Thursday, January 20, 2011

Technology, Values, and the Value of the Humanities

I'm teaching an upper-level course this semester entitled Technology and Values. Today in class we began a discussion of some of the values embedded in technology, based on a piece by Langdon Winner entitled "Artifacts/Ideas and Political Culture."*  Briefly, one of his arguments is that some contemporary technology contains anti-democratic values, including the centralization of power, a view of the world as hierarchically structured, the unequal distribution of goods, and the assumption that men and women have different competencies.  For example, some information technologies eliminate certain places of community life; computer technologies can undermine privacy and freedom; and some systems of manufacturing seek control at the expense of human initiative and creativity.  Without going into the details of the argument, the claim is that these values conflict with democratic values such as freedom, justice, equality, and self-government.

What strikes me as quite relevant for teachers of philosophy who are also concerned with the state and role of the humanities is one of Winner's proposed solutions. He offers three "guiding maxims" intended to help us talk in more meaningful and comprehensive ways about technology and its impact on political culture, rather than merely allowing values such as productivity and efficiency to trump everything else. One of those maxims is No engineering without political deliberation. When a proposed technological project is under discussion, it "should be closely examined to reveal the covert political conditions and artifact/ideas" its production would entail. Because of this, he argues that the education of engineers should equip them "to evaluate political contexts, political ideas, political arguments, and political consequences involved in their work."  The goal is to find ways to extend values such as freedom and social justice into the structure of technology and technology-related public policy, rather than acquiescing to the default market values of efficiency and productivity.

Given the role of technology in society, and the amount of attention it receives, one way to underscore the importance of the humanities is to discuss the human, social, and political values that particular technologies foster and hinder. Then--when the myth of the value-neutrality of technology is exposed--show the need for not only engineers but others involved in designing, building, and distributing technological artifacts to consider the types of value issues that those of us in the humanities are concerned about and equipped to teach. This is another way to make the case for the importance and value of the humanities which connects in direct ways with our daily individual and social lives, and is therefore likely to be seen by some others as part of a sound case for the value of the humanities.

*Society, Ethics, and Technology, edited by Morton Winston and Ralph Edelbach


  1. Mike,

    Sounds like a terrific course. I think we should remind those working in scientific and technical disciplines that, even with their power to create or disseminate technologies, nothing about their work equips them to make decisions about whether technologies should be created or disseminated.

    I'd be really curious to hear how the students react to this course. Students are so immersed in technological culture. Are they better able to adopt a critical stance toward technology because of their familiarity with it, or does the familiarity make it harder, in your observation?

  2. This is the second time I've taught the course, and I think it is going pretty well. Last time I spent many weeks discussing nanoethics, but this time I'm paring that down and focusing to a greater extent on technologies they are using in daily life.

    I find that a minority of the students are able to adopt a fairly critical stance, but the majority seem to think that most or all technology is value-neutral, and part of my aim is to get them to see that this assumption is dubious. We'll see how it goes over the course of the semester.


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