The Morality of Technology
19 March, 2003
Many years ago, in the aftermath following the finding, arresting, and prosecuting of Theodore Kaczynski - nefariously known as "The Unibomber" - I read his dissertation entitled, Industrial Society and Its Future (also known as "The Unibomber Manifesto") Though I did not believe Mr. Kaczynski was justified in killing the people he did, I did find there to be much in his writing that resonated with me and thus began my interest into the morality of technology.
As we push headlong into the new millennium, many issues surrounding the effects and impact of technology on the planet and its human and nonhuman cohabitants are being explored. However, a broader approach might be the exploration and evaluation of technology itself. In considering this broader approach, I have outlined the following argument with respect to technology and the production of goods and materials.
When something is produced, something else is consumed. When steel is made, iron ore and carbon are consumed in that process. The loss of the consumed resource(s) is a cost of production. According to the tenet's of capitalism, it is illogical to produce something when the cost out-values the product. With capitalism, the core of our American society, that value is measured in terms of dollars in an economic sector, or market. Therefore, at some point in the production plan, an analysis must be made to determine if the production cost outweighs the value of the product. If it is determined through such an analysis that the cost of production does indeed outweigh the value of the product, that production process should be refined or discontinued.
There may be many reasons why technology exists, but in simple terms, technologies advance for the purpose of enhancing the human experience. But with the advancement of global capitalism, new technologies have become a commodity that are bought and sold thereby creating a value for technology itself. As stated above, there is a cost to produce goods, that includes technology. Therefore, from the prevailing perspective, that of capitalism, an analysis should be made to determine if the value of technology outweighs its cost. According to the basic principle of Utilitarian Ethics, the moral choice is the one that produces the greatest good. Conversely, the choice that creates the most harm is the unethical choice.
I propose that a thorough analysis be initiated by a global congress of researchers who can, down to the most minute degree, tally the cost and gain of technology in terms of dollars. This analysis would consider all possible monetary costs including but not limited to materials, mental and physical health, environmental, even spiritual. At the completion of this analysis, according to Utilitarian and capitalistic principles, it would be quite easy to determine the morality of technology.
It seems to me that a certain psychological momentum has been established that makes it practically impossible to see any option for our species beyond the pursuit and embrace of technology and all its products both helpful and harmful. If this is true, I believe it would benefit the entire planet to sidestep this momentum, evaluate it like we would any other cost/benefit analysis, and return to technology with knowledge that might just save the planet from the possible blind path we are on.
These thoughts came to me one day while trying to start a campfire with a broken lighter. It occurred to me how dependent we humans are on the most simple and ubiquitous products of technology such as a cigarette lighter. Were it not for lighters or matches, who among us could start a fire to heat cold spaces or cook with? I dare say one in ten thousand people have the skills or knowledge necessary to create a source of heat (fire in this case) from nothing. If The System were to stop functioning and lighters could not be manufactured for some reason, many millions of us would perish quickly. This is but one example of many that strongly emphasizes the point that something we've created is vulnerable to an entire host of threats, yet we have allowed ourselves to become terminally dependent upon. Another example would be Westerners without a supermarket. How long could the average family exist through the acquisition of food outside of the modern market? Who can grow enough food for their family year-round or forage healthily? Far too few. In my next article, I will elaborate on the argument that Technology has become a superior, though still dependent, form of existence to human beings.