June 2, 2020

Is Technology Morally Neutral?

Over the last few years I’ve become fascinated with the issue of the relationship between human nature / destiny and technology. As children of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, we take for granted the idea that technological advancement is a good thing. In some ways it surely is – indoor plumbing, antibiotics, dentistry, insights into health that have dramatically reduced infant mortality rates and made for longer lifespans and a far better quality of life over those spans, and reliable long-term food preservation come easily to mind.

It is often said that technology is morally neutral, that whether it is good or bad has to do with whether the person using it is good or bad. “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” is one popular expression of this idea. It is not computers and the Internet that are bad, but bad people who misuse them to plague others with spam and viruses, or who live lives of virtual immorality on porn sites, and so forth. Television and video games are not malum in se; only people who sit in front of them for 14 hours a day and minimize the concerns of embodied and communal life.

These considerations show that in the midst of our general celebration of technological advance, we do recognize that technological progress has serious downsides. But again, we tend to think that the downsides are all related to how the technology is used, not with what it fundamentally is. I used to agree with this reasoning, but I confess that I’m starting to suspect that the downsides of technology are often built right into the technology itself, which has a definite shaping influence on the character of those who use it. In other words, technology and the morality of its use are not separable issues, but are fundamentally wrapped up with each other in complicated ways that we need to contemplate.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death develops a convincing argument that television watching itself, what kind of thing it is, creates an entirely different cast of mind than reading. Postman argues that television itself almost necessarily encourages mental passivity. You sit and just watch, and as a result you take things in just whatever manner someone, whose person and agenda you don’t know, decides to present it. Television programs exhibit the inchoate organizational feature of constantly shifting perspectives and frames of reference, and by a nearly seamless shifting of subject matter from serious subjects (the news) to trivial ones (commercials).

As Postman sees it, all this tends to break down rational thought and encourage purely emotional reactions and uncritical acceptance of a disorganized, de-moralized, and de-centered perspective on the world. It tends to make mental slaves, not mental free men.
Reading, on the other hand, requires the mind to be constantly active, to pay attention to complex trains of ideas and to follow linear progressions of thought which encourage a critical, disciplined mindset. Reading opens up vistas on the world that require thoughtful interaction, not merely passive acceptance.  Postman’s analysis forms a basic, and I think helpful, foundation for thinking about the meaning of technology not in terms of what sort of person is using it, but rather the sort of person it creates.

This may seem like a fine distinction, but think about it. The common view of technology sees it as in and of itself having an amoral denotation. It only acquires a moral connotation when is put in the hands of a good or a bad person. The different sort of view of which Postman’s is a species sees technology as in and of itself having moral implications regardless of whose hands it is in. Technology, by the simple fact that it is made to be used, implies an ontology about the world (the world is to be used) and about human beings (our purpose is to use the world).

These are definite moral claims about human nature and standards of behavior. If technology says that the world can be used and that we are here to use it, then technology is prescribing a certain form of behavior. But if prescription of behavior is the definition of morality, it follows that technology is not morally neutral but is inherently laden with moral implications.

Of course, a number of positions about the use of technology have been generated throughout human history. Few, if any, groups of human beings have no technology. The most “backward” of savages – note the moral judgment implicit in the word “backward” – have technology to kill animals for food and clothing. Some cultures have stayed on a subsistence agriculture level for many centuries, rarely, if ever, developing implements beyond simple hand tools and simple contrivances for using animals to perform heavy labor.

The Ancient Greeks, who, despite popular conceptions about the “stupidity” of Ancient people in general, had the basic intellectual cast necessary for developing higher technology, but they chose to deliberately restrict technological advance to the realm of defense and war. (For a classic statement of this reasoning, see Plutarch’s Life of Marcellus, which I have looked at in my post “Archimedean Trifles.”)

Some thinkers, even Modern ones, have advocated such drastic “back to nature” ideas (movements away from technology) that they wound up celebrating the most primitive sort of life imaginable as the highest and best good of man. Our own “First World” culture is the child of the maxim of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) that a geometrical approach to everything will make us “the masters and possessors of Nature” and the idea of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) that inductive empiricism can create a “New Atlantis” governed by an Academy of Sciences.  As such, we seem to believe that the more technological advance we can make happen, the better everything will be.

This idea was summed up eloquently by the frontispiece of another of Bacon’s works, The Great Instauration (1620), which argued that his generation desperately needed to move past the artificial and repressive boundaries of the Ancients in terms of technological progress so as to help mankind become better than he had ever been before.

The frontispiece of the work, in fact, featured a ship boldly sailing through the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), which, for the Ancients was the very boundary of the known world and the limits of human endeavor. A Latin motto appeared under the ship, claiming biblical support (Dan. 12:4) for the Baconian project of inductive science overturning all Ancient standards: Multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia: “Many will travel about and knowledge will be increased.” Bacon’s vision certainly has been implemented in the nearly four centuries since he articulated it. We live in a world in which the Baconian project of technological achievement has created a “New Atlantis.” Scientists and their Academy all but rule our culture with their pronouncements – and, of course, their ever-amazing gizmos.

In view of all this, what are our options as Christians for thinking about, developing, and using technology?

First it should be said that Scripture is not fundamentally opposed to technology and technological progress. Scripture commands man before the Fall to tend to the Garden (Gen. 2:15), and after the Fall to go to the earth and work it to make it produce things for man’s benefit (Gen. 3:17-19). Scripture does not disapprove of Jubal inventing musical instruments or of Tubal-Cain inventing metalworking (Gen. 4:21-22). God Himself tells Noah to build a ship, which implies that God Himself approves of ship-building technology. Moreover, the “cultural mandate” to subdue the earth is repeated after the Flood (Gen. 9:1).

All this surely implies the acceptability and even the necessity of technology, at least on the low level of shovels, plows, hoes, musical instruments, metalworks, and ships. On the other hand, God disapproved of the mentality of the builders at Babel, who, He said, would not be restricted from anything they wished to do if they were allowed to complete their technological Tower to heaven (Gen. 11). Evidently there are limits to technological advancement which God imposes on man, but what are they?

Consider agriculture. Granting that God told man to till the earth for his food, and granting that this implies the use of the artificial instruments of technology, the further question arises of how far should technology be pressed in the service of food production? Should men stay on a subsistence level of food production, or should they try to make nature produce more than they themselves need so that they can use the excess in trade or store it “for a rainy day”? Should farmers remain on the primitive level of ancient digging sticks, or is it alright for them to attach shaped pieces of metal to the sticks so as to better manipulate the dirt? Should they then stick with their primitive plows, or invent the harrow? Should they then experiment with modifying the harrow by adding spikes and teeth? Is there a moral limit to what sort of development farmers should pursue in the service of agricultural production? Surely we should not object to the technology of crop rotation, or of better mechanical means of harvesting and preserving more food. Should we?

What about areas beyond agriculture? What about medical science? Should we not be grateful to God for giving us the insight to create vaccines so that we do not have to die horrible deaths from the Black Plague or influenza or smallpox? Should we not be all for the process of research that led, just a few decades ago, to the ability to trick certain microbes into producing human insulin so that diabetics can live long, full lives like the rest of us? I am reminded here of an illustration one of my former teachers used about the coming revolution in genetics thanks to the Human Genome Project. He imagined parents in the not too distant future being told by a doctor that the bad news is that their unborn child has Down’s Syndrome, but the good news is that it can be fixed for fifty bucks. Is this a bad thing?

What about computers and the Internet? Online scholarly encyclopedias and the phenomenon of a Virtual “Republic of Letters” can be very illuminating and in its way humanizing. But is there a problem with the easy unconscious slide into seeing the real people on the other end of the electronic connection as “screennames” and “avatars”? This is not to mention what might happen as artificial intelligence gets more advanced. Whole virtual relationships might be created with “people” whom you never realize are really just sophisticated software programs. (Remember the 1980s movie Tron, recently upgraded as Tron Legacy?)

And then there is digital media, which seems truly an awesome achievement. Today, you can own a thousand books on a piece of metal and plastic the size of your thumbnail, and all of them cross-referenceable in just about any way you can think of based on words you type into the interface’s search engine. The dissemination of knowledge made possible by this technology is staggering, but if we think reflectively, surely we should wonder whether will it eventually cheapen books and knowledge by making them just as trivial as any other digitized commodity.

What about rapid transportation? On the one hand, it seems nice to be able to get in your car any time you like and go anywhere you like at a speed that is nothing short of amazing. But how many of us are satisfied with the incredible ability to lasso time and distance and to no small extent make them our slaves?  It seems the faster our technology gets, the more impatient we are with any kind of slowness.  (I’m reminded here of the train engineer in the movie Back to the Future III, who snorted “Can it go 90 miles an hour? Tarnation, son, who’d ever be in such a hurry?” Not to mention Sammy Hagar’s rebellious, but oh so relevant, song “I Can’t Drive 55!”)

A couple of years ago, my wife and I, then living in Idaho, visited family in North Carolina. We flew all the way, and upon stepping off the last plane it suddenly hit me that we had traveled three thousand miles without ever once being exposed to the world outside of metal and glass and plastic contrivances. What would have been fantastic magic to the ancients is a yawning commonplace to us. Is that a good thing?

The more advanced our transportation technology gets, in fact, the more it seems to isolate us from the limiting factors that remind us we are part of a world that is bigger than us and is really not in our control. It takes storms shutting down roads and airports to remind us of that, and even then we often act like the ancient Persian ruler Xerxes, furiously whipping the water of the Hellespont because it would not cooperate with his invasion plans.

More examples could be raised and more questions asked, but these seem enough to make the point. Technology is not morally neutral. It implies all kinds of things about the world and about ourselves, and even as I sit here writing this on my computer, and you sit there reading it on yours, the big assumptions and the big questions just hang in the air waiting to be addressed.