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Essay on Technology and Philosophy in Society

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This is a sample essay that focuses on aesthetics, phenomenology, and ethics as schools of thought that allow for insight into how technology has changed society. Technology is a fascinating concept, as it is in intrinsically linked with the idea of change. As such, the philosophical impact of technology on society offers an excellent way to understand major changes in how society operates and changes. The diverse and skilled writers of Ultius can produce philosophical inquiries into the impact of computers and technology on society like this one.

This brief survey includes three schools of philosophy:

  • Aesthetics - the philosophy of art and is concerned with the emotional response to objects and experiences.
  • Phenomenology - the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first person point of view often used in qualitative research approaches.
  • Ethics and morality - concerned with decision making concerning values and action towards realizing those values (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

For these three areas of philosophy, it will be argued that the expansive use of computer technology has positively affected society by challenging and expanding our notion of art and enjoying an experience that is enlightening and focusing on moral aspects of our lives in society. 

Albert Borgmann

Some of the best work describing the concern over the negative impact of technology affecting fundamental values comes from Albert Borgmann’s “Device Paradigm”. Borgmann’s device paradigm describes the role of devices in our daily lives as objects that separate us from the natural world, or more specifically, alter our relationship with the natural world. For example:

When the house is cold, one may simply adjust the thermostat to the desired temperature. Without this device, to heat a home, one used to need to gather and chop wood, build and maintain a fire. With the thermostat, there is less effort to heat the home than with a wood stove.

Borgmann fears that this distracts us from our connection to the world in that when it is cold, we must work harder to make it warm. This labor connects us to the world in a more direct manner than adjusting the thermostat (Borgmann, 40-48). Borgmann describes the heating of the home with a wood stove as the “hearth” of the home whereby everyone in the home is involved with the maintenance of the hearth.

Therefore, thermostats replace the hearth of the home. Borgmann’s concern is that with increased reliance on devices, people will lose their connection to the world and develop an arrogance of false control of the natural world. Further, people will become more reliant on technology and consequently, the devices will replace human connections to the natural world with service to the machine.   

Tatum and power sources

Directly challenging the idea that the hearth is lost in a home with advanced technology, Jesse Tatum analyzes Borgmann’s device paradigm and draws a different conclusion based on evaluating the effect of installing different devices for powering homes. In Tatum’s study, the availability of different sources for home power did not disconnect the people from an understanding of their world, conversely it enhanced it.

People became more cognizant of the effects of different power sources and engaged in rational choice relevant to the consequences of using different sources (Tatum, 85). Tatum’s ultimate conclusion is that devices expanded creativity and understanding of fundamental values including the ethics of environmental impact of different energy sources. 

The question of ethics

For both Borgmann and Tatum the philosophical concern is ethics, the fundamental values making up our decisions in society. Borgmann is concerned that devices will separate us from connecting with the natural world including relationships with other people, this would constitute an ethical paradigm shift and lead to changes in overall moral judgement. Borgmann is concerned that the freedom associated with the use of technology will be filled with more interaction with machines than with humans.

This may be somewhat true as machines of course require maintenance, however, Tatum outlines that a shift did occur but it was a positive ethical shift that expanded connectivity to the wider world in making decisions about alternative heating sources based on environmental impact. It certainly is true that technology inspires changes in considering the ethical, but those considerations are inspired by our phenomenological and aesthetic interaction with technology as well. 

Aesthetics and Philosophy

In addition to ethics and values, aesthetics is another consideration for philosophy. Concerned with the notion of beauty, art and invoking emotional responses, aesthetics is the philosophical inquiry of the affect of objects on people’s notions of being, idea of beauty, and emotions. Andrew Light begins with the premise that everyday encounters with objects frames an aesthetic view of our lives. Considering that most if not all average Americans interact with a computer or technological device (smartphone for example), these objects present as functional objects that promote and aesthetic response (Light, xii).

From looking at the object, where it is placed in our homes or offices, and what art can be created with the technological object (from making a film, editing photos, writing email).  Technology influences our everyday experience. Light also explores the effect of this aesthetic interaction including social connectivity stemming from technological interaction.

Technological aesthetics

The aesthetic experience begins with the device, is it a PC, or an Apple product. Some manufacturers design their products with an emphasis on beauty over functionality. Apple is well known for their desire to make the interaction with a computer or electronic device, simple, sleek, and pleasing and is one of the main reasons Apple was able to overtake Microsoft in many tech markets. Other manufacturers are more concerned with the functionality of the product and consider aesthetics secondary to cost efficiency and functionality.

Computers have become so commonplace that they are occupying places of prominence in the home. Like the television, however, people are interacting with their computers or smartphones more than they are watching TV. Most likely people are selecting their video content on their computer or personal device. In this regard, the aesthetic experience is crafted by the user rather than being crafted for them as is the case with TV. Beyond just selecting content, technology has also given tools of creativity to the masses. Filmmaking, photography, and music making are now all in the hands of the masses. 

Technology as a form of personal expression

Technology is making it easier for the average person to express themselves and create their own digital art. This phenomenon is best seen on YouTube where anyone can post a video. Also, enhanced cameras, applications, and other tools have made it easier to document and share an experience. This is an enhancement in society because more people are able to access and craft the aesthetic experience and share that with others promoting social connection. We cannot ignore the effect of social media sites like Facebook where we craft clever posts, share pleasing pictures, and remain connected to multiple people simultaneously. 

Aesthetics and Emotions

The interaction with Facebook is also an aesthetic experience as it evokes an emotional reaction. Facebook is a global tool for sharing information, promoting awareness of important causes, and through the sharing of other people, finding the best restaurants. On one hand, the Facebook phenomenon confirms Borgmann’s fears. Many people spend more time interacting with Facebook then they do interacting with their “friends” in person. For Borgmann, Facebook would be a profound degradation of social interactions. Many individuals chronicle their social lives online and to share with each other.

The effect of our social interactions has become more broad and less personal. However, for many people the interactions on Facebook are satisfying. There is an increase in the number of people one can interact with online. This may represent a paradigm shift in considering the values of interpersonal relations however, social relations are constructed, not discovered. This invokes the ethical in considering the breadth of social interaction. If someone has just an online friend, that could be perfectly satisfying. Whether this is “good” or not is a matter of personal preference absent any ruling ethical principle. The quality of the social interaction is therefore experienced as a phenomenon concerning the primary consciousness of the individual. 

Phenomenology

Phenomenology focuses more on the direct experience of the individual based on different structures of consciousness. These structures include the ethical and the aesthetic. The experience of technology has dramatically reduced the need for physical labor, therefore liberating people to engage their minds more. Tatum considers this good, Borgmann has reservations that it will deprive us from connections to the physical world and lead to a decline in direct communication.

However, as demonstrated through the aesthetics of technology there is an expansion into creativity that wants to be shared with others in our social world. Technology has helped get the physical world under our control, but has wildly expanded our social interactions. Inspiring these social interactions is the sharing of information which is one of the most fundamental aspects of computer technology. 

Immorality in technology

Information can be transmitted around the world in an instant based on current technology. The Arab Spring is credited with the quick sharing of information. In this instance, computers are catalyst for social justice and global change. It wasn’t the technology itself that did this, it was the people who sent and received the information that reacted to it. This is where the phenomenal and the ethical collide.

In sharing information, one must then decide what they are going to do with it, and this is a moral question. Another example is the case of Alexandra Elbakyan, a russian scholar who used technology make a huge number of academic journals available for free on the internet. Technology may not help make moral decisions, but as far as moral decisions need information, technology is an invaluable resource. Ultimately, though the moral decision must be made by the individual.  

There is no question that technology has had an impact on society. The weight of this affect comes from understanding the role of the impact. Some see it as a positive evolutionary experience, by Darwinian standards. From the development of simple tools to reduce the amount of time consumed by people in meeting their basic needs. This came from making the practical experience of living less labor intensive. The result was the freedom to develop knowledge. Technology has expanded far beyond making life easier to live from a practical viewpoint allowing us to expand our social relationship. This definitive accounts for an impact on society, the meaning and nature of this impact is considered philosophically with aesthetics, ethics, and phenomenology. 

 

There is no question that technology has had an impact on society. The weight of this affect comes from understanding the role of the impact. Some see it as a positive evolutionary experience, by Darwinian standards. From the development of simple tools to reduce the amount of time consumed by people in meeting their basic needs. This came from making the practical experience of living less labor intensive. The result was the freedom to develop knowledge. Technology has expanded far beyond making life easier to live from a practical viewpoint allowing us to expand our social relationship. This definitive accounts for an impact on society, the meaning and nature of this impact is considered philosophically with aesthetics, ethics, and phenomenology. 

Negative aspects of technology

As we have seen, some view the role of technology negatively as a mode of disconnection from a direct experience interacting with the natural world. To some degree this is true, and the result was expansion into an interaction with the social world. This social interaction has come from the ability through technology to process information expanding our creative abilities. Phenomenologically, this is a first-person experience of an aesthetic quality. From this phenomenon, we derive perceptions of:

  • The beautiful
  • The informative
  • The good

Our experience with the information frames our notions of consciousness followed by our response on how we’re are going to be towards this information through our personal view of ethics. 

Positive aspects of technology

We have successfully argued that the expansion of technology has affected society for the better. Borgmann has opined:

that technology has separated us from direct interaction with the natural world.

However, the role of technology has expanded our opportunities for social interaction, inspired our notion of being, and challenged us to make ethical choices. The expansion of technology in society has a positive impact by inspiring a whole new way of experiencing aesthetics and evaluating our ethical values.  

Annotated Bibliography

Borgmann, Albert. "The Device Paradigm." Technology and the character of contemporary life: a philosophical inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. 40-48. Print.  

Borgmann’s device paradigm describes the role of devices in our daily lives as objects that separate us from the natural world, or more specifically, alter our relationship with the natural world. For example,

When the house is cold, one may simply adjust the thermostat to the desired temperature. Without this device, in order to heat a home, one used to need to gather and chop wood, build and maintain a fire. With the thermostat, there is less effort to heat the home than with a wood stove.

Borgmann fears that this distracts us from our connection to the world in that when it is cold, we must work harder to make it warm. This labor connects us to the world in a more direct manner than adjusting the thermostat. Borgmann’s concern is that with increased reliance on devices, people will lose their connection to the world and develop an arrogance of false control of the natural world.

Introna, Lucas. "Phenomenological Approaches to Ethics and Information Technology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Summer 2011 Edition)." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 26 Apr. 2011. Web. 3 Dec. 2012. <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/ethics-it-phenomenology/>.

Information and communication technology (simply referred to as “information technology” here) is changing many aspects of human endeavor and existence. This is beyond dispute for most. What are contested are the social and ethical implications of these changes. It is possible to argue that the source of these disputes is the multiple ways in which one can conceptualize and interpret the information technology/society interrelationship. Each of these ways of conceptualization and interpretation enables one to see the information technology/society relationship differently and therefore construe its social and ethical implications in a different manner. At the center of this technology/society interrelationship we find many complex questions about:

  • The nature of the human
  • The technical
  • Agency
  • Autonomy
  • Freedom and much more

This is indeed a vast intellectual landscape, which can obviously not be explored here in its fullness. This entry is about just one particular perspective on this landscape. It is primarily concerned with the phenomenological approach to interpreting information technology and its social and ethical implications. It should be noted from the start that there is not a unified phenomenological tradition or approach to information technology in particular, or other phenomena more generally.

The phenomenological tradition consists of many different approaches that share certain characteristics (certain family resemblances, one might say) but not all. In this sense, phenomenologists would suggest that to understand the technology/society relationship we need to reveal how they co-constitute each other i.e. draw on each other for their ongoing meaning and sense. This is a general guide it might help to further clarify some of the contrasts that the entry tried to suggest as useful in understanding the distinctiveness of the phenomenological approach. 

Light, Andrew, and Jonathan Smith. The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print.  

This book, a collection of newly commissioned essays by leading environmental philosophers, was originally to be published by Seven Bridges, a small scholarly press started by former editors at Stanford University Press. Seven Bridges is folding due to poor financing, and this book is now available. It is already in pages, with a cover design, and each chapter has been double-blind peer-reviewed and revised. Andrew Light is a professor of applied philosophy at NYU and a possible editor for a series in environmental philosophy.

The aesthetics of everyday life, originally developed by Henri Lefebvre and other modernist theorists, is an extension of traditional aesthetics, usually confined to works of art. It is not limited to the study of humble objects but is rather concerned with all of the undeniably aesthetic experiences that arise when one contemplates objects or performs acts that are outside the traditional realm of aesthetics. It is concerned with the nature of the relationship between subject and object. One significant aspect of everyday aesthetics is environmental aesthetics, whether constructed, as a building, or manipulated, as a landscape. Others, also discussed in the book, include:

  • Sport
  • Weather
  • Smell and taste
  • Food

Papegeorgiou, John. "Interfaces." Decision Making in the Year 2000 13.2 (1983): 77-86. jstor.org. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.  

The Electronic Revolution will have drastic impact on:

By the year 2000, the managerial environment and decision making will be transformed with computers doing more and more routine work.

Tatum, Jesse. "Technology and Values: Getting beyond the "Device Paradigm" Impasse." Science, Technology, & Human Values 19.1 (1994): 70-87. jstor.org. Web. 3 Dec. 2012. 

Albert Borgmann's notion of the "device paradigm" can be used to explain a widely experienced frustration encountered in attempts to put people's values into practice in a technological world:

  • Technologies increasingly embraced as a means of disburdening them from social and bodily engagement also increasingly constrain their efforts to express their values through action.
  • Expressive elements of their actions are effectively (if unthinkingly) fixed by, and incorporated in, the devices they adopt.
  • Ethnographic investigation of the "home power" movement in the United States, however, provides evidence of a successful break from the device paradigm.
  • In the process of installing more expensive and less convenient renewable electric power systems in their homes, participants in this movement have achieved a uniquely creative reassertion of alternative environmental, community, and work-related values.

The resonance between Borgmann's theoretical framework and the home power experience affords both practical guidance and grounds for hope that people's use of technology can be brought into greater conformity with more careful formulations of their fundamental values.

Thurk, Jessica, and Gary Alan  Fine. "The Problem of Tools: Technology and the Sharing of Knowledge." Acta Sociologica 46.2 (2003): 107-117. jstor.org. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.  

Considering ethnographic research at the National Weather Service and at a large firm of architects in Chicago, we explore the role of technology in mediating knowledge. We consider meteorological databases and computer-aided design systems as tools that standardize and provide access to knowledge, making information transferable across organizational contexts. However, knowledge is always situated and grounded in practice.

These tools, even as they standardize, create possibilities for generating and codifying knowledge that is locally meaningful, potentially causing communication problems. Technology is appropriated as part of the local culture, even as it transforms that culture, altering the meaning of knowledge, learning and the nature of creativity at work.

 
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