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Carl Mitcham: Philosophizing About Technology: Why Should We Bother?

Carl Mitcham was born in Texas and holds degrees from the University of Colorado (B.A., M.A.), and from Fordham University (Ph.D.). He has taught at St. Catharine College (Kentucky), Brooklyn Polytechnic University, Pennsylvania State University, and is currently professor of liberal arts and international studies at the Colorado School of Mines.

His publications include Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology (edited with Robert Mackey; New York: Free Press, 1972, 1983), Theology and Technology: Essays in Christian Analysis and Exegesis (edited with Jim Grote; Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), and Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1994).

His most recent books are Engineer’s Toolkit: Engineering Ethics (with R. Shannon Duval; Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000) and Visions of STS: Counterpoints in Science, Technology, and Society Studies (edited with Stephen Cutcliffe; Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001). He is now completing a book titled High-Tech Ethics: Learning to Live With and to Criticize Advancing Technology. He has served as the general editor of Research in Philosophy and Technology since 1995.

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Ethix: Let’s begin with a definition. What do you mean by “technology”?

Carl Mitcham: In the most general sense, technology is “the making and using of artifacts,” but we should look at four deeper aspects of this phenomenon.

First, this making and using can be parsed into the objects that we make and use, such as machines and tools. This is “technology as object.”

Second, if we focus on the knowledge and skills involved in this making and using activity, that’s “technology as knowledge.”

Third, there is the activity in which technical knowledge produces artifacts and the related action of using them: this constitutes “technology as action or activity.”
Our lives are more than our financial successes. It’s crucial for us as human beings to try to think in a comprehensive way about who we are and what we’re doing in the world in which we live.
Fourth, there is another often overlooked dimension of “technology as volition” — the will that brings knowledge to bear on the physical world to design products, processes, and systems. This technological will, through its manifestations, influences the shape of culture and prolongs itself at the same time. So there are four different modes or dimensions of technological making and using: object, knowledge, activity, and volition.

Are these four aspects equally present in all types of technology, e.g., computers, biotechnology, and aviation?

No. Sometimes one dimension is more prominent or important. In general, modern technology has privileged the knowledge aspect, so that science has become more important than it was for pre-modern technology. For example, modern biotechnology requires much more scientific knowledge than does traditional agriculture, in which skillful activity is more significant than technical cognition. The very name “information technology” tells us that knowledge or information is going to be more crucial than human action in this realm of technology. We might even create a matrix to assess different particular technologies in relation to the greater or lesser significance each grants to these four aspects of technology.

Could the fourth aspect, the will or motivation behind our technology, be something as simple as making a lot of money?

Technology as will or motivation is the most difficult aspect or mode to talk about, partly because “will” is itself somewhat nebulous. What exactly does it mean? We can speak about things like the will to power, the desire for success, and aesthetic intentions. I want to argue that there’s also a distinctive will operating in modern technology, a will that can be distinguished from that operative in pre-modern technology. Aristotle, for instance, distinguished between those technologies or techniques that help nature do things it already does on its own — and those that use nature but in “unnatural” ways. Medical techniques assist the healing processes already at work in our bodies while agricultural techniques help food crops to grow better than they would in a wild state. But this is very different from building or construction techniques that use nature and transform it in ways that would never occur independent of human intervention. There would be no computers if we didn’t make them, but there would be corn even if we didn’t grow it.

But you could easily argue that human beings would, by nature, do certain kinds of calculations. Creating computers helps that natural process.

That’s a good point. Certainly an abacus works in this way, helping us to be more effective at making computations. In reality there is a spectrum along which technology manifests itself, not just two wholly distinct and never overlapping categories. Nevertheless, it is important for us to recognize that the spectrum exists, that there’s a difference between a hoe and a computer.

In Thinking Through Technology you distinguish between engineering philosophy of technology and humanities philosophy of technology. What is this about?

It is a distinction between two different ways of thinking about technology and its relation to human life in general. Of course these are “ideal types” and neither is found in a pure form. The engineering approach generally sees technology as the core of what it is to be human, and therefore sees no problem with expanding technology into all areas of life. One of the clearest incarnations of this view is Billy V. Koen, an engineer philosopher at the University of Texas. Koen argues that the engineering method is the basic method that we use in solving problems in every aspect of life — not just in designing airplanes or computers or building houses, but in figuring out who we’re going to marry, how to treat our children, and who to elect as our president. For Koen the only alternative is whether we use the engineering method consciously or unconsciously, and the more consciously we extend the method the better off we are. For an engineering philosopher of technology such as Koen, the danger is that we will not have enough technology so that we do things in a stupid, i.e., non-technological, manner.

The humanities philosophy of technology, by contrast, grants technology complete legitimacy but says “not everything is a technology.” There are other legitimate forms of knowing, acting, and being in the world than the technological way. The danger of contemporary life is that technology obscures or crowds out these other ways of being in the world. In the last section of Thinking through Technology I provide a broad-brush historico-philosophical overview of how in Western history there has been a movement from a skeptical delimitation of technological ways of thinking to our contemporary affirmation of technology as the primary way of being in the world, noting as well the existence of marginal critical traditions in art, literature, and religion.

My aim is to invite us to address technology more cautiously, to consider that there may be more to life than the promotion of technoscientific progress.

Many people, such as Kevin Kelly and Leroy Hood, are talking about a convergence of biological and information technology systems. How do you analyze this?

This is certainly an important aspect of the contemporary affirmation of technology as a primary value. Yet here again I would suggest there are different ways of merging. If the merger privileges technology we should really call it a conquest. To speak of life as information processing is very different from, say, the late German-American philosopher Hans Jonas, whose philosophy of biology is not just a philosophy of information processing. According to Jonas there is something going on in organic life that we have to respect in terms of its uniqueness and not try to reduce it solely to terms imported from outside.

This is not to deny that there are multiple ways of analyzing a phenomenon. For instance, an art historian might help us understand a painting by talking about its historical influence, the sociological factors in its genesis, or the fact that people pay more money for one kind of painting than another. But an artist would help us understand in a different way.

And our own direct, immediate, aesthetic appreciation of the painting, while it may be complemented with other analyses, should not be reduced to any or all of them. You have to gaze at the painting with its own forms and structures and let a certain response grow out of the painting. To appreciate the painting as a painting you have to remain open to the reality that is unique to the painting and let it speak to you, rather than to impose historical or economic categories on it. So the danger of talking about merging information processing and life is that we may fail to let the realities speak to us in their own terms.

Some people believe that when computers get powerful enough they’ll be able to think just like human beings while others argue there’s something about life and consciousness that can’t be reduced to information.

My aim is to invite us to address technology more cautiously, to consider that there may be more to life than the promotion of technoscientific progress.
Cognitive science has helped us develop models and do research into human cognition, perception, and thinking, but it’s a mistake to think that such an approach fully grasps the reality of human consciousness or life. Take another example: translating poetry. Some people think that poems can be completely translated from other languages into English. I remember as a kid myself thinking that everyone should just learn English. It was so much trouble having people speak different languages. But anyone who has read an English translation of a poem from the original Spanish or French or Italian realizes that it can never be perfectly translated, and that without the “foreign” language something fundamental is missing, is lost. There’s always going to be something unique about the original poem that cannot be put into English. We must make the best translations we can, but we also need to keep before ourselves the limitations of what we are doing. Too often in science and technology, in technoscience, we are fundamentally failing to keep before ourselves the limitations of what we are doing.
Too often in science and technology we are fundamentally failing to keep before ourselves the limitations of what we are doing.

At a meeting in Europe somebody told a joke in German and then realized that I didn’t get it because I didn’t know German. So they asked if I knew French and I had to say no. They said “well, we can’t explain it in English. It will work in French and German but not in English.”

Neat example. Human thinking is embodied, not only in language but in our flesh. It is integrated with the complete person. We cannot model it in silicon without losing something. That’s not to say we shouldn’t ever model or simulate some phenomenon, only that we should recognize that the extent to which what we’re doing has basic limitations. The map is not the territory.

My research group was once asked if we could build a model of a factory. Our answer was that there isn’t enough time and money to build a model of the factory. “What is it that you want to understand? Maybe we can model that aspect of it, but it won’t be a universal model of the factory.” And a factory is simple compared to living things.

Precisely.

Probably very few CEOs would understand or care about these distinctions and categories. Why are they important to someone running a business?

If all you want to do is to make more money, they may not be important. But our lives are more than our financial successes. It’s crucial for us as human beings to try to think in a comprehensive way about who we are and what we’re doing in the world in which we live.
The humanities philosophy of technology in its criticism has not sufficiently engaged with the real world of technology
The situation is perhaps a little like that of Socrates in ancient Athens. He was not much help to people who just wanted to get elected. Life is more than just getting elected. What Socrates wanted to explore was not just techniques of how to make convincing arguments — but what we should convince people about! Socrates wandered around Athens asking people “what is the good? what is truth? what is beauty?” The people said “we’re not interested in that — we’re just interested in how to control and manipulate other people.” Socrates replied, “You’re running the danger of debasing what it is to be a human being.”

So to a CEO who asks how the humanities philosophy of technology will help him or her be a more successful CEO, I would suggest that it may not help you be a CEO. But it may help you be a human being! Isn’t that more important than being a CEO?

Many companies get concerned that people are thinking about technology for its own sake: “ if we can do it, we will do it.” But this leaves completely aside the company mission and any consideration of how the technology impacts the company.

It’s paradoxical but when you narrowly or exclusively focus on any one thing, you’re not as good at it as if you had a broader vision.

A business friend of mine who ran a steel company said that if you value people in the workplace and treat them with dignity and respect, their productivity will soar, but if you treat them with dignity and respect in order that their productivity will soar, they’ll see through you in an instant, and it will be very degrading. What this suggests is that there are some fundamental elements about the way you treat people, the way you think about your business, and the way you think about your community, that if you reduce everything to economic terms it will backfire. So it seems to me that there is a connection between the kind of thinking that you’re doing and the way a business person thinks about running a business. But are business people actually spending enough time thinking about these things?

Mark Weiser, the late computer scientist at Xerox PARC, was very interested in philosophy, and said that it helped him not to get bogged down in just doing technology in old ways. Just before he died he was thinking a lot about not just “ubiquitous computing” (a term I think he coined) but “calm computing” — a term he came up with when he stepped outside of the technical framework to think in larger, more comprehensive and philosophical terms about what technology really means in human life. Indeed, whenever I’ve met an engineer or scientist or business person who strikes me as truly remarkable, someone like Mark Weiser, that person has had a larger perspective. It is the overly-narrow CEO or engineer who is not really creative.

Too often technology people get so narrowly focused that they miss not only insights and breakthroughs but also unintended consequences. The way of thinking that you’re describing does, in fact, have a relevant and valuable impact on business. Do you see ways of communicating these ideas to business people who need them, but may not realize it?

I’m not as good at this as I would like to be! I haven’t had a lot of experience working with the kind of people you’re talking about. I would love to spend a semester or an academic year in an internship of some kind in a corporate environment. These kinds of things are possible in the government, such as working in a congressional staff position, but I don’t know of any situation where the corporate world has created opportunities for academics like me to come and work for a period of time. I think that a lot of us would be very interested in spending time at a place like Boeing or IBM or DuPont.

There are more and more ethics officers in corporations but it is also important to bring the poets and philosophers into the corporate context as we try to interpret what we’re doing in a broader texture of human activity and meaning.

After Mount St. Helens blew up in 1980, people recognized this as an unprecedented field laboratory for environmental study, and Congress established the Cascades Volcano Observatory. Although space was very limited on early helicopter flights into the destroyed area, it was proposed that not only scientists but also artists and poets might be ferried in to paint and write about this remarkable event. The idea was that if only scientists were collecting data then all we were going to have is data piling up that nobody but scientists (and not even all of them, given the enormous specialization in science today) could interpret. The research would not have the broad social and cultural impact that it could have. But the suggestion was not acted upon. Scientists trumped everyone else. No poets or artists — and certainly no philosophers — got any first hand experience of this exceptional phenomenon. The predictable result is that today there is more data than public understanding about the meaning of Mt. St. Helens.

One pay-off here is what the philosopher and poet bring to the business world. The other pay-off is what the business and technology experience bring to the philosopher and the poet. Many intellectuals and academics would have their own thinking terrifically strengthened by having those kinds of internships and practical experiences you describe.

Yes, exactly right. One of my primary arguments in Thinking through technology and elsewhere is that what I call humanities philosophy of technology in its criticism has not sufficiently engaged with the real world of technology. As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, I learned the most by going to people in the engineering departments to explore critical reflection on engineering and technology. My own philosophy professors often thought I was nutty wanting to think with engineers, but that’s where I learned the most. Today I’m not even a member of the American Philosophical Association because I find I just don’t learn that much from going to APA conventions. I learn more at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
It’s paradoxical but when you narrowly or exclusively focus on any one thing, you’re not as good at it as if you had a broader vision.

Technology often looks like it is autonomous and rampaging around the world. But is there a sense in which technology is driven and controlled by economic interest? Can government control its directions? Is it possible to subordinate technology to human and ethical values? How do we make sure that human values are in the driver’s seat when technology decisions are made?

You raise an extremely important issue. In a book I just co-edited with Stephen Cutcliffe of Lehigh University, we start out asking about the issue of technological determinism.

For a couple of decades now it has been fashionable to reject with something approaching disdain the idea of scholars such as the late French sociologist Jacques Ellul that technology might be an autonomous or independent variable in contemporary culture. At the very same time we find ourselves regularly saying things like “we just have to adapt to the computer.” There is some kind of thinking disconnect here.

At the same time, I’m a little uncomfortable talking about values in general. Technology becomes subordinate to values through economics, government, or the professions. Our biggest problem is learning to recognize that we do have options, albeit often limited ones. Our tendency is to just create more technology rather than ask why. The technology is so enticing, tempting, and exciting. J. Robert Openheimer said about the project to build the atom bomb that it was so “technically sweet” that we just could not resist it. There is something very seductive or glamorous (to use my Montana colleague Albert Borgmann’s apt descriptor) about much of modern technology. Contemporary technologies are not just tools, subordinate to human values. We have got to accept the fact that “tools are us,” and then look for ways to transform ourselves through the practice of forms of what the social critic Ivan Illich calls technological ascetism. We have to keep looking for concrete ways to ask questions.
Technology becomes subordinate to values through economics, government, or the professions. Our biggest problem is learning to recognize that we do have options, albeit often limited ones. Our tendency is to just create more technology rather than ask why.
What disturbs me most about the influence of science and technology today is that we are often too unwilling to ask questions, and we too easily get upset when someone talks about slowing down “technological progress.” We have to “think through technoscience” in both senses of “through” — using it and going beyond it. This is a much more important challenge than simply increasing the pool of scientists and engineers so that we can keep the economy churning out more goods and services. Goods and services for what? This must be our fundamental question. What you are doing with the IBTE points in exactly this direction.

Are you saying that there is too much emphasis on certain kinds of scientific research and not enough emphasis on other things?

I would suggest, for instance, that the plan to double funding for the National Institutes of Health might deserve reconsideration. The NIH may be having more money given to it than it can effectively use to support uniformly high quality scientific research. I’m speaking in an interview here, so my words are not as fully qualified as they might be in a written format, but my point is common knowledge I think even in the scientific community. And yet we’re on this roll, this juggernaut to double the funding at NIH.

Even some scientists have raised questions about an imbalance in research funding that privileges the health sciences at the expense of funding for research in physics and chemistry. But I would take the questioning further and ask whether an excessive funding of technoscience does not imbalance our culture as a whole. The issue is not just that we need ethical reflection on what we are doing with the Human Genome Project and other major technoscientific advances. We need the humanities and the arts more broadly construed to help us understand the metaphysical, aesthetic, and religious or spiritual dimensions of technoscience, to put technoscience in perspective.

But another factor in the United States today is that we are lacking in students going into the sciences and technology. There has been a skill shortage for a long time. Large percentages of our graduate students in science and technology are international students. One of the arguments for increasing science funding is to provide a catalyst for attracting new thinkers into this field.

There may be a little xenophobia there. What’s wrong with foreign graduate students? We also may have created a scientific establishment that has tendencies toward becoming what materials science researcher Rustum Roy calls “welfare queens in white coats.” Scientists today on occasion display a sense of superiority and entitlement that is not the best side of science. It results in budget battles and lobbying for more money.

The bigger problem is the ecology of knowledge in our culture as a whole. We’ve got to look at the bigger picture. I’m not opposed to increasing funding for math and science education, particularly at the K-12 level. But all science education needs to be less narrowly focused on producing more scientists and more on educating for broad, intelligent citizenship. More than being short on scientists, we are short on democratic citizens who, even if they are not scientists, have an informed and critical perspective that enables them to participate in public policy decisions about the funding of science and the development and use of technology.

After many years at Penn State University you recently moved to the Colorado School of Mines. What was behind the move?

After ten years I realized that I was constantly complaining about problems that were never going to be addressed and related, and that these problems were related primarily to size. Huge size (the main Penn State campus has over 40,000 students) creates a kind of impersonality, rigidity, and bureaucracy that is difficult to overcome. I realized that I needed to be in a smaller institution. At the Colorado School of Mines, a selective institution with 3,000 students, the climate and structure are much more educationally sound. China has a government policy that no university can have more than 10,000 students. The Chinese do this to maintain control — so their reasons are bad, but the educational results are good. Economies of scale in education, after about 10,000 students, become diseconomies of learning.

A company can also get so large that it can become very bureaucratic. Breaking it into smaller, more autonomous units is a modern trend that has the same logic.

I agree.

How might information technology help education and the things that you value? And do you see any threats?

I’m ambivalent about high-tech education. The Colorado School of Mines has made a commitment not to put a lot of emphasis in putting all of our courses on the web. We’re a residential campus, and we’re not going to try to create a virtual campus. I support this policy. There’s probably a place for virtual campuses, but it’s not us — at least not right now. We’re going to focus on our flesh-and-blood students. I want to use technology within this framework and keep it subordinate to the real world framework.

In general this is a problem that we have with high-tech media: they easily become more distraction than enhancement. One of my colleagues, Robert Frodeman (a philosopher and a geoscientist), has contrasted the way a book such as Stephen Pyne’s How the Canyon Became Grand enriches our experience of the Grand Canyon, whereas often times an IMAX show makes us disappointed when we encounter the hot dust and dirt of the canyon itself. We need to strive for educational technology that doesn’t distract us from or make us disappointed with the hard work that is a real and necessary part of educational transformation.

How have you seen changes in college students over the years?

Students are probably not all that different now from 20 years ago. We sometimes romanticize the past. But if anything, I would say that students today are more rather than less demanding. For instance, they do not complacently accept lecturing the way they once did. Some people complain that this is because they are members of an MTV generation and we now have to entertain them, but this is not really the full story. The larger truth is that a hunger for the real experience of learning has raised the bar on expectations. Despite the influence of television and MTV, today’s students are not that passive — they want to do things like go out and get some real-world experienceThe buzz-words are “active and collaborative learning.” We have to create a climate, a situation, a structure, that encourages students to become engaged, to become involved, to try things out.

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