Technology Is Not Values Neutral: A Summary

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There have been fantastic conversations taking place in the Technology group after Daniel (@Dan) shared this article by The Consilience Project. It is a fascinating read proposing a really interesting perspective on the state of technology, but it is pretty jam packed. We’ve poured over all the details, so you don’t have to (unless you want to!) and have summarised the key points, as proposed by the initial article, below.

Introduction

Recent technology advancements have been incredibly fast paced. This has resulted in a world that functions differently to how it did 100, or even 10, years ago. Technology has impacted products, manufacturing, supply chains, energy, transactions, and these changes are fairly obvious to see in society. However, what is less obvious are the unintentional and unexpected changes from technology use, influencing culture, identity, community, language and how we make sense of things. These unexpected impacts (referred to as second- and third-order impacts) have resulted in changes to views, personalities, and values. Indeed, the article states that ‘technologies encode practices and values into the societies that adopt them.’

The environmental and material consequences of technology, referred to as technological externalities, have been a concern for environmentalists for some time. However, this article draws attention to psychosocial externalities, meaning the ethical, cultural, and psychological impacts of technology.

Values are Baked into Technologies

As we will go on to see, the article proposes that technology should be considered as intrinsically having value and creating value. As all technologies are designed with values as part of the goal, values therefore form an intrinsic part of all technologies from the beginning of the design process. There should also be an understanding that as technologies develop and expand, both in use and innovation, there is the capacity for novel, undetermined and unpredictable values, both good and bad. The psychological and cultural impact of technology (and how technology changes values) is as important as the economic or engineering components of technological advancement.

Let’s take the smartphone as an example, which today, has the functionality of a computer. The technology involved in a smartphone includes Wi-Fi, Internet, cameras, lenses, microphones, communication satellites, server farms, microchip supply chains, maybe biometric sensors or headsets, or are maybe linked to your car, or watch, or washing machine. The modern smartphone has resulted in a massive paradigm shift. Phones are used totally differently to how they were initially conceived, as you are now practically always contactable, and have also impacted how we relate to each other and the world. The influence of the smartphone is perhaps more poignant than any other technology, or religion, or cultural movement, or empire, in a similar timeframe.

Further impacts of the smartphone can be seen through how our use of the phone has affected our behaviour around a dinner table (remember no phones at the table?), or our ability to remember directions (rather than rely on a map app). The article posits that none of the behavioural or psychosocial changes that we have seen because of our phone use were intended or considered by the initial inventors. Any technology that is brought to market will have the potential for a future beyond the control of the creators, having social, psychological and cultural impacts. Smartphones were initially intended to reflect communication and information values, which are central to human interaction. However, what is the value now of having a good sense of direction, for example, or being able to remember locations, when there is not really any need for it? This shift, in affecting our values, illustrate how the evolution of technology and value systems are closely linked.

Building on this, the way we value communication has changed. Digital interactions of FaceTime and Zoom, for example, are so commonplace (helped by the pandemic) they are considered a supplement, or sometimes preferable, to face-to-face interaction. The effects of the smartphone are obviously wide reaching and complex, these are just intended to be examples of the ways in which phones affect our behaviour and the things we ascribe meaning to. Some technologies go so far as to be symbolic of, and define, certain aspects of culture or certain time periods, and the smartphone is definitely a technology that will forever be credited as defining an era. They are so embedded into our lives that we often, consciously, or unconsciously, base our decisions around them.

Technology, Ideology and the Shape of Civilisations

Despite initial moral and religious resistance to technology, by the early 1900s rapid technology growth was met favourably and positively. Technology was viewed as positive or neutral towards humans, with modern ‘techno-optimists’ perceiving technology to be as good, or as bad, as whoever was using it. This view places technology as being functionally useful for people, rather than morally good, which absolves the creators of any negative effects. This is quite clear in Facebook’s approach: ‘our technology connects people; what they do after that is up to them.’ This creates a culture in which technology itself is not held responsible, but the users are.

As time has gone on, the second- and third-order effects of technology on people, communities and values have become more apparent. Thinkers in this area have consolidated the concept that technologies are not isolated. Rather, they come together in networks and infrastructures, supporting nearly every component of our lives. This is proposed to be a time in civilisation characterised by technology, its resulting social dynamics and therefore a new kind of reality.

Layers of the Civilisational Tech-Stack

The article proposes several categories as a theoretical model to help guide how technologies are viewed. There is naturally some overlap between categories, but this may be helpful to conceptualise technology and its value.

CategoryDescriptionExamples
ToolsHuman-scale artifacts (naturally occurring, or manmade) which help or impact human and social behaviours

Rocks

Forks

Writing tools

TechnologiesThe application of complex, scientific knowledge rooted within intentionally and complex designed artifacts, intended to solve problems

Waterwheel

Steam engine

Light bulb

Fridge

Ecologies of technologies Sets of technologies that co-exist and evolve together as functional systems

Light bulb, lamp, power lines, transformers, power stations

Microchip/hard drive, screen, mouse, modem, broadband, server banks

InfrastructuresMultiple ecologies embedded together in society to serve a purpose

Supply chains

Transportation systems

Markets

Communication systems

Technological epochsAn era characterised by a specific set of related infrastructures that form the basis of a social system, marked by discontinuous breaks from previous infrastructures, and different to new ones creating different social dynamics

Industrial

Post-industrial

Evolutions of Design Thinking

As technology has developed and evolved, so too has the approach to how it is made, its impacts and the goals of its creation. Some of these features you will recognise from earlier in this summary.

FrameworkTime PeriodKey AssumptionsOutcomes
Naively optimistic designEarly modern technologistsPositive values intrinsically linked to all technology

Resulted in massive technological advancements and a complete reconstruction of life based on increasingly complicated and new technologies

But didn’t consider second- and third-order effects of technology on physical and psychosocial interactions. Substantial but overlooked risks

Luddite designResponse to naively optimistic design and a reaction to the ‘machine age’ – aimed to reverse technological advancements

Technology is associated with negative values

Less is more approach to technology (appears somewhat backwards) resisting change and prioritising ecological costs

Eventually inadequate compared to technological optimism because those who didn’t participate in technological advancement were disempowered
Nihilistic design / values agnostic design

Result of postmodernism

Current dominant design approach due to scientific advancements and technological innovations

Ignores any values as being related to technology – values are socially constructed externalities (so subjective) rather than physical realities

Assumes the value of anything physical, including technology, is only what humans make of it

Values come from social communities (places of worship, schools, families) and these in turn affect technology use

As discussed elsewhere – complex, wide-reaching, damaging impact on values, behaviours, perspectives, societies

Described as technological orthodoxy by technology philosopher Langdon Winner

Clear separation between values and technology

Summarised as:

·      Comprehension – humans fully understand the technology they create

·      Control – humans’ tools are fully under their control

·      Neutrality – technology itself is neutral, outcomes depend on use

·      Progress – the development of the systems that infrastructures need; complex, large-scale, resource-heavy

Results in creators working towards ‘disruptive’ technologies, as innovation is fast paced

Axiological design Result of the complexity of late modernity

Design that accounts for, and takes advantage of, values that are intrinsically a part of technology

Recognises that technology impacts behaviour, psychology, and society.

Design must include aims and limitations related to the psychological and sociological effects as a key component of the entire process

The proposed way forward

Insights from Design Science and the Future of Axiological Design

The group of approaches that follow the thinking of axiological design can be summarised as proposing the following:

  1. The creation of technology is rooted in the quest for values, and the consequences are the creation and transformation of values. Therefore, technology is both value-loaded and values-altering. The values that emerge because of technology may not be the same as the values that inform the design, e.g. social media was intended to increase social interactions but users commonly report feeling isolated.
  2. The development of technology requires new and different technologies to be created; several new technologies evolve together to form functionally related ecologies. No technology is developed in isolation; when one advances, several others are encouraged and possibly generated too. Linked technologies (ecologies) therefore become the overarching foundation in society, forming a technological epoch (time period) and new, associated habits.
  3. Technology is habit forming, shaping our bodies, movements and societies, referred to as a ‘second nature.’ Humans are able to shape and create environments which suit our needs and values, as well as being able to adapt to the conditions around us.
  4. There are some unpredictable changes to power dynamics because of technology, meaning some people will end up with more benefits than others. This creates pressure on people to continue to adapt to new technologies. Society is shaped by technology, and so those who do not keep up are at a disadvantage. Cultural and personal values consequently adapt to follow new technological pressures.
  5. Technology impacts what we value, our attention spans, our self-concept and how we view the world. For example, planes literally changed our concept of space and time because they made travelling abroad feasible. As a result, people have moved further away from home knowing they are able to travel, which in turn impacts families and communities.

The article argues that if we are to live in a world beyond the current technological landscape, these five propositions must be considered core design principles. Technology’s effects on values, culture, power, and personalities cannot just be accidental outcomes, but must be considered as fundamental to technological design.

Overcoming nihilistic design requires a complete change to the entire design process. Rather than perceiving engineering as the core component of technological design, and ethics as secondary, ethics should be considered integral to the process. Existing practices of value-focused design are a promising starting point, as they necessitate consideration of ethics and value. On top of this, human values and psychological processes must be studied, including how behaviour is influenced. Only then can future design fully include human value and experience. Additionally, technologies do not function in isolation and so should be treated as ecologies. The full impact of technologies on habits and values can only be understood when they are examined in their functional sets.

Finally, the article argues that not changing our approach to technology is likely to continue to damage our behaviours, perspectives, and societies. This is a delicate point in time for technological advancement, and the consequences of what may happen if we do not change our approach to technological design are likely to be widespread and complex to fully understand.

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