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Philosophy

The best books on Philosophy of Technology

recommended by Evgeny Morozov

It's easy to be impressed by the latest gadgets and comment on how much has changed since we started using them. But how often do we really take a step back and think about technological advances in their broader context? Belarussian tech commentator, Evgeny Morozov, picks the best books on the philosophy of technology.

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Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov is a writer, researcher and blogger who focuses on the political effects of the internet. He is the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Morozov is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. Before moving to the US, Morozov was based in Berlin and Prague, where he was Director of New Media at Transitions Online, a media development NGO active in 29 countries of the former Soviet bloc.

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Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov is a writer, researcher and blogger who focuses on the political effects of the internet. He is the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Morozov is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. Before moving to the US, Morozov was based in Berlin and Prague, where he was Director of New Media at Transitions Online, a media development NGO active in 29 countries of the former Soviet bloc.

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Our topic is the philosophy of technology, what’s the first book you’ve chosen on it?

Technology became something of a subject, I guess, in the late 1860s/70s but it only really emerged as a field for academic study in the late 1930s. The most influential early book aimed at a popular audience was Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford, published in 1934. It touched the worlds of history and economics and, to an extent, political philosophy. Mumford tried to look back as far as he could and study how human societies incorporated various technologies, but also how they made choices about which technologies to take on, how to regulate them, and how those decisions ended up shaping societies themselves.

The most famous example he evoked was the invention and wide acceptance of the clock. Mumford thought that the clock was one of the technologies that allowed capitalism to emerge because it provided for synchronisation and for people to cooperate. But I think this was also one of the first texts that critically engaged with the potentially negative side effects of technology. Mumford actually looked at how some technologies were authoritarian – that was his term – how some led to centralisation and establishment of control over human subjects and how some of them were driven by a completely different ethos.

“For me it is kind of sad that probably one of the most important issues of our day is neglected, with most philosophers of technology still arguing about the clock and the wheel.”

It was a very important book, because it started this debate about the effect technologies have on societies from a political viewpoint: whether they actually enable certain political forces to take greater control over individuals. It was particularly important given the fact that it was written in the 1930s, with the rise of Nazism in Europe and the role that various databases played in categorising people, and the role that the railways played enabling the Holocaust. That debate happened subsequently, but I think all of that was anticipated in Mumford’s account. I think many of the debates we’re having now – about, for example, is the internet changing our brains? – all essentially go back to some of those criticisms by Mumford. It’s definitely still influencing a lot of writers and thinkers who think about the internet – not just the clock.

Next book?

Autonomous Technology by Langdon Winner, published in 1978 – obviously before the internet became a sensation. Winner brought the sensitivity of a political theorist concerned with questions of democratic control over technologies, and the control of those who are in power over technologies, to the debate. The book was a survey of how various thinkers (from Marx to Mumford but also people like Herbert Marcuse) have all thought about technology as a social force. It’s important to recognise that many of the early thinkers who were not primarily technologists, like Marx, did think that technology was not just a combination of gadgets and widgets, but that there was also something to it that was special, and required special attention from intellectuals and from societies.

Some people definitely thought it was a good thing, because it could speed up economic growth or undermine capitalism. But many people thought that technology by itself simply obscures many of the political decisions that citizens and governments need to make. A lot of issues that are clearly political, and require democratic scrutiny and participation suddenly become labelled as ‘technology’, and as technology is seen to be something neutral, many of those decisions pass on autopilot – like nuclear energy and pollution and other social problems. For many years people were not asking the right questions, because the bureaucrats and politicians presented these issues as simply an apolitical question of efficiency: seeking the most optimal solution to a problem, while disregarding the fact that some technology privileges certain groups over others and discriminates against other groups.

In this book, Winner ended up endorsing the view that technology can be seen as an autonomous force, but he also took a very negative view of it, thinking that many bureaucratic decisions are not transparent enough, and that often technology demands even more technology to rein itself in or to correct some of its errors. You can actually trace that in the current debate about climate change and geo-engineering, where instead of cutting down on how much we drive or how much we pollute we are thinking of ways in which to turn the earth about its axis. I think it was very smart of Winner to point out that we do have to start taking technology seriously as a political phenomenon, and that thinking about it only as a combination of gadgets or as something completely supernatural or magical is not going to help, because human interest will always be either promoted or suppressed by technology.

There certainly isn’t much of a public debate about the politically motivated uses of technology.

I think one has to draw a very clear line between technology and human agents. If you read the testimony of Albert Speer at the Nuremberg Trials, he claims that most of the crimes of the Nazi regime were committed because technology cut out the middle man, and people who could have been questioning many of the decisions made by their superiors were replaced by databases and machines, so such questioning was no longer possible. It does look like a very valid explanation, but then blaming technology also spares the likes of Speer from the moral responsibility they carry. For sure, technology did facilitate the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, particularly if you look at the role of radio and how Goering was exploring it, but then I don’t want to lessen the blame that should be put on the humans using that technology.

Whenever any new technology is produced, surely the first question that should be asked is: what are the political motivations behind this?

Yeah, and I think one of the points that people like Winner have been making in their work is that it’s often too late to be asking those questions once the technology is out of the bag. Often there are already well-developed markets, people already like it, so we cannot just legislate retroactively. We have to start thinking about ways in which we can make all of this ethical calculus maybe before the prototypes are even designed, and then you have to figure out a way to balance it with the need to innovate. The precautionary principle creates tension with technologists – they think it’s just a burden. People in Silicon Valley really want the innovation, as much of it and as fast as possible, and if something breaks down they’ll fix it later, and think that unless something really bad happens we should not legislate. It’s a really interesting discussion and I think Winner’s books started that.

Next book?

Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life by Albert Borgmann, a philosopher who studied briefly under Heidegger. It was published 1984 and is definitely one of the foundational texts in philosophy of technology. Its chief contribution was to bring the focus on quality of life into the analysis. The point he was making in this book was that there are basically two types of paradigm to think about technology. On the one hand is the device paradigm: where all our experiences and daily life are somehow mediated by gadgets and technology. We heat our food in microwaves and use our heating systems to heat our house and listen to recorded music rather than going to concerts. The second, his normative idea, the one he wanted to be in, was the focal paradigm: and that was the real thing – like cooking your own food. His classic example of the device paradigm was buying frozen food in a supermarket, heating it in a microwave, and eating it while watching television. The good life and his alternative to that would be gathering the whole family and cooking your food on a stove, spending some time doing it and sitting down and conversing.

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Much of it seems very basic and common sense but I think Borgmann really succeeded on a theoretical level in drawing a very nice framework. It wasn’t just a discussion of an ideal dinner; it was all hardcore philosophical theory, how to think and evaluate practices, and what to do about technology and what should be done.

He wasn’t completely against technology?

No, unlike Heidegger, who clearly influenced him a lot. Heidegger used the term ‘enframing’: that technology was becoming too ubiquitous and had its own agenda and was enframing all of the practices around us and leaving very little choice for the humans. To an extent Borgmann shares that view, but also he thinks there is a way out, and it’s more or less to identify the focal practices and perhaps even use technology to emphasise and enhance one’s enjoyment of those practices.

He believes it’s possible to take control?

Yes – for him the key is having humans recognise the moment of entrapment. It all boils down to commodification – whether your life experiences and the most pleasurable things in your life get commodified, and to an extent are no longer pleasant. His ultimate answer was having humans recognise that, and change their course of action.

There’s currently a rise in technology that makes your choices for you, or makes them before you’ve had a chance to consider them yourself.

It’s fascinating, because there is a quote from Eric Schmidt, the Google CEO, where he says that what you expect from Google is not to show you what your choices are, but to make the choices on your behalf. So it is interesting: it brings you to the question of agency and free will, and even if free will is being commodified. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a question of the good life or of healthy citizenship and how much information you should have, and how many choices you should be making on your own to be a good citizen of the polis, but there are definitely parts of Borgmann’s theory that are applicable to analysing the current situation.

Is there an updated version of this book taking in the rise of the internet?

He’s written several books since, but he authored one in 1999 called Holding On To Reality, which was kind of applying the same framework to the information society. I think Borgmann’s framework does have a future, because more and more of our experiences are still being commodified: reading is one, but look at the app economy – the whole point of that ecosystem is to commodify our experience and make sure that the iPad can do everything.

Next book?

A collection of essays from 1994, called Does Technology Drive History? It’s fascinating reading because it brings together mostly historians of technology and a handful of philosophers, who approach the question of determinism from different perspectives. You have Marxist historians, economic historians, feminist historians, business historians who look at the evolution of industry, all of whom are trying to answer the question of whether certain technologies influence the course of history and if so, how? On a very basic level it seems the answer is that all technologies influence history: because they change things, and they are used by humans to pursue different goals, sometimes more effectively.

I don’t think anybody would argue with the idea that technology changes history if we look at cavemen, fire, the development of farming techniques, etc.

Sure, but the big question is: is there any vector you can identify in which history is evolving specifically under the pressure or influence of technology? I am particularly interested in this question and that’s why I like these essays. For example, for almost two decades now you have a lot of people claiming that the internet will lead to democratisation, and will undermine certain societies. There are all sorts of assumptions built into our analysis of technology, about how if we let the internet go as it is without censorship, certain governments will fall within five or six years. That actually influences policy quite a bit because it forces policymakers to allocate resources. If you think that the internet is really a driving force for democracy around the globe then we shouldn’t really worry about WikiLeaks, all the saboteurs or whatever, let’s just sit back and not control the internet and wait until Ahmadinejad is kicked out of office by a Twitter revolution.

When the book came out there were people fascinated by the power of the internet who thought it would create a new public sphere, and the mailing list will be the new polis, and all sorts of nonsense. So this book provided an interesting pushback against that cybertopianism very early on, because it was all historians who had studied previous technologies from the wheel to the clock to nuclear power, and it was a very useful combination of analysis and criticisms of the ways in which we talk about technology and its social impact.

Last book?

Somewhat similar to the last, it’s called Philosophy of Technology: 5 Questions. Not unlike FiveBooks, it’s from a very interesting series where they choose a subject and ask 20 or 25 experts the same five questions that they think will uncover the most about this field. It provides an excellent introduction to philosophy of technology but also some of the most controversial and important issues discussed and tackled by practitioners. For me it is fascinating because they asked loads of people in peripheral areas: philosophers of science, sociologists of science, bioethicists, and it revealed how broad the field is and how difficult it is to talk about technology.

What was also fascinating in this book was how little discussion there was in philosophy of technology circles about the internet –philosophers of technology completely missed the train on the internet. I haven’t seen any good books, or any books frankly, which engage with new media or blogs or social networking or privacy, let alone transparency or WikiLeaks from the philosophy of technology perspective. For me it is kind of sad that probably one of the most important issues of our day is neglected, with most philosophers of technology still arguing about the clock and the wheel. I don’t know if the internet isn’t too big a subject, and we need a separate independent field, something like philosophy of the internet. It boils down essentially to whether the internet is so unique as a technology that it even defies the conventions of philosophy of technology as a field, and whether it requires its own set of principles and assumptions.

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