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  • Writer's pictureRussell E. Willis

Complex Responsibility: The Responsible Self in an Age of Pervasive Technology

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

Episode 10

We face a daunting task in an attempt to be a responsible self in an age of pervasive technology. The dynamism, expansion of scale, complexity and interdependence of contemporary technology introduce uncertainty and risk. They strain the ability of the responsible self to comprehend and adequately control the nature and consequences of human conduct. In addition, ambivalent technological determinism (the subject of Episode 5 of this series) further confounds our foresight and control, generating uncertainty and risk.

The responsible self -- now fully ensconced in the form of Homo technicus (see episode 3) -- stands at a true intersection. At this intersection are a myriad of options with an expanding range of potential risks and benefits. The potential benefits inflame the imagination and fuel a technological impulse. Meanwhile, the risks can be very costly and could even be catastrophes of unprecedented scale. A moral vision that guides the responsible self must encompass and embrace the character of technology in the contemporary age. The basis of this vision is complex responsibility.

The notion of "complex" responsibility

The idea of "complex" responsibility incorporates the intrinsic dynamism of technology (defined as the expansion and enhancement of human capacity and power by artificial means -- see episode 2). It also incorporates the characteristics of ambivalent technological determinism (examined in episodes 5-9 of this series). The idea of complex responsibility implies an awareness of the complications involved in the ethical task. It presents tremendous challenges not simply for ethical analysis, but for the attempt to bring ethics into the realm of socio-policy formation as well. We can name at least six basic characteristics of complex responsibility.

Inherent dynamism

Technology is inherently dynamic. As our experience and understanding evolves, so must our ethics. Therefore, our ethics must be adaptive, and increasingly iterative in character. We will need to expect to have and use new insights, rules, tools, processes and systems to make good decisions. And these changes will happen in stages, delineated by breakthroughs in technology and/or breakdowns of natural, physical, social or cultural systems.

Expanded scope

The expansion of the scope of responsibility must match the expansion of technological activity and its consequences. We must, therefore, pay attention to larger wholes. This would include global economies, global communication systems and global climate patterns. It would also include extended constituencies (like all people who can access my social media accounts) and future generations.

Responsibility to and for systemic change

Complex responsibility entails responsibility to and for changes in sociocultural and natural systems affected by technology. This includes future conditions of these systems. This should include the responsibility to react to the factors of technological determinism in ways that foster responsible agency. In other words, complex responsibility should foster human control of technology and the forms of life it engenders.

Responsibility for unintended consequences

Complex responsibility should expect that technology spawns unintended consequences as a matter of course. In an age of pervasive technology, we must be responsible for technological drift (see episode 6). This should lead to a heightened awareness of the rise of uncertainty and risk. At a minimum there needs to be an accounting of risk that assigns responsibility within society for making risk assessments. Since perfect foresight is impossible, and expanded complexity is a virtual certainty, social responsibility for bearing the costs and reaping the benefits of technological determinism must be assigned (see episode 5).

Responsibility for technical and scientific literacy

Complex responsibility should also include the responsibility to foster technological and scientific literacy. It should also include the responsibility to engage expert knowledge in policy formation and implementation. We are witnessing the costs of failing to do this with the current political and economic responses to global climate change, especially in the U.S.

An ethic of self-limiting participation

In light of the ideology of limitlessness that seems to have grasped our technological age, complex responsibility must foster a model of self-limiting participation. This model would not simply say "no" in the face of any risk. Rather, it would promote a sense of ambivalence in understanding the desire of humans to enhance and expand their capacity and power. It would also offer a moment of reflection in the midst of technologically-driven dynamism and the uncertainty it engenders.

OK, now what?

In itself, the notion of complex responsibility does not suggest what one ought to think about each of these elements. It only suggests that one ought to consider them as morally relevant aspects of human conduct in the life of a society in an age of pervasive technology. In subsequent blogs we will revisit these six characteristics of complex responsibility to unpack contemporary issue of responsibility and technology.

Next time in Being Responsible in the Age of Social Media, Cryptocurrency, and Smart Weapons/Cars/Phones -- "Blockchain as the Next Phase of Technological Evolution and Technological Ambivalence"


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): 262-263. Buy at Amazon.


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: "Complex Responsibility: The Responsible Self in an Age of Pervasive Technology" - November 29, 2018.

Episode 11: "Blockchain as the Next Phase of Technological Evolution and Technological Ambivalence" coming soon

© 2018 Russell E. Willis

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