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  • Writer's pictureRussell E. Willis

Technology-as-a-form-of-life: Ambivalent Technology 5

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

Episode 9

The issue of ambivalent technological determinism can be placed into the broader context of the experience of life. According to Langdon Winner, technological ordering functions as a way or form of life and thus is, hardly a notion that implies neutrality. (Winner (1), 201) Simply stated, the idea of technology as a form of life suggests that technological order becomes an aspect of human social order. This is not meant to imply that technological ordering is discontinuous with other patterns of ordering. For as Winter points out,

Most changes in the content of everyday life brought on by technology can be recognized as versions of earlier patterns. Parents have always had to entertain and instruct children and to find ways of keeping little ones out of their hair. Having youngsters watch several hours of television cartoons [or play video games - REW] is, in one way of looking at the matter, merely a new method of handling this age-old task. (Winner (2), 12-13)

That technology functions in relation to a traditional or natural human task does not imply that it does so with the same effects. Being entertained and educated by television (or video games), for example, is different from directly interacting with other persons or with books (which is itself an older technology with ramifications for education and interaction). In an age of technology, we should not think of technological ordering of human life as a "side effect" or "impact," but as the very stuff of life.

Technology-as-form-of-life embodies ambivalent determinism. It leads to the creation of dynamic patterns of interdependence not only affecting the environments of human life but also creating new modes of human endeavor. As such, technology embodies potentialities and determinisms that may or may not reflect the intended, direct purposes of the technologies employed in the particular sociocultural context. Different values are pursued, some with human direction, others without.

Ambivalent technology and responsibility

Ambivalent technological determinism is problematic for responsibility in the following ways.

  1. The unintended consequences and by-products of technology generally emerge over time. They also have to be discovered after the technology has been designed and implemented, sometime long after. Thus, unintended consequences generally are not accounted for in any evaluation of moral responsibility at the inception of technological development or implementation.

  2. The ecological dimension of technology tends to introduce uncertainty and loss of control (or at least the appearance of loss of control). Responsibility must take into account such uncertainty. It must also ascertain the actual condition of human control. And it must propose remedial action to reestablish responsible agency.

  3. Someone (corporately of individually) must assume, or be assigned, responsibility for costs associated with ambivalent determinism. This is true regardless of whether the consequences are positive or negative. This situation is problematic at least because technological determinism depletes scarce social, cultural, economic and political resources. Responsibility becomes even more problematic if the society has not decided who is responsible (morally, economically and politically) for bearing these costs. Should it be the designer, the owner, the user, or the beneficiary of the technology who bear the costs? Or should it be some form of insurance or government agency that should bear those costs?

  4. Technological determinism introduces complexity and potential risk into what can already be a very complex and risk-filled situation. The consequences of complexity and risk is magnified when one considers the magnitude and power of contemporary technology. Who should be responsible for making sense of this complexity and determining the risks? How should the risks of contemporary technology be shared? What is an acceptable level of risk for society, and who should make that decision? Should the risks be shared locally, nationally, regionally, and globally? If so, under what jurisdiction and leadership?

  5. Some aspects of ambivalent technological determinism are so indirect, far-removed, and otherwise disassociated from their source, that it is sometimes difficult or impossible accurately to trace responsibility for them. Often, in such cases, once the relationship is established between the effects of technological determinism and its source, a great deal of damage has already occurred and alternatives for solving the problem easily have long passed. This is obviously the case with global climate change. And it is probably the case with the unregulated and highly distributed power and influence of the Internet and distributed communication.

Next time in Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones -- "Homo technicus as the Responsible Self: Complex Responsibility"


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): 260-262. Buy at Amazon.


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

(2) Langdon Winner, "Technologies As Forms of Life" in The Whale and the Reactor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 3-18.


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: Technology-as-a-form-of-life" - September 19, 2018.

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

© 2018 Russell E. Willis



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