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A talk with professor Mark Coeckelbergh

By Annelies — Mar 12 2018
10 min read

About the false opposition between nature and technology and the status of the ‘good life’ in today’s modern thinking.

 

You operate in the domain of technology philosophy, more specifically the ethical questions raised by technological developments. How could this knowledge surpass academic walls?
I believe government has the task to inform people about technology, as they do about health or traffic. They could provide the people with some guidelines on how to interact with technology. Obviously commercial organisations house the most knowledge, but there is a significant risk in terms of misinformation. Companies have to sell products and services and will present them as positive and advanced as possible. If they would communicate more honestly, it would increase the general knowledge about all things tech. Luckily more and more voices are heard within companies that dare to put the ethical questions on the agenda.

But these companies are the main source of new technological developments, they shape our reality with their products and services. The selection and adaptation of new technologies is predefined by financial logics. Isn’t that a roadblock for transparency and responsibility?
Technology is defined by market logic and by the time it hits us, the consumers, it’s a fait accompli. As a society you have to built in certain mechanisms to better envision the impact of technological developments. Future-research has to help make these more democratic. Like your manifest reads, we can’t let boardrooms be the sole architects of our technological realm. In an economic reality ethics has a negative connotation, they might prefer responsible entrepreneurship. But besides terminology, for me the most important issue is that already in the ideation and development stages of new solutions, we have to incorporate the societal impact and ethical questions. In a company you can imagine the pressure being to high to give any attention to this. Governments or NGOs could try and support them in this.

Better late than never the tech-consumer appears to be waking up, mainly because of crisis situations like the Cambridge Analytica breach. How come it takes us so long to become more aware or critical towards new technologies ?
A part of it is human thoughtlessness and habituation. We see technological applications as being something purely technical, but that idea doesn’t hold up. Back in the days technology might have been more instrumental, take for example kitchen appliances, they don’t really ignite ethical reflections. Technology today however does have a deep impact on how we do things, see things, built things, experience things, … but we don’t seem to grasp that. The car changed the outlook of the earth’s’ surface entirely and has taken on such a strong role in society it’s very hard to change mobility into something more sustainable. So thinking about technology isn’t hardwired into humans (yet), we see it like a hammer and a nail, a tool, but it’s far more than that. Facebook isn’t ‘just’ a communication tool.

Often our relationship with technology is defined by a tension that exists between mankind, nature and technology. But does that theory make sense ? Are we originally pure nature and do we feel rootless because of the ever growing layer of technology that stands between us and nature ?
That is a problematic viewpoint because it places technology outside our reality, as something fundamentally strange to mankind. That while technology is very human and the precondition for people to survive in nature. Even though, today, technology is becoming more autonomous, it’s still man-made, man-used and packed with human values. So how strange or distant can it feel? To me, nature, technology and mankind are strongly intertwined. And if you look at them in a more relational way, you can’t possibly think about man and society without including technology. Our modern thinking works with to much opposites, culture vs nature, man vs technology, … we have to break those patterns.

A key aspect of modernisation is the wish for increased efficiency, often enabled by technology. If we are in a strong relationship with that technology, how does that urge, that efficiency affect us ? Are human made to be optimised ?
The 19th century idea of ‘the office-man’ that operates at maximum capacity and is constantly monitored, optimised, managed and surrounded by technology doesn’t feel right. People intuitively sense that that they are more than their measurable actions on the job. This gives humans their typical serendipity, unpredictability and dept. That’s what makes it so hard for technology to mimic humans, that darkness that is ungraspable. And that is also what makes relationships so fascinating. Imagine the other being 100% readable, predictable, the world would become a very dull place.

Should technology put ‘The good life’ more central in it’s developments instead of efficiency ?
Apart from efficiency and profit, there are always some values in technological applications; often liberal ones. Take the car, it represents freedom and the importance of having full ownership of one’s life. So there are values incorporated, problem is they emerge from a narrow vision on what it means to be human, or what it should mean. If you look at the Hyperloop project by Elon Musk, it’s an example of corporate responsibility, he wants to solve a problem society is faced with, which is applaudable. Too bad it’s an old solution for an outdated problem. He still thinks in terms of individual transport, physical presence, … This type of solutions tends to be less human-centered because technology is seen as the one source for solutions. Somebody sees a problem and throws some technology at it. This tech-fixation sabotages a more holistic view on society and culture.

Let’s say we collectively say goodbye to the 40 hour workweek. After being the production machines ourselves we get laid off and are replaced by non-human machines. Consequence: we have a lot of extra free time on our hands. Will we have any clue what to do with it? Are we any good at ‘free time’ ?
Even today we see that doing nothing, being a bit bored is not seen as a good thing, everything has to be useful. You have to be busy all the time. This urge we have in the workplace, towards increased efficiency, could affect our free time as well. Also, today, we already use a lot of technology in our free time, which make it plausible that tech-companies will be the ones who shape our time in the future. Unless we start being more critical, this will reduce us to products, or machines, generating data, handing over our time for free, which is the core of the attention economy. Letting us be seduced into this dynamic is absolutely not acceptable.

Seduction isn’t something new, it’s the core of marketing and fuel for our economy? People are approached by companies by appealing to their basic urges and passions. These mechanisms will have an exponential impact due to new technology. Won’t this negatively affect our culture, the virtues we share ?
Every since the ancient greek philosophers there has been this idea that you have to control your passions. It’s something you learn to do when moving from childhood to adult life. Preferably not just ‘because you have to’, but from an intrinsic motivation, one that sees how this could benefit yourself and those around you. This is a form of art that you have to learn to master during your lifetime. And it’s not easy, it’s actually very hard. If you add to this challenge the constant confrontation with technological applications who make this virtually impossible and whose goal is to tap into and enlarge your urges and passions you might risk to turn out a lesser version of yourself, one that is not so human. This dynamic of self-actualisation and improvement of the self is the complete opposite of the idea, fed by technology, that everything has to be easy.

So for me the question is not whether we want technology or not, but how will we shape it in a way that it supports us in this challenge to reach for ‘the good life’, to master our urges and passions. If technology could assist us in doing just that, there could be a bright future ahead. The danger we see today is that the more critical voices in the tech-world want to make a case for ‘a return to nature’ even though we’ve never been ‘in nature’. The challenge is to align self-care and self-control with technological advancements. That’s where the tension is today, not between nature and technology, but between consumerism and ‘the good life’, enlarged by the technological accelerations we see today.

If you wish to learn more about Mark Coeckelberghs research he published a lot of interesting books and papers that are comprehensible and enriching.

The most recent are :
New Romantic Cyborgs
https://coeckelbergh.wordpress.com/new-romantic-cyborgs/

Using Words and Thingshttps://coeckelbergh.wordpress.com/books-menu/using-words-and-things/

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