The Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology is renewing its work at an auspicious time. Throughout the past year we have witnessed a surge of interest in the ethical and political consequences of technology. This interest has been driven by a variety of factors: revelations about misuse of user data by social media companies, widespread and systematic dissemination of disinformation, the confessions of former Silicon Valley executives about media platforms designed for addiction, fears about lack of AI accountability, anxiety about automation and unemployment, as well as concern about the negative physical, mental, and developmental health consequences of an always-on culture.
This wave of critical attention is a welcome development, but there is much work to be done.
CSET aims to advance this work by providing substantive commentary on modern technology’s ethical consequences in a variety of formats and fostering communities of reflection and practice devoted to living wisely and faithfully in a technological age.
In order to do this work well, CSET’s renewed efforts will be more explicitly grounded in our theological and ecclesial commitments. This move to foreground our theological convictions reflects our understanding that the best technology criticism flows out of a substantive understanding of the human person and of what constitutes human flourishing. We know that these are contested understandings, but it is, in our view, better to own our convictions and invite rigorous and honest debate rather than veiling them and undermining the critical rigor of our work. Too much of the work now being undertaken to understand and assess the ethical and political consequences of technological change flounders precisely because it knows only what it is against and not what it is for. It is inspired neither by any communal commitments or any explicit account of the good life.
In working from within our Christian tradition, we are in the company of some of our best thinkers about technology and modern society including such luminaries as Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Albert Borgmann, Romano Guardini, Marshall McLuhan, Paul Virilio, and Walter Ong.
Our Christian commitments, however, do not preclude our serious engagement with other traditions of thought or the work of scholars outside the tradition, quite the opposite. We welcome all thoughtful and principled discussions of technology, and our conversations and discussions will reflect our desire to seek wisdom and insight wherever it may be found. We trust, as well, that those outside the tradition will find our work valuable and irenic.
The pace of digital culture tends to discourage serious reflection and encourage superficial responses. CSET will aim to be both timely and enduring in its analysis. This will be just one of the ways that we seek to embody the principles of the critique and alternative we will offer. This will often mean a willingness to abide unresolved tensions or be content simply to raise the right questions. We will resist the tyranny of the instantaneous and the temptation to offer neat solutions to the challenges raised by contemporary technology.
Our efforts will also reflect our commitment to thinking historically about technology. Again, under the temporal pressures of digital culture, we fail to think very far beyond our present moment. The proper temporal horizon of understanding for a given technology, however, may be decades or even centuries in the past. Without taking this long view, we are unlikely to get very far in our efforts to make sense of our technological situation. If our relationship to technology, broadly understood, is disordered, it is because of social, economic, political, and cultural patterns and trajectories that have been unfolding since at least the dawn of modernity if not before.
We must also measure current developments by their likely future consequences to the degree that these can be reasonably discerned. So we will couple this long view into the past with a long view into the future. We do not believe that there exist quick fixes to our situation. Rather, we believe that what is needed is a deep renewal of our understanding of what it means to be human. This is not the work of months or even a few years. We must take the long view. This is work worth undertaking, and we hope you will find it helpful.
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