Dear technology enthusiasts, we have a problem! We need to urgently talk about the way we deal with technology. While we have been enjoying the new possibilities and the comfort that is enabled by modern technologies, we haven’t been paying enough attention to the problems that accompany them. These problems are among the biggest social and environmental challenges ever created by the human species.
In today’s world, it is possible to find a technological solution for almost any problem. There are countless manufacturing technologies. We can mix and match different materials to produce objects, systems, and algorithms of any size and complexity. Whether it is a gigantic machine that will harvest the deep ocean waves or a genetically modified organism that grows quickly, technology easily gives us the feeling that there is an engineering solution for almost every problem.
These possibilities, on the one hand, make us feel confident that we are able to solve the grand social and ecological challenges facing us. On the other hand, we often oversee the new risks and limitations. That’s why we need to become aware of the material limits of the world and develop new values in order to influence the development of future technologies and help reconsider our consumption patterns and thus society’s impact on the nature we live in.
How technology influences our moral values?
Technology is developing at a speed that makes us dizzy and fascinated at the same time. Now robots can do surgery or agriculture or algorithms can generate text. While we often celebrate these new accomplishments and are fascinated by the way they enable us to do things, it is often difficult to recognize the negative consequences when these technologies are adopted by a large group of people and make them a new norm in our daily life.
As it is difficult to estimate the emerging challenges with each technological artefact and the changes it brings, these technological artefacts can also destabilise the consensus on our moral values and lead new values to emerge or be brought forward. Swierstra (2013) calls this phenomenon techno-moral change. As technology contributes to the change in our moral values, this techno-moral change can feed into the development of new technologies.
Technomoral change can become the new compass for innovation as well. Acknowledging this relationship between technology and our moral values creates new avenues for deliberation, reflection, and even contestation of technological innovations. Questions like which values should we consider while developing new technologies, which stakeholders should be included in the conversation to make this process inclusive, and what feature of the particular technology is relevant for an ethical reflection become important. This means that while we are celebrating every new accomplishment of technological innovations, we should also update our vocabulary on moral values, and different ways of ethical reflection and should include more deliberation into the future directions we collectively desire.
Many social and environmental challenges that have emerged in recent times signal us to update our moral compass regarding technological innovations. Especially since the industrial revolutions, urbanisation, and globalisation proceeds at an immense speed, we are receiving concerning reports from scientists about nature’s capacity to tolerate our unsustainable human activity and its devastating consequences on Earth.
How Technomoral change can influence future technologies?
While now there are many ways to mass produce new artefacts, at the same time many valuable natural resources are getting more and more scarce. Also dealing with the products we already have after they completed their life cycle is getting more difficult. This means that as a society we need to update our values related to nature. We need to change how we perceive nature and ourselves as part of it.
Some authors call this a departure from the Anthropocentric worldview which means questioning the human being’s role as the centre of the world we live in. Should we perceive nature as a material resource or manipulation object for our comfort or more like a place that allows us to live in different harmonic relationships with other materials and living beings?
One part of this question is also related to the technology itself. If we need to change our moral values concerning nature, should we also update what values we embed in the future technologies that we will produce? I would say yes! For example, businesses often expect engineers to tackle various technical problems to increase their production capacity, to make things faster, more reliable, cheaper, etc. These goals and values make these technological artefacts or their production process usually more efficient. As a software engineer with a few years of industry experience, my observation was that most of the time engineers give a disproportionate amount of emphasis on values corresponding to making things efficient.
On the other hand, the limited nature of the earth and resources are often not embedded enough in engineering problems. Usually, not many engineers and designers question the material dependency of the systems and artefacts they produce. Making things more efficient usually looks very advantageous in the short term. But when these artefacts or systems are adopted by many people, they may exhaust the material limits of our world.
Take cars for example. Imagine all the car producers and hundreds of engineers and designers working on making their engines faster, more reliable, more robust, and safer but so far not many of them considered the limited nature of the fuels or metals or the afterlife of the cars, etc. What are the consequences of designing an electric car that heavily relies on battery technologies based on lithium for example? Engineers often assume that such questions are usually asked by other social actors such as regulators or civil organisation.
The limited resources of our world should somehow be considered in decision-making processes. And this reflection should include a forward and backwards-looking manner. It should include a historical reflection on this technological artefact or the innovation process to acknowledge the controversies involved in this domain. With this knowledge, a forward-looking reflection should evaluate the risks involved such as, what if some material becomes a bottleneck for production or consumption (gas, oil, energy). Or what if the policymakers internalize an external cost of this material (carbon emissions)? I believe that including such questions in the production of new technologies would help us to navigate future risks both from environmental and business perspectives.
Swierstra, Tsjalling. (2013). Nanotechnology and techno moral change. Etica e Politica. 15. 200-219.
About the author: Kuntay Dogan is a software engineer and an STS MA student in the Technical University of Munich. He is also working as a research assistant at Fraunhofer UMSICHT Institute in the sustainability assessment department. https://www.linkedin.com/in/kuntay-dogan/