Saturday, November 10, 2007

On the Supposed Neutrality of Technology

There is a common refrain among scientists, engineers and pro-technology folks: that technology is morally neutral and it is people that put said technology to uses which are wither moral or immoral. I think this is a bunch of nonsense spread by people who want it to be true so they have an excuse to do what they wish and to develop all the fun new toys they wish.

It is certainly true that a technology in and of itself cannot be immoral, meaning the mere idea of that technology. But it is certainly the case that the actual existence or creation of the technology can be immoral. Take nuclear weapons, for example. We can say that nuclear weapons are morally neutral, but that really is not the case. The mere fact of their existence reinforces the status quo, which is unjust, and thus nuclear weapons are an immoral technology. Part of the problem here is that the context in which we exist is important to whether or not something is moral.

We live in a patriarchal society, one that denigrates and oppresses women. In this context my staring at a woman's breasts, because I'm male, contributes to that oppression. If, however, we lived in a matriarchy, the same actions would not be contributing to women's oppression and would thus not be immoral. This is analogous to technology in our world. Genetic engineering of humans before birth to become stronger or to become more in line with the dominant value structure is immoral in our current, and any near future, society because it will not only reinforce the status quo, it will also increase the power of those currently at the top.

A similar issue is the selective abortion of fetuses based on the probable sex of the baby. In China this is a problem to a fair extent, in fact there is now about a 1.06:1 ration of men to women being born now. The problem here is that this will reinforce the patriarchal nature of the system and will thus cause more oppression of women in China. In this context the technology which can be used to determine the sex of a fetus and abort it are the technologies which are not neutral.

To use a different analogy we can look at evolution and mutation. Mutations are never in and of themselves good, bad or neutral, it is always within the environmental context which they receive value. Likewise with technology.

So, what is the point? Well, first and foremost the point is that we need to be very careful about which technologies we develop and encourage. Things like genetic alteration of humans have the potential to be incredibly bad, not just in a practical sense but in a moral sense. This means we need to look long and hard at what we are doing now in terms of research and technology and rethink it from the ground up, as a society.

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