In the philosophy of technology world, there are quite a few theories and descriptions of technology. In an attempt to simply (and most likely butcher) the dozens of highly nuanced views, I want to use philosopher Andrew Feenberg‘s two helpful questions that categorize four of the major views and then test them with Twitter. Again, this is a vast over-simplification, but I hope it will shed some light on the important – but often rather obscure – discussions happening among the big thinkers.
1. Do humans control technology (to some degree)?
Most would answer “yes” to this question, but there are those who believe that technology is “autonomous” in that it operates independently of what people want from it. Technological determinists look at history and see technology as the primary force in shaping social institutions like government, church, and the family. Many of the popular articles that talk about “technology making us dumber” inadvertently fall into this category.
2. Does technology have built-in values?
Most people answer, “no,” to this question because they tend to believe that they can use technology however they want with no effects on themselves. In more complex terms, they separate the means (technological tools) from the ends (what they want to do with it). As long as the ends are good, they don’t think the means (which technology we use) has any effect.
In contrast, those who answer “yes” would say that means (tools) and ends (goals) are intimately connected and related. We don’t just use technology for ends, because when we use a particular technology it works like a filter or a lens of values that we apply to the rest of our lives.
Charting out the Answers
According to how you answer these questions, you will fall into one of four philosophical categories.
|Can humans control technology (to some degree)?|
technology is autonomous
technology can be controlled
|Does technology have built-in values?||No
technology is “neutral”
Technology is the driving force of history to make things better
Technology can be used for anything we want, and it does not affect us in any way.
the means (tech) are connected to the ends (values).
Technology is the driving force of history, but it doesn’t always make things better
Technology is a driving force of history, but humans can control and reshape both technology and history.
Theories of Technology
If you’ve made it this far, you’re doing great for a blog post. Hang with me, we’re almost to Twitter.
Determinism (technology is autonomous and neutral) &
Substantivism (technology is autonomous and value-laden)
For simplicity, I’m grouping these two views together because they both argue that technology exerts control over society. The main difference is that Technological Determinism sees technology as neutral and therefore does not make judgments about the effects that technology has. It tends to see technology as purely hopeful in bringing society to a better place. In contrast, Substantivism does judge technology’s influences and concludes that its effects are not always positive.
Instrumentalism (technology is human-controlled and neutral)
This is probably the unstated assumption of the majority of today’s technology users. Instrumentalists critique Determinism and believe that technology should only be thought of in terms of how people use it with no consideration of the technology itself. This leads to statements like, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Unfortunately, this view is fairly naive in that it fails consider why there are differences between societies with guns and without guns, and it cannot explain why kids who watch hours of television from a young age have trouble concentrating.
Critical Theory (technology is human-controlled and value-laden)
Critical theory is somewhere between the extremes of Instrumentalism (technology is purely neutral) and Determinism (technology controls everything) because it sees technology and social practices as developing in tandem and influencing one another. The means (technology) affects the ends (human purposes), but human purposes (ends) also influence what technologies (means) are developed. Technologies are not fully neutral in that they contain the values of their makers and values inherent in their design, but technology is also not in control of society. For example, the bias towards efficiency in today’s technology is a reflection of capitalism which developed in tandem with it over the last several centuries.
Let’s Apply the Theories to … Twitter
Twitter was designed to integrate with SMS and alert friends to what other friends were doing. But beyond this original design, Twitter (a means) has spawned cultural trends and has even altered how news outlets report stories and interact with audiences (ends). So does Twitter support Determinism/Substantivism? Well, not quite, because it is the users of the system who collectively shaped it, inventing things like @replies and retweets that were not originally part of the design.
But then is Twitter fully value-neutral? Many people have pointed out that Twitter’s main question “What are you doing?” can influence users to be self-focused. Its design also inherently values short, 140 character thoughts rather than developed arguments. Because of these values, we cannot call it purely neutral and we cannot agree with Instrumental. Yet user inventions like @replies have refocused twitter away from the self and other tools like URL shorteners point to longer content.
So if Twitter is value-laden, if it shapes its users, and if it is shaped by its users, then it seems to support a Critical Theory of technology.
That Wasn’t So Hard
Feenberg’s Critical Theory is helpful in that it articulates a middle way between deterministic views of technology and purely instrumental views. It sees a connection between the technology we use and how we exist in the world while still arguing that humans have some role in shaping that world.
However, in my reading, Feenberg’s view is still tied to portraying human history as moving along a upward trajectory getting better and better through technological advances. In contrast, a view of technology informed by Christian theology will still have to account for human depravity and replace hope in technology with an eschatological hope of Christ’s return.
That said, Feenberg’s categories are still useful because they allow us to look at technology both hopefully and skeptically without erring too far in either direction. We can appreciate the creativity displayed in technological advance and praise God for giving humanity such skill. At the same, we can indentify values embedded in technology and technological culture that are not consistent with the Christian faith and work against those aspects, so we can live lives that are fully human and truly God honoring.