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  • Writer's pictureRussell E. Willis

The Ideology of Limitlessness: Ambivalent Technology 4

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

Episode 8

Ambivalent technological determinism also functions at the level of ideas and values. An "ideological dimension" of technology involves the association of certain ideas, values, norms and aspirations with technological existence. Technology in and of itself does not necessarily determine an ideology. Rather, as Kranzberg suggests, " values become attached to particular technologies and hence serve to determine lines of future political. social, and, yes, technological action itself." Kranzberg, xxiv)

The ideological force of technology issues from the (individual and corporate) intellectual, moral, religious, and aesthetic consciousness of, and response to, technology in any particular sociocultural milieu. The particular state of technology comes to embody these ideological factors, and, therefore, must be considered in light of them. In this context, certain values are routinely associated with contemporary technology, particularly the values of progress and efficiency.

The Ideology of Limitlessness

Of significant concern is the notion of limit. There is a modern technological ethos of limitlessness. This ethos implies that overcoming finitude is both good and necessary. Whatever can be done, should be done, especially if it has something to do with technology. Langdon Winner capture the heart of the ethical problem engendered by a technological ethos of limitlessness, when he suggests:

Rather than storm the metaphysical foundations of civilized existence hounding an illusory "new ethic," it may be more to the point to reexamine a number of traits most closely linked to the development of Western technology... and then ask when and how such impulses get out of hand.... The interesting question is why the modern West has proceeded along these paths with virtually no sense of limit. (Winner, 133-134)

Responsibility requires moral reflection on the ideological dimension of technology. This is especially true of the ethos of limitlessness and the role of technology in kindling this ethos.

Limit and Responsibility: the intersection of possibility and limit

Consideration of limit in relationship to responsibility must begin with the fact that technology, by definition, is a means of overcoming limits. After all, technology is the extension and enhancement of human capacities and power. Technology expands the boundaries of possibility in part by altering the boundaries of limit. Human finitude is not conquered, but it is mitigated. However, technological drift, technological imperatives, forced options, and other aspects of technological determinism are critical factors in limiting human being and conduct.

Donald Shriver, Jr., is correct, therefore, when he describes technology as "the intersection of possibility and limit." (Shriver, 4) The notion of intersection implies a dialectical relationship. Technology creates new possibilities by overcoming limitations, intervening in sociocultural and natural systems, and expanding the boundaries of possibility. At the same time, technological determinism alters the boundaries of possibility by imposing new limits to human agency. These limits involve the need to use valuable, scarce resources to support technology, instead of using them for other purposes. At the same time, sociocultural and natural systems react to technological intervention, establishing a new boundary on limit. And so on.

Take global climate change as a prime example. The use of fossil fuels expands human capacity and power related to energy and transportation, but changes in climate require limits to the use of fossil fuels if catastrophic consequences of climate change are to be avoided or at least mitigated.

Homo technicus, struggling to be a responsible agent, is caught squarely in this intersection of possibility and limit. In the context of ambivalent determinism--at the intersection of possibility and limit--responsibility compels homo technicus to consider both possibility and limit. Here limit is considered not only as limitations imposed on the agent, but also self-limitation as a responsible alternative.

Under the influence of the technological ethos, do we adequately consider the possibility of self-limit? Can we break the grip of compelling technology to insist on our true humanity? Only if this is a possibility would we have an "intersection" at all. Otherwise, we might have twists and turns, even forks in the road--choices among technological alternatives, but all choices would go largely in the same direction. Is there a place to turn off our path, to choose a different kind of road, a fundamentally different direction, or even a new form of transportation to move us along this path?

Next time in Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones -- "Ambivalent Technology 5: The Ethics of Self-Limitation"


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): 258-260. Buy at Amazon.


Melvin Kranzberg, "Introduction: Trends in the History and Philosophy of Technology," in The History and Philosophy of Technology, ed. George Bugliarello and Dean B. Doner (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979).

Langdon Winner: Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-Of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977).

Donald Shriver, Jr., "Invisible Doorway: Hope as a Theological Virtue," Zygon 8/1 (1984-1985).


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 Ideology of Limitlessness" - August 28, 2018.

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

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

© 2018 Russell E. Willis



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