CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, October 27th -- Roger B. Blumberg

What Role Technology?

Introduction: Two Views of Technology
"Technology is neither good nor bad, but neither is it neutral."
Melvin Kranzberg, "The Information Age: Evolution or Revolution?", in Bruce R. Guile (ed.), Information Technologies and Social Transformation (National Academy Press, 1985)

Before the widespread use of computers, debates about the use of technology often concerned the sense in which technology should be considered "neutral" with respect to the way it is employed. The view that technology is neutral or value-free is sometimes called the "instrumental" theory. For example, you can use fountain pen technology to write a short story or prove a mathematical theorem, to write a thank you note to your aunt or a letter of protest to the editor of a local newspaper, to sign a stay of execution or a declaration of war. Thus, you might say that the fountain pen is neutral with respect to how it is employed, for good or for evil, intelligently or not, well or badly, etc.

After the Second World War, however, a significant body of literature developed -- you can think of it as beginning with Martin Heidegger's "Question Concerning Technology" -- that claimed that technology was not at all neutral, that technology (at least some technology) exercises as much power over us as we do over it. For example, we might say that the existence of nuclear fission technology has determined the nature of global politics as well as our sense of personal security whether or not anyone chose to have it be so influential. The non-neutral view of technology is sometimes called the "substantive" theory.

Obviously, the role you think computers play in contemporary life, and their relation to values, depends a a good deal on your position concerning the neutrality of technology/technologies. Marx certainly did not think that industrial technology was neutral in this sense, and we'll begin our second session on The Manifesto with some excerpts from a recent film that connects some of Marx's concerns about capitalism with a belief in the substantive theory of technology and even specifically with computing..

Marx's Manifesto of the Communist Party Part II

"You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society."
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, chapter II

We'll begin with a discussion of this quotation from the second chapter of Marx's text, and specifically reaction(s) to Marx's arguments about what is real and what is illusion in the way we understand our own freedom(s) and power(s). We'll then ask how Marx's vision would need to be modified in a digital age, and how/whether the computer revolution, and/or the "information economy", has provided new evidence for, or refutations of, Marx's claims.

For Next Time: For Monday night, prepare and post (to WebCT) a Marxian "reading" of any of the events reported in any issue of Risks, (The ACM Forum On Risks To The Public In Computers And Related Systems). Please come to class on Tuesday, for our final discussion of Marx, having read everyone's posting.

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