Is technology either good or bad?

by Christian Damholt, Denmark, ELP 2014
Written on July 28, 2014.

The Beahrs ELP really had me thinking about the different understandings of technology. Common sense tells us that we need technological innovations to meet the challenges of climate change. On the other hand, we have yet to see large-scale trends towards a more sustainable use of natural resources. Maybe our understanding of technology is a part of the roots to the problems?

During the ELP course we had lectures with several different academic understandings of technology. Professor in ethics and technology, Dane Scott gave one of these lectures. He believed that it’s possible and theoretically productive on a general level to differentiate between people who are optimistic about the opportunities of technology and the so-called technological pessimists. Another dichotomy might be the one between environmental economics and ecological economics. On the one hand may be represented by scholars like David Zilberman and on the other hand agro-ecologists like Claire Kremen (she might be unfairly treated here). The first, stresses the functioning of the price mechanism in “the market” and technology is often treated as a mediating variable and as the means to a more sustainable development. Technicalities disturbing the price mechanism must be fixed and people can become creative in response to the market force. This potentially gives a positive understanding of technology. The latter, often building on ecological or more sociological ideas, finds that the expansion of markets and associated externalities resulting from production and consumption, often leads to environmental degradation. This approach emphasises natural limits to exploitation of nature. However, this perspective seems often based on the assumptions that technological changes will only lead to worse outcomes. Thus, the perspectives have a tendency to have a negative view on technology. The problem however is the generalised understandings of technology.

I will suggest an alternative and more historicist way of evaluating technology. Technology is always used by certain people to relate to other people. Thus, the importance of technology cannot be separated from the use of the technology within society. This makes the separation between optimist and pessimists worthless. Moreover, technology can’t be entirely separated from history and a wider set of technologies. For instance Edison’s light bulb wouldn’t have been successfully introduced if it were not for a system of electricity. Furthermore, most innovations should be understood as cumulative since they build on or modify pre-existing technologies.

Technology provides new opportunities to face specific problems for some people and hence will be taken into use for strategic purposes within society such as delivering energy. An analysis of successful technology would thus benefit from an investigation of the broader societal developments such as culture, economy and ideology informing the aim and strategies of the agents. In this way innovation of new technology is not just driven by “technological processes” or economic exigencies, but can be seen as an expression of the wider social order. The aim of the scientist or the practitioner is hence to constantly reassess the dynamics of social relations in order to explain the significance and value of a technology. This means that there can be no general theory of technology in itself. Every technology is a social technology.