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Ambivalent Technology 3: Forced Options

Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones

Episode 7

One consequence of ambivalent technology is that the technological ordering can spawn unavoidable choices. Roger Shinn refers to these as "forced options." According to Shinn:

The forced option is a simple point of logic. Some options are avoidable and some are forced. That is, some decisions can be put off or evaded forever; others cannot. To recognize a forced option is not to say that any single course of action is forced.... What is forced is the decision. (Shinn, 3)

Forced options are situations in which certain consequences of significant risk become unavoidable unless we take effective action. Because there is risk involved in forced options, the sooner that you take effective action the better. For example, because of poor eating habits, a sedentary occupation, stress, and lack of exercise, you would face a forced option. Reverse the negative effects of this situation through some combination of lifestyle change or medication, or risk a stroke, heart or kidney disease, diabetes, or some other potentially debilitating or fatal condition. In other words, do something as soon as possible or suffer potentially dire consequences.


The forced option is similar to what Jacques Ellul referred to as a "threshold." (Ellul, 114) Thresholds are points that, when reached or exceeded cause a contrary or negative reaction to a previously normal or benign activity. The unwillingness or inability (often because of ignorance) to react to forced options or thresholds forces the issue.

Forced Options and Technology
Forced options are not solely the product of modern technology. Persons and societies of other times and conditions have faced forced options. But as an aspect of contemporary technology,

human beings have acquired technological powers that increase the pace of events and the scope of actions, so that decisions come faster, and more things hang on these decisions than in past ages. Weapons, inventions that liberate us from drudgery, and open new possibilities, for human achievement, techniques that chew up irreplaceable resouces--these are transforming the conditions for life for us and generations to come. (Shinn, 4)

The structure of contemporary technology is, therefore, part of the problem. But ignorance and denial of the real situation are also too often involved.

The notion of the forced option clearly contradicts the idea that technology is neutral. It is true that decisions leading to a forced option could be made differently. Nevertheless, at the stage of the development at which the forced option comes into play, the state of technology determines a context that effects human life in certain, potentially catastrophic, ways. This allows limited responses if catastrophe is to be averted.

Two prime examples of technological forced options: nuclear waste and climate change

Two issues come immediately to mind when considering major forced options. The first is the dilemma posed by the disposal of nuclear waste. As a result of particular technical, economic and political decisions (and partially a consequence of drift--see episode 6), nuclear technology has been increasingly used over the past seven decades without the help of a reasonably practical and safe program of long-term waste disposal. Highly toxic and long-lasting waste (some of which will be lethally radioactive for more than 10,000 years) is being produced and temporarily stored daily. We can not choose for this not to be the case. We, the present human community and those who come after us, are forced to deal with this waste for an indefinite future. We do not have the option of living in a nuclear waste-free environment. We must deal with this issue or suffer the potentially dire consequences of catastrophic contamination of human and nonhuman environments.

A second prime example is global climate change. Climate change is happening--with potentially catastrophic conequences--whether or not you believe that climate change is caused naturally or, at least in part, by some human activities. And, if human factors are contributing to climate change, the responsibility to act to mitigate the forced option is even more compelling. Either way, technology is involved in the solution to such problems. And if main stream science is correct, technology is a major culprit in the development of contemporary climatic affects. If that is the case, responsible changes in technology are almost certainly necessary for mitigating its effects.

Unfortunately, one of the most pressing aspects of the forced option related to potentially catastrophic affects of current climate patterns is the wide-spread ignorance and denial of climate science. This is true especially among members of the United States government (both legislators and the executive branch). The political motivation to deny climate-based forced options is largely an attempt to minimize (or even totally abandon) regulation of hydrocarbon use. This has been accomplished by ignoring main stream science (or trying to debunk science altogether). The problem with this logic is two-fold.

First, our current climate is causing forced options no matter what the cause! Humanity must act, now, to discover or invent ways to mitigate the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate, such as rising sea levels, changing agricultural patterns, and changing patterns of water distribution, to name a few. Second, what if the climate change deniers are wrong?! We will entertain this question more fully in a later episode!

Next time in Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones -- "Ambivalent Technology 4: The Ideological Dimension of Technology"


This is an updated version of a portion of "Complex Responsibility in an Age of Technology," in Living Responsibly in Community, ed. Fredrick E. Glennon, et al. (University Press of America, 1997): 257-258. Buy at Amazon.


Roger L. Shinn, Forced Options: Social Decisions for the 21st Century, 2nd ed. (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1985).

Jacques Ellul, "A Theological Reflection on Nuclear Developments: The Limits of Science, Technology, and Power," in Waging Peace: A Handbook for the struggle to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ed., Jim Wallace (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982).


In this series

Introduction: Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones - June 1, 2018.

Episode 1: "What Does It Mean To Be Responsible? "- June 5, 2018.

Episode 2: "Technology Revealed as a Mode of Human Activity" - June 16, 2018.

Episode 3: "Homo technicus as the Responsible Self" - June 30, 2018.

Episode 4: "The Scope of Responsibility in an Age of Pervasive Technology" - July 12, 2018.

Episode 5: "Ambivalent Technology 1: Technological Determinism" - August 10, 2018.

Episode 6: "Ambivalent Technology 2: The Political Dimension of Technology" - August 15, 2018.

Episode 7: "Ambivalent Technology 3: Forced Options" - August 20, 2018.

Episode 8: "Ambivalent Technology 4: The Ideological Dimension of Technology"

Episode 9: "Ambivalent Technology 5: The Ethics of Self-Limitation"

Episode 10: "The Responsible Self as Homo technicus: Complex Responsibility"

© 2018 Russell E. Willis

#responsibility #socialethics #technology