Thursday, July 14, 2016

Some Important Concepts in the Philosophy of Technology

(Plenary Lecture, 6th Social Ethics Society Conference, Secdea Resort, 2016)

For Martin Heidegger, the relation between modern technology and humans appears to be a technical one. Technology is firstly a means to an end. It can be roughly described in terms of the efficiency of devices. But Heidegger finds this description inadequate. Modern technology, for Heidegger, in fact, is a mode of revealing. Man, he argues, is entrapped in this mode of being in the world which he calls Gestell or Enframing.

1. Enframing

Enframing is the essence of modern technology.[1] The technological age has now become the mode of being of man. In this enframed world, things are ordered in such a way that they are ready for our use. For Heidegger, the world is that standing reserve which reveals how we are to measure or calculate the forces of nature. Technology is that mode of revealing that challenges forth the being of man.

Heidegger makes a contrast between this challenging forth with the way the ancients used technology. For Heidegger, the primordial experience with tools is a bringing forth, physis, which is like the opening of a flower that is about to bloom. But this bringing forth is also a poeisis, which bespeaks of the relation between a product and its craftsman. According to Heidegger, this bringing forth is aletheia, the coming into being of things.

Heidegger offers a rather pessimistic view on modern technology. The real danger lies in the fact that technology is relentlessly overtaking us.[2] In the challenging forth, nature has to yield to an ordering as that standing reserve. For Heidegger, modern technology transforms nature into the mechanical, like a river that is mobilized into something that is stored up and switched on (power plant).

Heidegger complains that what is called thinking in our modern age has been reduced into the calculative. Technological thinking means that humans are a mere object of cognition. The essence of modern technology subsumes man into the notion of control. It is no longer man who controls things. In the modern technological age, man is the willing victim of his own devices.

Man hence forgets his own essence in this technological mode of revealing. Man becomes oblivious of his own being as that being for whom being reveals itself. Freedom only occurs to man when he keeps his distance away from the obscurity of a mere instrumental function. The saving power in humans in the midst of the technological assault in the modern age is to resist this mode of ordering and redistribution which desecrates the original relation between man and nature.

2. Actor Network Theory

The French philosopher Bruno Latour describes the rise of social complexity as the stage in which people interact or cooperate in an assemblage of a stream of data. Actor Network Theory (ANT) refers to relational interfaces. The different elements continue to relate together within that contiguous network in material-semiotic webs which will coalesce into a whole. In this case, social manipulation, according to Latour, is a distinctly continuous human act.[3]

Actants in the ANT consist of both human and non-human actors. Nothing lies beyond the complex relations inside the network. Latour writes that humans in pre-history had no way of designing their society. There has been no overarching framework of technological innovation. Pre-historic men have fashioned their tools for subsistence and survival. Thus, techniques and processes have emerged, allowing new civilizations to organize everything into a system. The car is a model of this complex system that includes not only the driver but road networks, engines, mechanics, and driving skills. For Latour, human interaction is not something that is independent of the many parts and pieces of the system. Nonhuman actants are intelligently organized.

An illustration might help. When a car breaks down, it ceases to be what it is (a vehicle for transport). Latour calls this depunctualization. The car is then reduced into its parts (a broken engine or some scrap metal). The event exemplifies the meaning of the collective. In Latour’s Science and Technology Studies (STS), the old and new society in which we live is nothing but a web of interaction.
Social constructivists think that it is through society in which people externalize themselves. But for Latour, there is no “out there” or “in here” dichotomy. We have never been modern because there is really no subject-object relation. All are actually actants inside a maze. Society exists, Latour argues, because we, people and things, interact in an internalized ecology.

Thus, for Latour, “modern knowledge and power are different not in that they would escape at last the tyranny of the social, but in that they add many more hybrids in order to recompose the social link and extend its scale.”[4] The order of things come into being by means of successful interfaces within the network. Any technology matures because it has secured the cooperation of users, integrating such as a device in a collective of human activities and practices.

3. The Megamachine

The American philosopher Lewis Mumford presents a vision of technological determinism that characterizes our modern social organization. Society refers to that chain of command that dictates how human beings are to act by means of planning, design, and an accounting system. Nuclear warheads, schools, factories, and malls exhibit what it means to be in the world today. Human interactions are tracked through a mechanism that now wires everything into a systemic pattern. People, as “servo-units,” are like robots in action.

For instance, an individual can be manipulated by internet bots, a software application that runs simple algorithms and automated scripts. The same result can be observed in assembly lines, wireless communication networks, and the use of the remote control. In the past, forced labor camps served as the main theater of human alienation. Right in this modern age, social media has replaced that monster. The cross-over from humans to machines, from the human brain to computers, is now finalized in the creation of the virtual world.

Techno-rationality makes apparent the cunning ways of experts and strategists. Technocrats employ plans to manipulate the consciousness of people. The human being is no longer existing in a free spatio-temporal order. Things have not only become instant – urban life itself has been automated forcing people to move from time to time. The clock, for Mumford, and not the steam engine, is the turning point for the Industrial Revolution. It was the clock that mechanized human activity in the most efficient way.

Social media manifests the collapse of our authentic existence. The avatar represents the distortion of truth. Bogus accounts are used to destroy a person’s reputation. False narratives about famous entertainment personalities, including ambitious politicians, are created in order to excite millions of their followers. In addition, the virtual world is a new field in which people willingly objectify themselves through sex videos and scandals.

The apparent trouble here lies in the fact that people are not prepared to meet its ill-effects. When employed by political tacticians, social media becomes a potent tool for black propaganda, mercilessly destroying even a selfless public servant and wrongly promoting the maniacal exploits of others. Techno-rationality, in this sense, has made the cunning ways of political experts and strategists effective as these are deliberately employed in a coercive network of power.

We can speak of a political ecology as the amoral cross-over from the Megamachine to the body-politic. Mumford enunciates the political representation of things as that hybrid between human consciousness and the simulation of his world. The issue lies in the fact that this hyper-reality is actually taking over our political existence, and even defining the course of our destiny as a nation.

4. Artificial Intelligence

Linda Johansson believes that Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers some space for independent reasoning. Machines can think, that is, in the pragmatic sense. To be able to calculate, a device must have an objective distance from its human controller. To explain, Johansson makes that distinction between the pragmatic and the metaphysical.[5] The first refers to how things do some pre-programmed task or function, while the latter refers to the actuality of things as such.

The crucial question is to ask if robots possess unique mental states. A drone is programmed to possess a mind of its own. But the next question is, is it free in the sense that we can attribute actual moral responsibility to it? An important aspect of this issue is to distinguish the concept of free will, which means having options or alternatives, as opposed to the concept of determinism in which the subject is fixed. A car that is equipped with the most advanced breaking system, it appears, can be a mixture of both.

Autonomy in robotic devices is about the ability to break free from the intent of its creator. Johansson distinguishes between the idea of “user-autonomy” and “social autonomy”. User-autonomy, on one hand, relates to the capacity of the machine to separate from the goals of its user. Social-autonomy, on the other hand, indicates an internal goal-making process. Any device may function against the intent or plan of its designer.

But of course, it can be argued that a malfunction is nothing but a miscalculation on the part of the user. Robots or machines with AI, while they misbehave, cannot disobey pre-programmed protocols. Any problem that it encounters, hence, is mechanical and not existential nor moral. Robots cannot feel pain or happiness, for instance, if they fail to perform. This is because a robot cannot react on the basis of an inner power or sentiment.

The Aegis missile system, for example, would only qualify in the requirement of autonomy if it possesses the sheer competence to determine how and what to shoot. It does not. Such will set a dangerous precedent though, for it is as if humans should trust the intelligence of the system more than their own judgment. The same can be said about the use of Voting Counting Machines or VCMs during elections.

Michio Kaku explains that the human brain is much more complicated from the ground up.[6] Our rational nature is unique to us. In the case of ICBMs, they lack such rational nature and so, missiles cannot really will anything or be subject to some kind of an inner mandate. A cyborg will not be able to truly distinguish between a good or bad person, between civilians and soldiers during conflict. A robot’s AI cannot be autonomous because there is a subjective and objective distance between man and machine.

Hence, it is highly improbable that a robot can have that consciousness of the sort of man’s being-in-the-world. Technology demonstrates, according to Hannah Arendt, no more than the fact that man can always apply the results of his mind, that no matter which system he uses for the explanation of natural phenomena, he will always be able to adopt it as a guiding principle for acting.

For instance, while we can think of genetically programming man so that he exhibits certain desirable attributes or traits, however, all the complexities of human experience would require so much sophistication on the part of man as a decision-maker, making him unique in all respects, even if he were to possess a pre-programmed biological imprint.

5. The Device Paradigm

From an instrumentalist point of view, technology appears as no more than a tool. But there is an inherent power hidden beneath your new cellular phone. In what Albert Borgmann calls the “device paradigm,” people use their devices without knowing the evil it promotes in our modern ways of living. People unconsciously inhabit the trend of the culture industry which determines when an electronic device can be useful. Human life, like any appliance at home, is now lived by way of an operating manual.

Modern capitalist society does not only makes things. It also markets a way of life. But such comfort does not come free. It has huge human costs. For instance, “enjoyment” is a commodity that can be bought by means of electronic devices. It all boils down to that complex system. Corporations develop new models of gadgets that people can buy. But people purchase them not because they promote personal happiness or human well-being. It is all about the latest trend.

Michel Foucault reminds us that human beings, being docile bodies, can be manipulated by systems which reconfigure the order of things in the world. Consider, for instance, the way your cellular phone controls your behavior. The cellular apparatus dictates not only the information that is made available to you but also the way you deal with people. There is always an uneasiness in the way you must appear online. In fact, there are trolls who are paid just to destroy you.

According to Borgmann, the very presence of television in our home reduces everything into one question: “What are we going to watch tonight.”[7] For instance, he mentions the idea of man being a “couch potato.” A “couch potato” is that person who spends most, if not all of his time, watching useless entertainment shows on TV. The same person, it can be said, has diminished his ways of meaningfully engaging with the real world because he appears so contented in being constantly bombarded by sickening images of pretentious love stories and lies.

The TV set has since been replaced by the cellular phone, thereby making social alienation a mobile thing. Could anything be more stupid than two people on a date in a café but are so pre-occupied with their handheld gadgets? It is a portrait of modern madness, of how humans lose their authentic selves, diminishing every meaning and value in face to face encounters. Indeed, people no longer see each other, electing to find themselves hallucinating in a virtual reality.

Borgmann points to focal things in which the humanist aspect of technology may develop a positive culture of engagement for people, thereby giving technology a human face. Think, for instance, of the distinction between the email and the handwritten letter. An email involves an online system of internet protocols. It is cheap, ubiquitous, and requires little effort. On the other hand, writing a letter on a piece of paper needs time and attention, patience and skill, human qualities that bespeak of a person’s sincerity in what he does.

Focal things restore the intimacy between people and among human beings. Playing outdoor games, gardening, or family dinners at home make manifest our truly human character whereas computer and online games exhibit the emptiness of one’s soul. As such, people need to engage in a very personal way in order to experience what is authentic and meaningful in human life. Happiness involves the opportunity to be able to adapt to particular ways of living. It is a result of an enduring commitment to the things that we do.    

6. The Future of Technology 

In 1950, Alan Turing asked one of the most important questions of the past century – “Can machines think?” More than half a century thereafter, no computer has successfully deceived us that it is human. But Artificial Intelligence (AI) has revolutionized human civilization nonetheless. “Artificial intelligence,” warns Professor Stephen Hawking, “has the power to eradicate poverty and disease, or hasten the end of human civilization as we know it.” Any science that is bereft of human values is dangerous for humanity. Thus, Hawking adds, that “alongside the benefits, AI will also bring dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many.”

Automated military systems mean that robots will replace men in future wars. The space wars during the Cold War was no more than the deployment of nuclear missile systems controlled by computer codes. Today, robots are programmed to accomplish dangerous missions. The US Army has been using drones to kill terrorists. The use of such advanced weaponry during military operations does not only ensure tactical advantage, it can also prevent the catastrophic loss of lives that is so attributed to an error in judgment.

Recently, Watson, an IBM robot, gave the correct diagnosis just in ten minutes to a 60-year old woman in Japan whose Leukemia was misidentified by doctors. Also, robotic stem cells are being developed to function like their biological counterparts in regenerative medicine. A 70 million dollar research fund in brain mapping will soon help us understand how the human brain is wired. This innovative study seeks to determine what happens if something wrong occurs during its development process, and thus give clues to neurodevelopmental delays such as Autism.

Kaku writes that “it is reasonable to assume that by 2050 we may have robots that can interface intelligently with humans.” He thinks that it is highly probable that computers by then will exhibit primitive emotions or even the capacity to recognize speech. The movie HER animates this possibility, in which a talking operating system interacts with a lonely writer. Samantha, the OS, exhibits feelings of love, fear, and even jealousy. In today’s Apple generation, Siri, in contrast, is limited to a predictive function.

But the most formidable obstacle in collapsing the barrier between man and machine is not really intelligence but language. Natural language is replete with contexts, history, tradition, and many other factors that cannot be translated into binomial systems. The mathematics still needs to be worked out. Machines will still need the inputs from a human user. 


By way of a conclusion, Andrew Feenberg says that modernity is the escape of man from the traditional modes of questioning. Out of this unfolding came the present-day way of looking at things, whose impact makes science and technology the immovable foundations of the modern technological culture. The traditional belief system of human society has since been replaced by that dominant techno-rational order.

Herbert Marcuse, who taught Feenberg, argued that technical manipulation has led to social domination. Consumer culture subjugates the individual and transforms all his desires into false needs. Happiness now appears as some kind of delayed gratification. The individual is reduced into some form of technical rationality and for this reason, Marcuse says that the human being has become one-dimensional. Man has been incarcerated in the darkness of instrumental reason.

Technology has totally dominated human lives in ways that it is no longer human beings who are at play but exploitative and corporate interests through the commodities people buy. Is there an escape from this myopic instrumentalist point of view? Feenberg’s important contribution on this issue is that the individual can live interdependently with modern technical progress.[8] The ability to adapt forms part of the development or the self-realization of life, one that unfolds when people learn about the meaningful role that modern technology plays in our world.

[1] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013), 23.
[2] Andrew Feenberg. “From Essentialism to Constructivism: Philosophy of Technology at the Crossroads.” In Technology and the Good Life? Ed. Eric Higgs, Andrew Light and David Strong. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 295.
[3] See Bruno Latour. “Progress or Entanglement? Two Models for the Long Term Evolution of Human Civilization.” A Lecture Prepared for the International Conference on World Civilizations in the New Century: Trends and Challenges, 2000.
[4] Bruno Latour, We have never been Modern, Trans. By Catherine Porter, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 109.
[5] Linda Johansson, “Pragmatic Robotic Agent,” In Techne: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 17:3 (Fall 2013): 299.
[6] Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science will revolutionize the 21st Century. (New York: Anchor Books, 1997), 78.
[7] Albert Borgmann, Crossing the Postmodern Divide, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 122.
[8] Andrew Feenberg. Marcuse and Heidegger: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 190.