Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

Is Technology Neutral?

Or does it change our world whether we like it or not?
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People tend to be one of two minds when it comes to technology. One group views technology as directional—altering those cultures it reaches. They construct plausible narratives about how this or that technology has changed our culture. The second group views technology as neutral. They dismiss the narrative put forward by the first group, explaining that such changes are due to forces within the culture, not to technology.

A number of examples can be put forward in defense of the thesis that technologies do change cultures. A commonly cited example is the printing press. When invented in Europe, the printing press caused the widespread availability of books and learning, sparking the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the early modern age. Another example is the clock, which was originally developed by monks for the purpose of punctually following the canonical hours of their liturgy. But this technology eventually led to factory workers following regimented working hours and produced modern capitalism.

Johannes Gutenberg’s press c. 1439, recreated at the International Printing Museum/vlasta2 (CC BY 2.0)

In contrast, the neutral view would see this account as a misinterpretation of these events. Both the printing press and the clock were invented in China long before medieval Europe. However, China did not produce modern science or capitalism. Indeed, an appreciation for learning and for precision were part of European culture long before these inventions. Those who see technology as neutral see underlying cultural beliefs and practices are responsible for the changes, not the technology itself.

Both viewpoints seem to capture part of the truth. Cultures are not simply the outgrowth of their available technologies but neither can we entirely dismiss the effect of the technologies on culture.

Every decision a human being makes involves choosing from a number of options with varying trade-offs. Whether the choice is what house to buy, whom to marry, or merely what to eat for breakfast, good and bad outcomes result from each possible choice. As humans, we must weigh the pros and cons of each in order to decide which is, in our estimation, the best choice.

Technology simply adds new choices. Before the printing press, reading was simply not an available choice for most people. Before the clock, neither was getting up or going to work for a specific time. However, with the introduction of technology, these new choices are available. The same is true for any technology whether it be fences, cars, televisions, mobile phones, or whatever future technology has not yet been invented.

However, humans frequently make poor choices. People buy lottery tickets knowing full well that the probability of winning lottery is essentially the same whether or not they buy a ticket. We eat food we know is bad for us. We waste time arguing with people who are obviously not listening on social media. We frequently make poor choices that we know we will regret. The same is true with deciding whether to use technology. While we can and do refuse to use it, we do not necessarily make good choices about how and when to use it.

Technology is neutral in the sense that it merely provides options; it does not compel anyone to take up those options. Different people, and by extension different cultures, will make different choices of which uses to make of technology. However, technology is directional in that it allows a culture to move in a direction that it would otherwise have been unable to do. For technology to change a culture, the people in that culture must choose to use it. That choice may be made poorly or wisely, but the choice is the key factor.

What does this mean for us as consumers of technology? We are not helpless bystanders tossed about by our technology. We are choosers. We choose whether or not to use every new technology and how. We have the potential for good and ill in how we choose to use it and how it affects us and our culture.

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Winston Ewert

Dr. Winston Ewert is a software engineer living in the Vancouver, BC area. He obtained a PhD studying electrical and computer engineering at Baylor University. His work on specified complexity, swarm intelligence, evolutionary simulation, and genome analysis has appeared in conference, journals, and books. He is a Senior Researcher of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, a Senior Research Scientist at Biologic Institute, and a Senior Fellow of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

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