Ethics of Technological Mediation

Early on in Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things (2011), Peter-Paul Verbeek briefly outlines the emergence of the field known as “ethics of technology.” “In its early days,” Verbeek notes, “ethical approaches to technology took the form of critique (cf. Swierstra 1997). Rather than addressing specific ethical problems related to actual technological developments, ethical reflection on technology consisted in criticizing the phenomenon of ‘Technology’ itself.” Here we might think of Heidegger, critical theory, or Jacques Ellul.

In time, “ethics of technology” emerged “seeking increased understanding of and contact with actual technological practices and developments,” and soon a host of sub-fields appeared: biomedical ethics, ethics of information technology, ethics of nanotechnology, engineering ethics, ethics of design, etc.

This approach remains “merely instrumentalist.” “The central focus of ethics,” on this view, “is to make sure that technology does not have detrimental effects in the human realm and that human beings control the technological realm in morally justifiable ways.” It’s not that these considerations are unimportant, quite the contrary, but Verbeek believes that this approach “does not yet go far enough.”

Verbeek explains the problem:

“What remains out of sight in this externalist approach is the fundamental intertwining of these two domains [the human and the technological]. The two simply cannot be separated. Humans are technological beings, just as technologies are social entities. Technologies, after all, play a constitutive role in our daily lives. They help to shape our actions and experiences, they inform our moral decisions, and they affect the quality of our lives. When technologies are used, they inevitably help to shape the context in which they function. They help specific relations between human beings and reality to come about and coshape new practices and ways of living.”

Observing that technologies mediate perception, how we register the world, and action, how we act into the world, Verbeek  elaborates a theory of technological mediation, built upon a postphenomenological approach to technology pioneered by Don Ihde. Rather than focus exclusively on either the artifact “out there,” the technological object, or the will “in here,” the human subject, Verbeek invites us to focus ethical attention on the constitution of both the perceived object and the subject’s intention in the act of technological mediation. In other words, how technology shapes perception and action is also of ethical consequence.

As Verbeek rightly insists, “Artifacts are morally charged; they mediate moral decisions, shape moral subjects, and play an important role in moral agency.”

3 thoughts on “Ethics of Technological Mediation

  1. Indeed yes, and Marshall McLuhan made the same observations fifty years ago, and Wendell Berry has been making them for the past forty years, or so. Soon enough, I hope, we will get a critical mass of thought on the these (and related) matters, although I am not sanguine about their power to change human behaviour. As Jaimie Smith, channeling Augustine, has noted, we are and become what we love, what we desire and right now we are entranced and bewitched by technology, especially info tech, no matter what it does.

    1. McLuhan’s insights on technology and perception resonate here, yes. Berry is insightful and trenchant in his criticism, but approaches these matters from a different angle. In any case, we keep fight the good fight. Smith also writes that our desires arise from our practices and habits, and that is another, particularly important, way that technology shapes our character.

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