all. Borgmann calls this the Device Paradigm.
But there is a paradox here. On the one hand, the device encourages to pay attention to the immediate affordance of the device, and ignore the systems that support the device. So we happily consume recommendations from media and technology giants, without looking too closely at the surveillance systems and vast quantities of personal data that feed into these recommendations. But on the other hand, technology (big data, IoT, wearables) gives us the power to pay attention to vast areas of life that were previously hidden.
In agriculture for example, technology allows the farmer to have an incredibly detailed map of each field, showing how the yield varies from one square metre to the next. Or to monitor every animal electronically for physical and mental welbeing.
And not only farm animals, also ourselves. As I said in my post on the Internet of Underthings, we are now encouraged to account for everything we do: footsteps, heartbeats, posture. (Until recently this kind of micro-attention to oneself was regarded as slightly obsessional, nowadays it seems to be perfectly normal.)
Technology also allows much more fine-grained action. A farmer no longer has to give the same feed to all the cows every day, but can adjust the composition of the feed for each individual cow, to maximize her general well-being as well as her milk production.
In the 1980s when Borgmann and Jonas were writing, there was a growing gap between the power to act and the power to foresee. We now have technologies that may go some way towards closing this gap. Although these technologies are far from perfect, as well as introducing other ethical issues, they should at least make it easier for the effects of new technologies to be predicted, monitored and controlled, and for feedback and learning loops to be faster and more effective. And responsible innovation should take advantage of this.
Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press, 1984)
Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility (University of Chicago Press, 1984)
Geoffrey Vickers, The Art of Judgment: A Study in Policy-Making (Sage 1965)