Mit271b: Technology & Human Values

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MIT271b: Technology & Human Values

  • January 15, 2002
  • Invention and Luddism


  • Essay option:
  • one longer essay (7-10pp. 40%)
  • instead of the two short essays
  • (2-3pp. 10% & 5-7pp. 30%)
  • Tests: not multiple choice
    • Long answer
    • Taken from a list of study questions distributed in advance

ONTOLOGY: What is technology?

  • Contrast with nature
  • Means to an end / purposeful / functional: having a purpose, end, or value for which it is intended or used
  • Most generally: intended and used to increase freedom and power

Children of Invention by Morton Winston

  • Technology creates new opportunities for human flourishing and new ways of life, which in turn create new social and ethical problems (“children of invention”)
  • We will also be considering aesthetic and epistemological problems raised by technology

The Scope of Technology

  • End-product: artifacts
  • Tools: machines and processes
  • Agents: scientists, engineers and technicians
  • Social support: purposeful organization
  • Technology =df the organization of knowledge, people and things to accomplish specific practical goals

Technological systems consist of …

  • Human activity form: techniques and practices
  • Resources, tools & materials
  • Artifacts
  • Ends/ functions/ valences
  • Background knowledge and skills
  • Social organization
  • NOTE: 4 & 5 provide background to the 4 elements of the scope of technology

1. Human activity form

  • Use of natural objects or tools
  • Procedural knowledge or “know-how”
  • Increases human capacities and powers

2. Resource well

  • Original states or natural states that are acted upon
  • Includes the built environment or physical infrastructure

3. Artifacts

  • Interaction effect: artifacts may act as tools and resources for further technology

4. Valences (VALUES)

  • Typical or intended uses
  • May be independent of actual use of a particular item
  • Generally INSTRUMENTAL VALUE, serving human needs and desires

5. Knowledge and skills

  • Necessary background
  • About the other aspects:
    • Resources
    • Techniques
    • Valences
    • Social systems

6. Social context

  • For development, distribution and employment of technologies
  • Includes social artifacts: institutions that divide and coordinate labour
  • Sophisticated cognitive techniques

Technological Revolutions

  • From hunter-gatherer societies requiring only simple portable technologies for:
    • Shelter
    • Hunting
    • Gathering
    • Cooking
    • Transportation
    • Defense

Agricultural Revolution 8000 BC

  • Allowed settled, communities (civilization)
  • Advantages:
    • More food, so greater population density
    • Greater population density allowed for coordinated efforts and specialized skills
    • No need for portability
  • Disadvantages:
    • More work to maintain higher, more complex standard of living
  • Emergence of morality, law, religion, records, mathematics, astronomy, class structures, patriarchy

Industrial Revolution 1700s

  • Steam engine, then gasoline-driven combustion engine
  • More specialized division of labour and of knowledge — each worker needed fewer skills
  • Less expensive goods, so increased standard of living
  • Infrastructure for transportation

Luddites: standard view

  • English workers in 1811-1816, protested the changes of the Industrial Revolution that they felt threatened their jobs
  • Often destroyed machines.

Ned Ludd

  • Perhaps fictional: Man who destroyed two large stocking-frames that produced inexpensive stockings undercutting those produced by skilled knitters. Because he was feeble-minded, he was not prosecuted.
  • A.k.a "King Ludd” and “General Ludd” referred to by luddites (to avoid prosecution?).

Luddites: other views

  • Opposition may not have been to technological change, but to the free market; luddites wanted to protect their skills and livelihoods
  • NOW: “luddite” and “luddism” refer to anyone who opposes industrial technology, or technology more generally
  • E.g. “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, including bomb sent to Yale computer scientist David Gelernter

Knowledge Revolution 20th century

  • Better record keeping and communication
  • Flexible, programmable tools allow more customized short production runs, so supply can more accurately follow demand
  • Better scheduling and inventory control provides basis for geographically distributed production systems (globalization)
  • Increased need for specialized education

Kaczynski: 3 possibilities

  • 1. “The human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that fact it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. …
  • Eventually, a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently.”
  • 2. A tiny elite will eliminate the rest of humanity.
  • 3. A tiny elite will engineer a purposeless and therefore harmless humanity, like domesticated animals.

Ray Kurzweil: The New Luddite Challenge

  • New jobs are on a higher level and increasingly involved with education
  • Need a viable alternative to the nightmare envisioned by luddites such as Kaczynski
  • Can’t drop technology:”there is too little nature left to return to”
  • Education will reach a human limit, but will be human competence will be extended by merging with the technology

Evaluating Technology

  • Different forms of value and relations to intrinsic value reveal how complicated it is to assess the value of technology
  • These distinctions may nevertheless help clarify the conflicts among the various costs and benefits of technology.

EPISTEMOLOGY: Technology & Science

    • Science = pure, value-free pursuit of knowledge
    • Technology = matter of arts and crafts
    • Empirical investigation as a means to knowledge, aided by technology
    • Development of technology aided by scientific education
    • Science = systematic empirical inquiry
    • Technology = production of functional objects and systems

AESTHETICS: Technology & Beauty

  • Improved standards of living can include more leisure time, better access to recreation and pleasant experiences
  • Greater ease of performing tasks itself is a type of beauty

ETHICS: Technology and Morality

  • With power comes responsibility, and a new range of choices about how we live our lives
  • Immediate questions raised by biotechnology

4 kinds of ethical concerns arising from technology:

  • Whether and how new technologies should be used (esp. medical)
  • Aggregate responsibility (e.g. pollution, depletion of resources)
  • Distributive justice: certain groups alone may be advantaged
  • Changing relationship to nature and other animals

5 characteristics of technological dangers:

  • Result of aggregate action
  • Not direct harms, but increased risks that are hard to detect
  • Impact far into the future
  • Affect not only humans but other forms of life and the environment
  • Affect no particular communities, but all of humanity.

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