Modern intellectuals have a long history of grappling with the ‘questions concerning technology.’ From Hegel to Heidegger, and from Marcuse to Mumford, scholars have long cast their gaze upon technology in order to diagnose the illnesses of the Modern Age with which they have become so closely linked. Contemporary scholars interested in morality and technology fall within this tradition, using technological objects and systems as a lens to focus their thinking on larger social and philosophical concerns. In this respect, my attempt to produce a moral technology, Bell Tolls, is a productive, active engagement with the philosophy of technology, and should be understood within its contemporary context.
Technology and Morality: Philosophical Contexts
Critical theory, especially the strain established by the Frankfurt School, has traditionally evaluated technology in terms of the twin processes of commodification and alienation. Drawing on these key concepts, Albert Borgmann’s proposes that contemporary technologies circulate and structure behaviour according to “the device paradigm.” For Borgmann, this paradigm is the modern tendency to organize experience around the purchase and consumption of technology. Crucially, it is characterized by two interrelated processes: the proliferation of technical objects across all aspects of human experience and the strategic divorcing of those same technological objects from their contexts of production and of engagement. Within this context ‘production’ is defined as all of the materials, human labour, social and political organization involved in creating technological devices, and ‘engagement’ is defined as the milieus, or the specificity of time, place and community that give texture, life and meaning to the use and experience of technology. Through commodification processes, Borgmann argues, the device paradigm evacuates the social, political, economic and environmental realities of device proliferation, and poses significant challenges to the formation of communal and affective bonds.
By changing the nature of human relationships and experiences, Borgmann suggests that the device paradigm breaks the symmetry that once existed between reality and social norms. He sees evidence of such discontinuity in the shift away from the virtues of responsibility, stewardship and obligation, and towards device-focused or device-enabled pursuits concentrated on absent-minded, individual pleasure. In his view, the processes of individuation that the device paradigm precipitates has caused a radical ethical and ontological shift, resulting in moral confusion around the role that technology can, should and does play within everyday life. In Borgmann’s view, the manner in which we have made technology matter is highly problematic, as it promotes alienation and amoral individualism, and decreases opportunities for authentic human experiences. Ultimately, Borgmann seems to suggest that a truly moral technology would resist commodification, work against individuation, and promote active, collective engagement with the world.
While Borgmann emphasizes the effects that technologies engender as they circulate, Langdon Winner’s attention is focused on how technologies are produced, and who is granted the authority to make decisions about them. Reflecting on how the politics of technological choice manifest in the processes of technology design, production and use, Winner identifies two major obstacles that can impede ethical decision-making: first, there exist no appropriate legal, political or social bodies with the mandate and ability to navigate the complicated intersections of ethics and technology; second, no space has been created for citizens to participate in technological decision-making. In order to redress these two interrelated problems, Winner calls for an end to the separation between the technical and political spheres, proposing instead that the spheres should interact, overlap and inform one another.
Winner argues for a rapprochement of the political and the technological realms because he believes that technology can be used for moral ends, given the right guidance. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that within the technological resides a “common good.” Further, he goes on to say that the search for such “common good” is both a legitimate project, and a duty of informed and engaged philosophers, professionals, workers and citizens. In positing that a diverse array of participants have roles in seeking out the common good in technology, Winner makes two important arguments: first, he proposes that moral responsibility is shared; next, he argues that the relationship between morality and technology should be borne out by experts, but only when the notion of expertise is radically expanded. According to Winner moral philosophers do not have a monopoly on ethics. Rather, he suggests that any one who can be constituted as a ‘public’ or as a stakeholder within a given technical project—be they a philosopher, professional, worker or citizen—has a role to play in decision making processes. Indeed, as evidenced by the UTOPIA example, Winner seems to believe that moral technological decision-making is only possible when experts from diverse contexts can contribute to the design, production and use of technical object and systems.
Bruno Latour’s approach to morality and technology is much different from both Winner and Borgmann. Where Borgmann imagines technology as an effect and agent of commodification, and Winner imagines technology as something made moral when managed by human experts, Latour sees morality as emerging from the reciprocal relationship between human actors and the technological objects themselves. In other words, Latour expands the scope of moral responsibility beyond the human, distributing moral agency across all the actants operating within a given domain. To this end, Latour describes the relationship between human actors and technological objects as one characterized by delegation and “trade-offs.”
By conceptualizing morality within a network, Latour attempts to trouble two interrelated narratives typically associated with technology, which he labels “sociologism” and “technologism.” ‘Sociologism’ proposes that technological objects are neutral tools that derive their social and moral import from the contexts in which they are deployed; in this paradigm humans are autonomous actors. ‘Technologism’, on the other hand, proposes that technological objects structure how humans act within given contexts, and consequently shape articulations of the social and the ethical; in this paradigm technologies are autonomous actors. Latour offers a third way, proposing that together humans and technical objects (nonhumans) bring the social world into being. While human actors assign social roles to technological objects, we do not do so perfectly; the act of delegating a task to an object is always an imperfect translation, such that the worlds of objects and humans are enmeshed with one another, but never reducible to one another. Since technologies are always ‘more’ than the task they were delegated to perform, a truly moral technology can never present itself as if it actually stands in for moral or ethical acts.
Morality and Technology: Bell Tolls
When confronted with the challenge to create a moral technology I thought it would be interesting to see if I could create an object that might satisfy the ethical frameworks proposed by Borgman, Winner and Latour. Despite each of these author’s divergent moral and political commitments, bringing these three philosophers into conversation with each had the potential to yield interesting insights into the relationship between technological objects and morality. If Borgmann calls a technology amoral when it limits opportunities for people to form social and affective bonds, and if Winner believes that we need new and better social and political channels to make moral decisions about technology, and if Latour believes it is amoral to allow an object to stand in for morality itself, then it follows that my moral technology should affectively engage with participants, draw attention to the social and political aspects of moral decision making and acknowledge the role of nonhumans in bringing morality into being. To this end I created Bell Tolls.
Bell Tolls is a machine that has been programmed to ring a bell every 30 seconds, the rate at which a child in the world dies of malaria. In other words, Bell Tolls is a technological object that makes audible a statistical representation of malaria deaths. Malaria is a disease that is both preventable and curable. What’s more, there are numerous tools that could be deployed to eradicate the disease. Yet, malaria remains stubbornly prevalent across the globe. Despite the existence of medicine and technologies that can prevent mosquito bites, treat symptoms and vaccinate populations, malaria has been allowed to persist for complicated sociopolitical reasons. Indeed, it is the decisions made by people in government, in aid agencies, in pharmaceutical companies, in local communities that directly influence if, where and how malaria is allowed to travel across the globe, and if, when and how malaria deaths occur.
Bell Tolls is an attempt to render malaria deaths ‘strange’. As a disease that has been allowed to proliferate, in part, due to simple neglect, it seemed appropriate to rely on a strategy of defamiliarization, or what Bill Gaver calls “overstatement,” to invite new attention to a very old problem. At first this approach seemed like a gesture made in defiance to my philosophical interlocutors: Borgmann rails against technology’s power to abstract and obscure reality; Winner believes that technologies should not languish in ambiguity, and should instead be submitted to careful moral reasoning by appropriate experts; and Latour would be sceptical of the moral capacities of an object assigned the task of announcing human misery. However, our reading of Bell Tolls in opposition to these authors’ conceptions of morality and technology changed as I lived with the object.
As I worked to resolve various technical issues related to my hardware and code, I were forced to endure the clanging bell. As a result of this durational experience I came to admit how uncomfortable the bell made me feel—not only was the sound irritating, but the manner in which this object militantly alerted me to the effects of disease and death was difficult to endure. In this respect, Bell Tolls resisted the process of individuation that Borgmann calls attention to. Moreover, I realized that I had created a technology capable of eliciting affective responses. By calling on a range of cultural associations related to the clanging of bells: the passage of time, the raising of an alarm, the summoning of workers, celebration and death, alongside abstract tallying of statistics, I was able to create moments of disruption in which all of these associations collapsed into one another. For me, the result of these colliding associations was the troubling of malaria and the emergence of questions surround what brings this disease into being. In eliciting such consideration I believe that Bell Tolls could be considered a moral technology, as defined by Borgmann. Despite the fact that it is an object designed to broadcast an abstracted tally of malaria deaths, and despite the fact that it is entirely removed form any context of engagement with the politics and practices of death and disease, this object is nonetheless able to draw attention to the milieus in which malaria reproduces and proliferates. Moreover, those same bell clangs also call attention to the political and social channels that enable or prevent moral decision making around how, where and when medicine, pesticides, mosquito nets and other technological interventions are deployed into areas affected by Malaria. Indeed, every thirty seconds Bell Tolls reveals and retells the moral failure of existing institutions and bodies, as if endlessly repeating Winner’s call for a new techno-political sphere to guide moral decision-making.
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Winner, Langdon. “Citizen Virtues in a Technological Order.” Inquiry 35, no. 3–4 (September 1, 1992): 341–361.