A Future for Philosophy of Technology - Yes, But On Which Planet?

[This is a talk I gave at the Society for Philosophy and Technology, Lisbon, July 2013.  It has now been published in a Chinese Journal, Engineering Studies, but here's the English version.]

A Future for Philosophy of Technology -- Yes, But On Which Planet?

By:  Langdon Winner
        Thomas Phelan Chair of Humanities and Social Sciences
        Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

It is gratifying to see a once rather obscure topic of inquiry – philosophy of technology – become the diverse and vibrant field of study it is today.  Especially notable are several blends of social science, history and philosophy that scholars are cultivating at present.  Since I am not eager to suggest new pathways for those already at work on these interesting projects, I will simply point to a couple avenues that seem especially interesting and urgent to me.

1. Democracy and security

Within the domain of information technology and its relationship to the future of political society there are a many theoretical and practical questions that are wide open for study and speculation.  During the past several decades a steady flow predictions and practical programs have sought to clarify about the horizons of networked computing, some of them pointing to a new era of democratic participation.   

A common argument holds that inexpensive computing and communication in a variety of novel forms empowers everyday people, enhancing their capacity for self-government.  Over the years I have remained skeptical about claims of this kind.  Since the early 19th century there has been long litany of proclamations in the grand tradition of techno-utopianism about the politically redemptive power of the steam engine, railroads, telegraph, centrally generated electrical power, the automobile, radio, television, and other technologies.  Ideas in this vein often feature an underlying belief in a benevolent technological determinism accompanied by an unwillingness to raise questions about the steps needed to prevent the rise of obnoxious concentrations of economic and political power. 

In recent years, however, I have been encouraged by evidence of depth and substance in writings about the information and networks that suggest a strong possibility that ordinary citizens could actually be empowered by information networks.  Philosophical discussions of the Internet and of social networks now sometime include imaginative, coherent, well-argued, well-documented, and highly persuasive positions about the actual promise that information technologies hold out for community, public participation, democracy and social justice now and in the future.  Some notable advocates for these hopes have clearly moved beyond barefoot technological determinism and dreamy utopianism to specify concretely what the possibilities are and how they might be fully realized.  

A good example is the work of Yochai Benkler.  In  The Wealth of Networks and his more recent book, The Penguin and the Leviathan, Benkler observes that during the past 30 years or so the basic capital requirements of an information economy have shifted.  “The declining price of computation, communication, and storage have …placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population.”  Rapidly falling costs of technology support the rise of a “networked information economy” increasingly characterized by “cooperative and coordinate action carried out through radically distributed, nonmarket mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies.”[1]  Benkler builds upon this basic argument to explore a variety of ways in which everyday people are using today’s information networks to rediscover the power of a cooperative economy and to fashion ways to revitalize participative democracy. 

In short, the recent contributions of Yochai Benkler, Lawrence Lessig, Robert McChesney and other thinkers offer detailed, forward looking arguments about possibilities the Net contains along with stern advice about what would involved in struggles to draw upon information technologies to create a more democratic future.   Aware of patterns that might proliferate in a networked society -- centralized, hierarchical, power oriented, ultimately oppressive, corporate structures – writings that defend a more open, more inclusive future have begun to offer alternatives to the well worn intellectual furniture used to buttress the old industrial model.   One such contribution is the deconstruction and reconsideration of the threadbare but still high venerated fictions known as “property” and “property rights,” recently resurfaced as “intellectual property” for faster transit on the information throughways of globalization.  A fruitful alternative, the new writings suggest, is to explore notions and practices of “the commons” in a world that now combines pervasive electronic connections with familiar cultural, economic and political institutions as well as humanity’s complex relationships to nature.  What is the status of things that should rightfully be shared in common?  Why must neoliberal obsessions with “property” and the imaginary of “free markets” dominate policy discussions when there are now robust alternatives?

At the same time, and in stark contrast to work on these hopeful, speculative themes, there have arisen new concerns about ominous patterns of corporate power now commanded by information giants – Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, an others – especially the political character of their relationships to their everyday users.   The configuration of power and authority that characterizes these organizations now is very far from distributed democracy in which ordinary people are the beneficiaries of computer power.  Some Silicon Valley experts who study the new regimes of computer system security argue that the actual, emerging relationship in the era of “cloud computing” amounts to kind of feudalism in which powerless individuals seek shelter in a world of large information corporations that function as lords of the realm.   Ordinary, every computer users have no real power over firms that manage the data about them, but must somehow find ways to trust these companies to behave responsibly.[2]   Of course, the amount of data the large Internet firms have over one’s life and communications, the capacities for surveillance they command, suggests that such trust may not be justified at all    In effect, everyday computer users are reduced to the condition of techno-serfs, powerless participants in the Net who find themselves fully subservient to the new lords of the realm.

The situation is especially egregious in light on the military-security-industrial complex that has expanded so quickly during the years following the terrorist attacks in the U.S.A. of September 11, 2001.   In the spring of 2013 a wave of the stunning reports by Edward Snowden, former employee of the National Security Agency and its corporate contractors, revealed the extensive power of surveillance over US. citizens and elected leaders in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere around the world.  Backdoor channels that Google and other Internet giants have crafted with the N.S.A. make the phone calls, web browsing, email, and other Internet centered activities of everyone (not just suspected terrorists) visible to government authorities with little if any limitation or legal oversight.   Laws that supposedly protect the rights and liberties of citizens are regularly and secretly breached when it suits the purposes of a matrix that now blends government and corporate power. 

Although the relevant questions for philosophers are many and complicated, the basic question comes down to this.   Will the future be characterized by the open informational society imagined by today’s internet visionaries, or the closed, menacing information/security state that fills our newspaper headlines.  What kinds of political order are likely to emerge or ought to be crafted in ever advancing systems of information technology?  What kinds of limits should be strongly installed against insidious threats to our freedom?

The measures that legal scholar Alan Westin urged for privacy protection and recognition of citizen rights at the dawn of “the information society” decades ago were seldom if ever realized in practice.  Alas, his argument that people must insist upon a right to control the information gathered about their lives and activities is an insight that now seems a mere historical relic.

In this light, my suggestion would be that philosophers vigorously renew their speculation and argumentation about the political character of the networked society and the qualities of public life it contains.  Edward Snowden’s reasons for leaking what he’d learned about N.S.A. and corporate information systems are simple yet heart rending.  I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. So I think anyone who opposes that sort of world has an obligation to act in the way they can.”[3]  

2.  Unthinkable changes

As I looked over the program for the Summer 2013 meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Technology I noted with great pleasure the range, diversity and quality of the topics the various scholars would be discussing.   But as I read the titles of papers as well as of some of the abstracts and essays, a gnawing question began to arise:  Upon what planet do today’s philosophers of technology think they  are living?  And in what period of human history do they imagine themselves to be involved? 

Trajectories of development within prominent schools of thought and in policy deliberations seemed familiar and yet strangely oblivious to some obvious emergencies that have powerfully surfaced in our time and that will surely disrupt the agendas of philosophical and social inquiry in the decades of the 21st century.  Much of philosophical thinking still quietly presupposes and leaves unquestioned basic underlying conditions of that have served as foundations for the rise and continuation of modern industrial societies.  

There now at least two general conditions that philosophers, STS scholars and world societies at large can no longer take for granted, ones that challenge us to ponder the distinct possibility that the advanced technological societies in which we live may soon be forced into paroxysms of drastic change.  One vastly important situation is our long-standing dependence upon the cheap, readily available petroleum that fuels virtually every function of our technological civilization.  Taking my own society as an example, America’s factories, homes, cities, automobiles, trucks, airplanes, and the rest all presuppose the primary condition of their creation, namely a steady supply of oil at roughly $20 a barrel.   That price threshold vanished many years ago, replaced a $100 or more price tag, a point at which the whole interconnected system begins to stall out.  No one likes to talk about it, but since the financial crash of 2008 the U.S.A has been essentially a no growth society.  While there are many reasons for this predicament, the price of petroleum is certainly a key determinant.  There is not much building going on in America, while profuse evidence of deterioration in crucial material and social systems, the nation’s infrastructure for example, is everywhere to be seen.

In my reading of the steady stream of reports on energy, economy and society, the peak in extraction of conventional fossil fuels has already been passed.  While there is now a modest boom in “unconventional” fossil fuels – tar sands, “tight oil” and natural gas from hydraulic fracturation (“fracking”) – the economic and environmental costs of such alternatives are daunting and their long term prospects highly uncertain at best.  Equally important, there are no cheap, easily installed replacements for the petroleum energy resources that have served as the foundation for industrial societies during the past century.  What we see today is a frantic stampede to grab what’s left of fossil fuel resources through deep sea drilling, “fracking” and dead end technologies.  This means that our grossly overpowered civilization faces a period in which it will be forced to power down rather soon and with astonishing rapidity.[4]

It is possible that this transition could offer highly favorable possibilities for human wellbeing – new ways of living more lightly on the earth, new forms of community and human relationships superior ones that have characterized the materialistic consumer society of recent decades.   Will philosophers have a role in exploring those possibilities?  For the time being it appears that although they are not in complete denial about the implications of the end of cheap fossil fuels, the basic perspective of most philosophers of technology remains that of business as usual, the expectation that our way of life will continue to chug along basically unchanged from patterns of the past two century.   

Along with a frank recognition of the many-sided energy crisis ahead, a second, closely related condition demands our attention.  The most fundamental functioning of modern technological societies depends upon the existence of a stable, favorable climate.  As most scholars surely recognize by this time, conditions of climatological stability that have favored the rise of world civilizations for the past 10,000 years or so are now undergoing rapid change caused by the warming of the Earth as a consequence of carbon gases released by human activity.   While estimates vary, the scientific consensus among a wide range of disciplines now points to global warming of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius or more by the end of this century, temperatures that bring monster storms, wicked droughts, floods, melting ice caps, rising seas, and other calamities often lumped together under the comforting term “climate change,” but better identified by English writer George Mombiot’s label, “climate crash.”

The science that supports such findings is truly impressive.  A decade ago, researchers predicted that melting ice in the arctic would shift weather patterns northward on the North American continent.  This would bring far less rain in the western states of the U.S.A. with persistent droughts and burning wild fires throughout the region.   Today that has become the new normal.

During the past two decades both the weight of evidence and intensity of warnings from climate scientists has increased.  As the research group Real Climate announced in 2009: “We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture.[5] 

In short, both the impending energy crisis and climate crash will, with a high degree of certainty, produce a lengthy period of disruption within humanity’s most fundamental material, social, cultural, and political patterns.  Many of the institutions, practices, relationships, and beliefs that philosophers and social scientists are busily studying and reporting in their conferences and journals will be placed under severe stress (or worse). 

To dramatize their theories and speculations, philosophers sometimes talk about “ruptures” in historical thinking that their inquiries seek to describe.  Well, if you have a taste for rupture, there are a great number of them on the near horizon.  They present us with a wide range of challenging questions of which I can only mention a few. 

What kind of world will be or should be created in response to the extraordinary conditions humanity will confront?

What kinds of people and relationships will this world contain?

What will its basic institutions and technologies be?   What will become of the ideology of limitless expansion and techno-triumphalism that has characterized the longings of our political and economic elites in recent decades?

During the decades ahead philosophies of technology must somehow come to terms with extreme, ultimately physical ruptures for which we are now utterly unprepared.  Once again, as Cold War intellectuals advised, we must begin “thinking about the unthinkable.”  Unlike the situation presented by the specter of the atomic bomb, however, the world changing forces we must think about today are not possibilities buried in covert weapons silos, but realities already fully apparent to anyone who cares to notice.


[1]   Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) p. 3.

[2]  Bruce Schneier, “You Have No Control Over Security on the Feudal Internet,” Harvard Business Review, June 6, 2013 [https://www.schneier.com/essay-430.html]

[3]   Edward Snowden, full transcript of interview conducted by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, in the website “Mondoweis”  [http://mondoweiss.net/2013/07/i-dont-want-to-live-in-a-world-where-every-expression-of-creativity-or-love-or-friendship-is-recorded-full-transcript-of-snowdens-latest-interview.html]

[4]    A good survey of the situation in energy can be found in the work of Richard Heinberg, especially his books The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC Canada, 2011) and Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (Santa Rosa, CA: Post Carbon Institute, 2013).

[5]  “Hit the brakes Hard,” editorial in the website “Real Climate: Climate science from climate scientists,” April 29, 2009  [http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/04/hit-the-brakes-hard/