Thinking through Technology Part I

Part II

Part III

This presentation weaves together several of my ongoing and recent projects, including a computer ethics class that I teach regularly at the undergraduate and graduate level and a forthcoming article in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Blackwell), as well as elements from my dissertation work in theological ethics which focused on eschatological hope as a virtue.

As a roadmap of where we are heading, here are a few guideposts. First, we will set the stage surveying the current landscape in technological innovation generally speaking.  We, then, will turn our attention to discern the nature of technology and to mine the resources of two fields of study likely unfamiliar to many of us (i.e., philosophy of technology and computer ethics) in a section entitled “In Search of a Philosophy of Technology.” While you might be surprised to hear that such a field as computer ethics exists, the issues presented by the convergence of bioethics with communication and information technologies make an understanding of this field critically important. Finally, we will offer some preliminary questions and assessments of the emerging biotech discussion with particular interest in those issues that focus on the remaking of humanity under the rubric of technological responsibilism.  My working proposal is that many of the difficulties presenting us with these emerging technologies focus on our underlying inability to assess technology and its relationship to humanity, and that much of this can be alleviated by some attention to a philosophy and more importantly a theology of technology.

Surveying the Technological Landscape
For better or for worse, life in the 21st Century is a reality marked by technological immersion. Technology, according to theologian Brent Waters, “is the way we live and move and have our being in today’s age.” Not surprisingly Christians adopt technology on pace with the average US cultural demographics. Meanwhile, the engagement of these same Christians with the ever emerging technologies has ranged from thoughtful and critical reflections on a number of pressing bioethical issues to an unhindered mass consumption of many information, communication, and cyber-technologies. It is precisely the unhindered consumption of technology that marks one form of ethical impotence present in contemporary American culture at large and unfortunately far too frequently characteristic of many Christian faith communities as well.

The marvels of technological innovations move at breakneck speeds from speculative science fiction to consumer product reality. They range from the biological sciences (e.g., genetic testing and therapies; therapeutic and reproductive cloning; embryonic and non-embryonic stem cell research; life extension and immortality research; and chimera—animal-human hybrid— or cybrid research) to the agricultural (e.g., animal husbandry for xenotransplantation, genetically-altered crops and cloned livestock) to the realm of information technology (e.g., data mining, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics) and, finally, to converging futuristic technologies already visible and emerging on the horizon (e.g., nanotechnology medical monitoring and treatment devices; decreasing technological distance in the user interface via brain implants and neural imaging; on to the shift from therapeutic use of prosthetics to cyborg enhancement, human replacement and posthuman agendas such as the transhumanists).  By the end of this year one company intends to bring to market a neural headset that will serve as a remote input device for computers and gaming systems.

As has been mentioned in a variety of contexts and made popular through individuals such as Nigel Cameron, while many of the ethical questions of the late 20th Century dealt with bioethical concerns over the beginning and end of life issues (the making and taking of human life), the questions raised by these new, these emerging technologies threaten to change the nature of the human species and the very essence of what it means to be human. We are on the cusp of entering a new phase in ethical issues surrounding these technologies shifting the bioethical questions to those surrounding the remaking of humanity and the human being as such.

The problems facing us in this new age of remaking are many. First, the general public and even the educational elite see many of these technologies as merely science fiction, when in reality many of them have been demonstrated in proof of concept types of research.  Secondly, the general public frequently checks out of the conversation as soon as any technical discussion begins.  Finally, the speed at which we move from concept to application is increasingly shortened, leaving little time for preparation and ethical reflection.

In Search of a Philosophy of Technology:
One pressing area of reflection is the need for a robust Christian philosophy of technology. Christianity has had a varied relationship with science and as might be expected the technological revolution is no exception. Responses to technology within and without Christianity have ranged from total rejectionism (luddites) to critical or uncritical adoptionism (technological pragmatists) on to those who worship at the altar of technological messianism (technicists or techno-utopians), though these individuals on the fringes are few and between, although the technicists are growing outside the fold. The vast majority of the general American population, whether Christian or otherwise defaults somewhere in the middle category, with a strong tendency toward uncritical consumerism. Planned obsolescence and abbreviated product life cycles tempt us into the latest and greatest. While not worshiping at an altar of technological redemption, many of us find ourselves captive to the lust for greater efficiency and unrestrained technological capacity.

If you’re anything like me, we too are products of this overly technicized age. Blackberry (check), ultralight mobile notebook, wireless earpiece, mobile digital recorder (check, check, check). In our entertainment life, we want the biggest LCD’s or Plasma TV’s. We want the latest technology, the cutting-edge treatments, and if we can be environmentally responsible, and all on interest-free credit, even better. Perhaps one of the most significant demonstrations of this in recent technology was the release of the iPhone.

Increasingly I have become aware of a personal trend toward mechanization in my life and the subsequent driving pursuit for efficiency. This is something I will return to later, but we can make some preliminary connections. Most if not all of us remember the early days of modems, email and electronic bulletin boards. It is interesting to analyze the level of impatience with communication delays as we saw a parallel increase in download speed and internet access. In the early days of what became the web, if you were one of the few to be connected through a modem, now if a page does not load instantaneously I become irritated. With the onset of mobile browsing and blackberry services I find myself squeezing every last bit of time out of sitting at red lights, hallways and lounges between meetings, even on the way out to the mailbox. I find it increasingly difficult to unplug, to unwire every moment of my life. What is troublesome is that without reflection these tools are changing the way that I interact with people and forcing me to accommodate lifestyle choices driven by them. My wireless earpiece seems less foreign to me each and every time I use it.

Within one camp of responses are Christian thinkers who call for careful examination and offer responses that are suggestive of a sentimentalist rejection of these emerging technologies.  By this sentimentalism rejection I mean an appeal to a less technologically available age, where the technology itself is the real problem. The technological sentimentalism expressed by these types of respondents have led to the charge that Christians are technological luddites—a pejorative charge aimed at marginalizing any critical response to the unhindered pursuit of technological progress.

Technology here is a threat, something inherently evil. This technological sentimentalism is labeled by Carl Mitcham as Ancient Skepticism, which questions the value of the new. In a worldview where tradition and longstanding practice and beliefs is valued, innovation is perceived as a wrong or an evil to be avoided.  In the culture wars, technological advancement has become a divisive political topic.

On the other end of the continuum, only a small minority of the population have been involved in any sort of technological messianism. Here technology is savior of society and thus is something inherently good and to be desired.  Despite only having a small following, the majority of contemporary Christians appropriate a form of chastened technological optimism, thus, defaulting to a naïve technological pragmatism uncritically appropriating technology via a consumerist mentality. We want what we want, when we want it.  This is not only expressed in the mainstream consumer markets, but similar sentiments can be seen in medical and scientific communities as well. Technicism in its purist form is more of a cultural artifact of a secularized mindset rooted in a form of scientism—the belief that human ingenuity will solve all of problems through unhindered scientific research.

A third category of engagement is the reflection of what I have begun to refer to as technological responsibilists. Stephen Monsma offers a Christian definition of technology as “a distinct human cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility in response to God by forming and transforming the natural creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for practical ends or purposes” (Monsma 1986, 19). He and others like Jacques Ellul and Albert Borgmann offer a position of critical uneasiness with the ubiquity of our technological immersion and its impacts upon our humanity. They seek to call our attention to the line between tool and homo faber that increasingly has blurred, but in a manner that demonstrates sophisticated understanding of the technologies themselves.

A Proposal for Technological Responsibilism
Several unresolved questions mark current discussions between Christianity and the new and emerging technologies. The development of a sophisticated Christian philosophy of technology will need to account for the following areas:

  1. Theological Anthropology: A robust notion of what it means to be human must be developed that properly balances both the physicality and transcendent spirituality of human beings. Whereas previous generations struggled with asserting the transcendent spirituality of humanity in contrast to the animal kingdom by emphasizing the importance of the image of God, Christianity in our technologically driven age will increasingly face the disturbing prospect of disembodied reality and the dehumanizing replacement of physicality by virtual technologies. While many of these technologies promise to improve the quality of life, some threaten to alter the very essence of what it means to be human. These are watershed moments in our common humanity that need to be seriously examined and watched for. Those of us on the front end of these technologies must be ever more vigilant to look out for the emergence and impact of these landscape shaping and altering issues. Furthermore, Christians are not just people of the book, they are a community of faith. Many of these technologies offer unique opportunities for fostering relationships, but with the loss of real life interaction.  Whatever creatureliness means, humans are clearly not tools and we must resist conceptions of technology that reduce us to such. Furthermore we must be ever careful with the distinction between reality and virtuality—the simulacra, the synthetic, the artificial. When we lose this distinction we do so at significant risk.
     

  2. Technological Ontology:  Technologists must eventually grapple with the nature of these technologies themselves. On the one hand technicism is built on the assumption that technology is inherently good, while on the other hand, technological rejectionists (or luddites) view technology as inherently evil. While this grossly oversimplifies the issues at stake, it raises the notion of values and value-ladenness as a concern regarding the nature of emerging technologies. What, if any, values are built into a hammer? A bicycle? Atomic energy? The fabric of cyberspace? Are these values purely the products of the user?

    For my computer ethics students these are some of the most difficult question for them to answer in the course. Given the typical age of many college students and increasingly my graduate students as well, they can hardly image a world without their Cellphones, myspace / facebook and text messaging, let alone without the internet or the personal computer. Whole approaches to research and writing have changed, communication and social development, economic models, etc. have changed as a result of the advent of the computer age.  In bioethics we have similar watershed moments: the artificial fertilization of an egg in vitro, the sequencing of the human genome.  Recent crisis level news in bioethics stems from these two moments: animal-human hybrids or cybrids with the HFEA in Britain and the announcement by Craig Venter’s synthetic life form.

    To return to our case study of computer technology . . . James K. Huggins suggests that power, speed, information access, and logical reasoning are all assumptions or values built into the very architecture of computer technology. As a technology it promotes both anonymity and ultimate monitoring capabilities, democratization and gatekeeper censorship in its applications. From a critical study of philosophy of technology we can assert to our bumper sticker world that technologies are not all created equal, and not all are value neutral. This is not to say that they are essentially or inherently good or evil, but they are certainly not neutral for they embody values. 

    My fear is that those engaging in the area of bioethics have lost sight of the nontechnical aspects of these technological innovations that stimulate the ethical issues we encounter. In our growing disciplinary fragmentation we have lost important resources for our engagement of emerging biotech issues.  We must be suspicious of the value we place upon the tools and technologies we employ.  Huggins goes so far as to suggest that the questions raised by the assumptions of computing technology in themselves amount to a worldview.  If this assumption is correct, and I believe that it is, we can, indeed we must, have a discussion of values that may undergird particular technologies, and thus the need for a prophetic voice pointing us to our theological frameworks to define our use and understanding of technology, rather than vice versa.

    Our inability to properly assess these embodied values and their implications before a technology comes through the product cycle places us at a serious disadvantage. Once something is out of the technological equivalent of pandora’s box, it is really difficult given the cultural default bias towards scientific progress, to put it away.  In the words of computer ethicist Deborah Johnson (Computer Ethics, vii) “Does the field of computer ethics simply follow the development of computer technology?  Should computer ethicists simply react to technological developments?  Wouldn’t it be better if the sequence were reversed so that technological development followed ethics?”  I believe that we must assert our responsibility to ask these same questions of the emerging biotechnologies. What values do the technologies underlying our current bioethical and emerging biotech issues embody?  Control, convenience, the commodification of the human, efficiency?

  3. Technological Futures: Christians must clarify their eschatological expectations with respect to technological advancement. It is not surprising that modern conceptions of hope move hand-in-hand with a so-called “secular eschatology of the progress of the world.”1  One practical outworking is the promise of technological advancement, which when coupled with the modern scientific fondness for evolutionary theory led to the dawn of transhumanism and posthumanist thought.2  These movements are themselves the grandchildren of the eugenics movement which sought to improve humanity through selective procreation and genetics in a biological pursuit of genetic superhumans to inherit the earth.  When joined with the emergence of technicism—the belief that technological advancements are intrinsically good—transhumanism and posthumanist thought see the rise of cybernetic organisms (cyborgs) and cognitive uploading as an evolutionary progression freeing us from the prison of our flesh.  That these movements have been categorized as forms of technognosticism should not surprise us.  As much as civilization changes, some things stay the same.  Technicism appears in many guises, particularly within philosophy of technology, but inherently it moves from the benign use of tools to a form of technological idolatry, in which we willingly submit ourselves to hope in the technologies and their advancement for our salvation. 

    Jacques Ellul, a technological prophet of sorts, cautioned against the idolization of technology that frequently leads to the dehumanization of human beings, rather than the improvement of our humanity. Ellul defined technology as “The totality of methods rationally arrived at and aiming at absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”  In his work The Technological Society Ellul gives a phenomenology of technology and its role in society, shifting from one aspect to the all encompassing paradigm. He argues that the modern mindset after the industrial, political, scientific, technological revolutions of the 15th-19th centuries shifted from one in which technical knowledge was one among many types of knowledge and technology was descriptive of tools or machines, to the contemporary notion that every aspect of life is technical, can be measured, made more efficient, commodified and in extension to his work marketed. For Ellul, the machine has us, because we have become the machine. 

    To heed the warnings of Ellul, the default cultural assumptions regarding the inherent goodness of unhindered technological exploration must be questioned on fundamental grounds. Christian expectations regarding the future may access various simplifications of mundane and/or dangerous tasks, but messianic expectations in the panacea of human ingenuity will ultimately fail. Similarly Graham Houston has proposed that Christians must develop a more robust theological eschatology in order to properly locate technological use.  Not least of which is to expose the different narrative, one that is much more theologically rich, in which Christians articulate the place, dignity, value and future of being human in this world and any expectations of a world to come.

    Agendas associated with technicism, technognosticism, technoutopianism, technoshaminism, technomessianism, choose whatever descriptor you like, must be assessed for their assumptions for they, too, tell a type of eschatological narrative. We must therefore demythologize the myths surrounding technicism, extending the arm of research not in a promethean grab, but in a responsibilist approach to the technology, humbly assessing our limitations for understanding these prospects and perils, and moving forward in a principled manner. In this way we find that the promise of technicism is in the end a hollow hope, a hope that according to Gabriel Marcel depends upon ourselves, which springs not from humility but from pride.3 Here we are merely a modern rendition of the idolators of Isaiah’s day, where we should be particularly haunted by Isaiah 44 in our self-created hopes.  Technicism is just one of many manifestations of the broader predisposition to secularized eschatologies that we must unmask.

These areas mark only the beginning of a necessary conversation regarding these new technologies. Their emergence, thus, marks a situation of both promise and peril, one which requires a critical theological engagement and a sophisticated understanding of the technologies themselves not only in their technical specifications (even though this is very important), but also in their philosophical ontologies or metaphysics (reflecting on their realities or essences of these technologies) in order for us as Christians to offer a viable model of technological responsibilism. I am, therefore, arguing for a form of realism, a technorealism if you will, that experiences what Carl Mitcham calls “a romantic uneasiness” with this technology, and what I have unpacked elsewhere as technological responsibilism.

My own brand of technological responsibilism appeals to a virtue enriched model. The classical notion of virtue was aimed wholistically to human flourishing and the cultivation or habitus of excellence in all areas of life. For the Aristotelian notion of the virtuous life, you could not be merely committed to moral excellence over and against the intellectual virtues, but you must be embodying both.  The moral virtues or excellences of character were to be pursued in tandem with the intellectual virtues or excellences. These intellectual virtues consisted not just of phronesis (wisdom) and theoria (abstract reasoning), but also of techne (technical knowledge and skill). The virtues model in the classical world saw a place for technical capacity that was not all encompassing, totalizing or reductionistic, but was governed by wisdom and love. It is with some burden that we move beyond the mere technical discussions of these issues and access potential insights from a more sustained interest in philosophy of technology that I propose we begin to think through technology.

Bibliography

Barbour, Ian. Ethics in an Age of Technology. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
Borgmann, Albert. Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003.
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Translated by John Wilkinson. New York: Vintage, 1964.
Houston, Graham. Virtual Morality: Christian Ethics in the Computer Age.  Leicester: Apollos, 1998.
Huggins, James K. “The Assumptions of Computing.” In Ethics in the Computer Age, edited by Joseph M. Kizza, 46-50. Association for Computing Machinery, 1994.
Mitcham, Carl. Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1994.
Mitchell, C. Ben, Edmund D. Pellegrino, Jean Bethke Elshtain, John F. Kilner, and Scott B. Rae. Biotechnology and the Human Good. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ Press, 2007.
Monsma, Stephen, et al.  Responsible Technology: A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.
Pullinger, David. Information Technology and Cyberspace: Extra-Connected Living?  Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2001.
Waters, Brent. From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World.  Burlington, Vt: Ashgate, 2006

1Geoffrey Rowell, Hell and the Victorians: A Study of the Nineteenth-Century Theological Controversies Concerning Eternal Punishment and the Future Life (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 14.

2Cf. Brian Alexander, Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Franklin Matthew Eppinette, “Bodiless Exultation? Transhumanism and Embodiment” (MA diss., Trinity International University, 2004), 12-28, 46-48; “Human 2.0: Transhumanism as a Cultural Trend,” in Everyday Theology (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 191-207; Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002); C. Christopher Hook, “The Techno Sapiens are Coming,” Christianity Today 48 (2004), 48.

3Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existence (trans. Manya Harari; Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), 19.

This presentation was originally delivered as a workshop lecture at the Christian Medical & Dental Associations 2008 National Conference.

Podcast Episode: 
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