Technological determinism: do we control technology or does it control us? | Trends

Technological determinism: do we control technology or does it control us? | Trends

We are told that the robots, that automation is coming, that artificial intelligence is coming, that the transhumanism, the cyborgs, that the only progress is technological progress. But do they come alone or does someone bring them? Does technology have an autonomous development beyond the control of humans? Is all this inevitable? That is to say: do humans paint something in this story?

The debated concept of technological determinism It has to do with all these questions. Its defenders believe that technological evolution is already going alone, at its own pace, without the guidance of intelligent beings based on carbon (us). If any scientific or technological advance is possible, it is said, someone somewhere will eventually lead from the power to the act.

"From my point of view it is an ideology that justifies a certain social order", Says José Antonio López Cerezo, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Oviedo," and that aims to shore up the technocracy. " The way in which the generations of automobiles or microchips follow each other with the lineages of living beings that evolve by improving their efficiency is compared. "This ideology proposes with technology be the main engine of social change"

Ways to see determinism

For historians, he says Antonio Diéguez, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Málaga, technological determinism means that technological advances not only they influence, but determine the history. The traces of these ideas can be traced already in the work of Karl Marx; for some scholars, such as Lynn White Jr., the invention of something as simple as the stirrup (which allowed the horse to dominate with the feet and leave hands free to battle) determined the feudal society, as well as the steam engine industrial society .

Another point of view regarding the technological determinism is that of the philosophers of the technique. In its strong version, like the one advocated by Jacques Ellul, technology has its own laws and dynamics beyond the will of the human being. "Once the initial conditions have been set," Diéguez explains, "that development will take us wherever it takes us, even if it's a disaster." It is noteworthy that the work of Ellul, The age of the technique, dates from 1955, long before the current technological revolution.

In its weakest version, like the one proposed by the American Langdon Winner (see his work The whale and the reactor), it is true that technology is advancing autonomously, but there is the possibility and the duty to master it. For this author the technological sleepwalking It is this lack of awareness in societies about what the impact of technology means: technology is not neutral, responds to interests and has profound implications in the world in which we live every day. Although many times we accept it uncritically, as if it were a natural phenomenon (as some also accept economic crises).


In these points of view, technology ceases to be a passive object to become a active object. "It's a very controversial way of talking," says sociologist Jesús Romero Moñivas, a professor at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM). "Critics of the existence of determinism have always emphasized that technology is not a someone and that therefore can not impose nothing". The suspicion arises then about the humans that hide behind, the creators, the designers, the technologists. "It's what I've called a active technocracy, an elite of technicians who make decisions about the progress of society ", says the sociologist. There is also a passive technocracy, "according to which there is no government of technicians but a government of the technological system itself".

Determinism, then, would act in a very subtle way: new weapons transform the way of making war, new architectural techniques change the way of life … "Determinism is also getting up late because your alarm clock has been broken or the need to learn new communication codes to talk on WhatsApp, "says Romero. "The feeling that our life depends on a complex technological framework".

At the opposite extreme of technological determinism is the idea of social constructivism of technology, or the social determinismThese doctrines, promoted by authors such as W. Bijker or Trevor Pinch, postulate the opposite: that technology is actually determined by social agents, that technological change is determined by social change. "Neither idea seems satisfying to me, not because I look for the Aristotelian midpoint or a neutral and decaffeinated posture, but because the combination of both positions seems more plausible to me, as authors like Thomas Hugues defend", says López Cerezo.

Some of these ways of seeing it defend that in its initial stages the technologies are more easily directed by human agents (there is less information and more control), but as they develop, they gain autonomy (there is more information and less control). This has been called the control dilemma. For example, at the beginning of its existence there was more possibility of acting on the Internet or smartphones: today they are so imbricated in society, in our ways of life, that it is unimaginable to make big changes or eradicate them.

Is technological progress unstoppable?

The idea that technological progress is not only unstoppable but always desirable is often spread. A very daily example could be the conflict between the taxi sector and the VTC. It is not uncommon to listen in gatherings or read in newspaper articles that digital platforms are the progress and that for that reason they are fine as they are, that we have to adapt to the new situation. "They are very common topics that interest the technology centers of power that are distributed around the world, such as Silicon Valley," says Diéguez. "But it is an empirically false ideology. In fact, not all the possibilities of technology are carried out, only those that respond to certain interests. "

One test is nuclear technology, whose discourse was modified by pressures from environmental groups and pacifists. The European Union and the governments, although they have problems to adapt to the speed of the changes, consider regulating subjects such as robotics, artificial intelligence or genetic engineering.

How can the public authorities take the bridles of the horse? It is not easy, and problems of a deep philosophical nature are posed: "What is a good technology?" Asks Romero. "What are really harmful effects of a technology? What ideology is hidden behind certain technologies? What aspects of society or human being can not under any circumstances be transformed or conditioned by technology? ". It could be summarized, at the bottom of the matter, in a question of weight: "What is the human being and how he has to live?", Says the sociologist.

"Determinism is a thesis whose ideological function is to make believe that the really important issues are of a technical nature," says López Cerezo, "and that, therefore, the technicians are the ones in a position to make the appropriate decisions: there is no room for citizen intervention or ethics, which are seen as interference. "

In the advent of artificial intelligence, in the transhumanist movement, which proposes with optimism the technological improvement of the human being or in the announced (by some) technological singularity (the moment in which the artificial intelligence surpasses the human), these issues are revealed. "The question we should ask ourselves is what is real progress," Diéguez concludes, "because not all innovation is progress. Determinism is an ideological and paralyzing thesis that is used in an interested way ".


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