Bringing to the Fore the Implications of Technology for a Good Society22 Feb 2016
Why hold a meeting on technology and the good society?
Over the last two decades, the impact of technology on people’s lives has been a concern for many scholars and decision makers. A number of academic publications and technical reports have investigated, for instance, significant relationships between technology and core concepts such as psychological well-being, the good life, and human capabilities. These investigations have made it evident that different technologies have substantial effects on users’ quality of life and well-being at the individual and group levels. However, the more complex and encompassing issue of how technology can influence the constitution of a good society has received less attention, partly because of the disciplinary fragmentation of research on the consequences of technology for society. In order to overcome this issue, this meeting was designed to gather experts from different disciplinary backgrounds and professional expertise (e.g., philosophy, psychology, sociology, science and technology studies) to discuss and better understand multiple technologies and their implications for different conceptions of the good society. We wanted to examine how the production and use of technology affect society as a whole, but also whether different views of what a good society is or should be are (in)compatible with the benefits and risks associated with specific technologies. Our aim was to bring together those different and complementary views and to facilitate cross-disciplinary reflection on the implications of technology for building a good society.
How is technology a matter of concern for a good society?
It is a fact that technology is part and parcel of our everyday lives. In most of our personal and professional activities we interact with technological products, but we are barely aware of their nuts and bolts or of their long-term consequences for us. This holds not only for ordinary devices such as smartphones and tablets, but also for other technologies we are less familiar with such as brain-computer interfaces, robotic solutions for health care, or new molecules developed in pharmaceutical laboratories. Yet, whether or not we are aware of their existence, their inner workings, and their long-term consequences, they end up one way or another affecting our individual and social lives. Here the question arises as to whether technology may foster or hinder the project of a good society, one that ensures people’s level of material well-being, provides for satisfaction of their psychosocial needs, and promotes respect of their fundamental rights as persons and citizens.
To frame this question at the macro-level, we should keep in mind that whenever a new technology leaves the design and research environment in which it is produced and enters the public domain, it comes with values (e.g., practical, commercial) already embodied in several stages of the design, production, and implementation process. The introduction of new technologies into the public domain also gives rise to expectations and promises to improve some situation or to solve a given problem. This brings about new desires and risks that are intertwined with social and moral values suitable for a good society, such as security, privacy, autonomy, justice, freedom, solidarity, sustainability, etc. The presentations delivered at this meeting tackled several of these topics. For the time being, the papers are not available to the public, as they are meant for a forthcoming publication, but we can point to some of the issues addressed in them, for example: how to establish informed criteria for assessing technologies and their contributions to a good society; the need to combine technology studies with political philosophy to face the challenge of understanding and evaluating technology in a good society; how to develop ethical views on engineering and the design of upcoming “smart” cities; how to evaluate meaningfulness and well-being in virtual environments, particularly video games; recent pharmaceutical developments and the implications of “love drugs” for human romantic relationships; the impact of socio-technical systems on medical training and surgical safety; and the vulnerabilities and possibilities brought about by biomedical technologies like “precision medicine” in the treatment of diseases like cancer. These presentations brought to the fore the advantages but also the downsides of various technological systems and procedures, and their implications for the values we want to foster in a good society.
What directions might future research on technology and the good society take?
One of the issues that transpired in this meeting was that critical assessment of technology is a task involving different stakeholders such as technology designers and producers, educational institutions, associations of users, the media, and policy makers, among others. This has to be a multi-actor endeavor, as raising critical awareness of the implications of technology for a good society involves not only analyzing market-driven production and consumption, but also promoting education, communication, and public deliberation about technological products. Moreover, given that perceptions and use of technology are strongly related to cultural and political contexts and models, it is important to recognize the cultural assumptions that are embedded in the production, adoption, regulation, and use of technology, and evaluate whether these assumptions are congruent with the social and moral values of the contexts in which technological products are implemented. In addition, since we can reasonably expect that a good society should encourage critical thinking and promote shared moral values, educational institutions and the media are called to play a significant role in shaping people’s understanding of technology, its benefits and risks, its promises and pitfalls.
Another direction worth mentioning is that to achieve a realistic view of the current and future uses, benefits, and disadvantages of different technologies we need to take a multi-layered, interdisciplinary approach to technology and society. Such an approach will allow us to examine and articulate several dimensions of technology including, for instance, how technologies are produced by engineers and designers, how they are implemented and regulated by policy makers, how they are reported on in media outlets, and how they are eventually “domesticated” by users. This multilayered approach will be helpful to analyze and deal with tradeoffs and choices between conflicting values (e.g., privacy and security), the social and moral costs and benefits of technology for some vulnerable groups (children, adolescents, patients), and potential social divides between technology users and non-users, among others. In short, we have an extensive and exciting research agenda on the implications of technology for a good society.