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Philosophy and Technology?

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With recent advances in technology, philosophy doesn't seem like quite as distant of a discipline anymore.

Once, when I was on a panel at some forgotten conference, the moderator introduced me as “a technology philosopher.” At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant (and I must confess that I still don’t know) but the marriage of two terms not normally used in the same context interested me as I thought more about the terms.

I’m sure that the moderator didn’t know it, but I was a philosophy major for a while in college – until I saw that there were not many opportunities listed in the New York Times Help Wanted pages for “philosophers” so I switched to something much more practical, English Literature (and I thank God every day that I got into technology).

What brought on this reflection was the Spring 2016 issue of the NewPhilosopher magazine, which on the cover, states the purpose of the issue as “The Real Digital Revolution” while the rest of the cover defines that as “Technology and your brain.”

What Does It All Mean?

First, let’s get some definitions down (all from Wikipedia):

  • Philosophy is the study of the general and fundamental nature of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language. The Ancient Greek word φιλοσολια (philosophia) was probably coined by Pythagoras and literally means “love of wisdom” or “friend of wisdom.”
  • Philosophy of science is a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories and the ultimate purpose of science.
  • Science is a systematic enterprise that creates, builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.
  • Technology (“science of craft” from Greek τεχγη (techne), “art, skill, cunning of hand”; and -λοϒια, (-logia)) is the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives, such as scientific investigation. Technology can be the knowledge of techniques, processes, etc., or it can be embedded in machines, computers, devices and factories, which can be operated by individuals without detailed knowledge of the workings of such things.

It may seem that it is a little much to define terms that each of us sees every day, but my experience has shown me that there is general misunderstanding of these terms. For instance, most people seem to think that scientists “make things” while, in fact, scientists make nothing. They do, as the definition indicates, attempt to discover the secrets of our world – our bodies, our history, our environment and our universe – and, based on their findings, make predictions about our future. Once they do understand and explain gravity, thermodynamics, the elements, magnetism, the solar system, the light spectrum, etc., the technologists take over and build automobiles, airplanes, rocket ships, computers, x-rays & MRIs, radios, etc. In short, the scientists discover and the technologists make. The philosophers attempt to understand what all of this knowledge and information means to us as human beings and determine what “our place” is in all of this world of nature, technology and other humans. (For more on the development of technology, see Approaching The Future.)

In reality, the lines are often not as clear cut – many scientists, such as Einstein, are also considered philosophers and many technologists are often scientists as well. Still, for the purpose of this piece, a review of the NewPhilosopher’s analysis of current philosophical attempts to understand the impact of technology upon humanity, the definitions will suffice.


Is the Web Changing Us?

One of the prime concerns of various authors in the magazine is the changes that the hyper-connected world of the world wide web are making in humans’ ability to concentrate. Both Andre´ Dao in “The end of the world” and Jessa Gamble in “Caught in the net” recount technology writer Nicolas Carr’s writings of how his constant use of the web with its leaping from place to place eventually made it extremely difficult for him to be able to read, appreciate and understand long continuous passages of text, such as articles, novels and non-fiction books. After quoting Carr, referring to a University College London study, “users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts, looking for quick wins.” Dao writes “The worry is a Socratic one: that this wonderful new technology, like writing itself will only give us the shadow of knowledge – information. Or, as cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf has put it, the advent of the internet means that people are destined to become mere ‘decoders of information who have neither the time nor the motivation to think beneath or beyond their googled universes.’”

Dao continues, “There is a temptation to dismiss these concerns as mere Luddism, the complaints of an older generation faced with changes they don’t understand and which they fear, like the bookseller, will put them out of work. But as Marshall McLuhan has argued the medium through which we communicate our thoughts is not passive – it actively shapes the process of our thinking.” (To learn more on on how modern technology shapes our thinking, see How Technology Is Changing Our Brains.)

Not all of the articles simply deal with changes internal to us. Luciano Floridi, interviewed by Zan Boag for “Scuba diving in the infosphere,” focuses on the changes that technology has made on society, opining “technologies these days – they polarize a lot, they transform – search engines don’t make us stupid, but it does make our society more polarized. The stupid become more stupid, and the intelligent become more intelligent. It’s like the rich become richer, and the poor become poorer. And that polarization that is part of the technological development – that is a sad outcome which we could have prevented, we still can redress, but about which we’re not doing enough. That’s perhaps one of the problems that I find most challenging.”

Floridi continued “The other one is the transformation of the internet into a control, monitoring, spying, surveillance tool – that’s kind of sad – and then the transformation of these wonderful technologies into technologies of mass distraction. We use them mostly to play, put cats on social media, chit-chat with someone. Shame on us, to be honest, for having this wonderful stuff and this is all we do.”

Adapting to Cyberspace

Not all of the articles are so negative, but each of the more than twenty pieces challenges the reader to examine the relationship between humanity and technology. It may be argued that we now live in a different age: until the advent of the internet and the world wide web, technology provided tools to make it easier for us to live in our environment – the wheel, fire, gunpowder, the cotton-gin, steamships, automobiles, airplanes, atomic energy, computers, etc. – all provided the wherewithal to deal in greater abilities with the environment as we knew it at the moment. Now, we have to change in what I think is a more profound way. We must live in a new environment – cyberspace, social media, virtual reality – whatever we will call it, it is an immersive technology that forces us to understand it, cope with it and become part of it.

The part of us that remains in physical space is equally, more and more, in a new environment; one in which robots and artificial intelligence algorithms constantly take over what was considered “work,” forcing us to deal with the need for new economic, business and societal structures. On top of both of these realities, we constantly incorporate technology into our human bodies – pacemakers, artificial hearts, hips, & knees, cyborg-like limbs and embedded chips.

It seems to me that, in such a transformational world, we must consider what it means to be human and what is our relationship with each other, our environment and our universe. These are questions for philosophers and not for technologists (although I can see how, since technology has brought about this “Brave New World,” it is appropriate to have a “Philosophy of Technology”). I recommend, therefore, getting a copy of the magazine while you still can.


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John F. McMullen

John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. MucMullen has a wealth of experience in both technology and in writing for publication. He has worked as a programmer, analyst, manager and director of…