People power: technology and ethics

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

Today, the luddites appear to be at the gates and the technocrats have wired the gates to make gatekeepers irrelevant.

One set of antagonists appear to want to return our world to a pre-industrial age. Just one wicked with this scenario is that, despite climate change, the most massive transformation in human history has continued to make this world much, much better in any measure that matters to people's lives.

The other set of antagonists appear content to turn human governance over to algorithms, in an audacious but mostly unconscious reengineering of society.

These engineers, who are technocrats in that they value nonsentient systems over sentient lives, do not appear to have thought through systemic issues of social change. For them, ethics may be irrelevant, even obsolete.

Locked in a tragic binary struggle, perhaps the luddites have a point. There may be nothing wrong with being a luddite if it is at its core a positive, critical and ethical force:

"Whether and how society can sustain our freedom to be off is one of the foundational, constitutional questions of the 21st century. Ironically, such freedom must be engineered into the techno-social environment."

This is a useful perspective, and in this respect, we should all have a little luddism, if it means that we resist turning our own governance completely and irretrievably over to a system.

When luddism becomes perceived as the only way to live, and as a source of myths, it should nonetheless be rejected. The most rational and reasoned position balances technological with social change and preserves both technology and ethics.

The mistake that luddism makes is to favour an instinct of destruction and anarchy over a strategy to maintain and sustain free access and the sharing of any technological progress. It is one of the dangers of today, in this age of incredulity toward metanarratives and fake news, that even the empirical reality of the things that help improve things around us will be lost.

The antimedical movement, antivaxxers, the rise of pseudoscience, all show us nothing to gain and everything to lose. Without innovation, sustaining anything - whether it be freedom or anything else that matters - is impossible.

What luddism is absolutely correct about is that there can be undesirable uses of technology, uses of medicines, or uses of engineered systems.

This is where legislation and regulation does have a place, unless social programs address the underlying ethical issues. We should infinitely prefer the latter to address issues, because without a functional civil society, it does not seem clear that governance can be shared with people in a way that resists the control of a tiny elite.

People who design the algorithms may think they can share governance in a system, but we must treat all such schemes that remove people from the equation by converting them to systemic elements, such as bitcoin has tried, with suspicion.

We need more civil society visionaries who understand both technology and ethics, and do more than give way to either complete technocratic or luddic assumptions.

Biotechnology is a key example for why ethics and technology are indispensable partners.

It is one of the miracles of the last half a century that we can now engineer food and animals and humans to alter certain things that cause suffering, waste, etc. Anyone who cares about progress should be strongly pro-GMO food, which is just an efficient, targeted way of changing genes, something humans have done randomly through splicing since the dawn of agriculture 20,000 odd years ago.

Most people live oblivious to the fact that the environment and the food they digest around them has been engineered by people. There is precious little that we don't eat, wear, observe, think about or play with that has not been engineered by other humans.

There are two myths here that need to be refuted. First, just because something is engineered, doesn't mean it is completely controlled or even controllable. Second, the idea of a pure nature, which is incoherent.

The desire for more experiences of nature must be exposed for not making its ethical assumptions explicit and the consequences clear.

The problem with common beliefs about biotechnology is that people boycott something they are unconscious about and as a result fail to work out ways of regulating the technology in any socially coherent way. That is, they fail to perceive the social benefits of the technology when used in a socialised way.

The result of this is that people use bioengineering unethically, on the sly, or by exploiting markets. A clear example of this is fashion breeds of dogs that are bred to be unhealthy and sick from the day they are born.

Breeding animals that suffer from genetic problems is a clear ethical issue with using the technology of genetic selection, that can be used for good or harm. But because people don't understand biotechnology, that selecting animal breeds is genetically no different to modifying an animal in a lab, they fail to understand that these animals have been bred for them.

The final matter we need to consider when considering any technology is that just as there are risks, there are opportunities.

People persist with an idea that ethics means you only look at the negatives of technology. Ethics is not about simply limiting and denying technology its own agency, whatever that can mean. Ethics simply makes no apologies for putting sentient beings at the centre of what it is trying to assess.

By not exploring the ethical issues, and the ethical good that can be done, the technology narrows in on a few applications, which are controlled and transformed by corporate power interests. Anyone who has worked for Facebook or social media companies understands this danger. This is true of any technology.

If the technology becomes dominated by social conformity or destructiveness, rather than positive social change, then the myriad of useful applications are ignored as a handful of problematic applications are picked and technology loses its ability to solve problems.

Prometheus spread technology to everyone for a reason. Socrates spread ethics to everyone for a reason.

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