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Technology & Society

This course is taught by Prof. Francis Heylighen for MA students in philosophy, ethics and media, but can be freely attended by others.

This course covers different  views on what technology is, and how it may or may not benefit people, illustrated by examples and applications from, among other domains, computer science, biotechnology, social media, and artificial intelligence. Special focus is on  contemporary controversies, including  robotics, genetic engineering, singularity, transhumanism, cyborgs, the global brain, and privacy. The role of technology in the evolution of society is analyzed. Technology can be supportive and need-satisfying, or autonomous and parasitic, but generally leads to an acceleration and complexification of social structures. This can as well solve fundamental problems as unexpectedly create new ones. To better understand this dynamic, relevant concepts are introduced, such as ephemeralization, cyborgization, virtuality, human-machine symbiosis, cascading failures and exaptation. Practical and ethical guidelines are formulated to anticipate and deal with the impact of new technologies on society.

After the lectures by the teacher, the students are supposed to present their own work to the class. They are expected to  choose a topic that is in line with one of the subjects discussed, collect material and ideas about it, and  present a summary during the lessons, after which their contribution is discussed by the whole group. These presentations are prepared by groups of 2-4 students collaboratively.

Extensive lecture notes (121 p.) with illustrations and bibliography can be freely downloaded by anyone interested:

Heylighen F. (2021): Technology & Society: social, philosophical and ethical implications for the 21st century

 

Table of Contents:

Preface.

What is technology? 6

  • Defining technology 6
  • The systems view of technology 6
  • Extending human agency 9
  • The mediating role of technology 11

Philosophical attitudes towards technology. 14

  • 1. Instrumentalism vs. technological autonomy 14
  • 2. Neutrality vs. bias 15
  • 3. Techno-optimism vs. Techno-pessimism. 16

The evolution of technology. 17

  • A brief history of technology 17
  • Anti-technology movements 18
  • Mechanisms of technological evolution. 20
  • Diffusion of innovations 21
  • Utility and value. 22
  • Effectiveness and efficiency 23
  • Ephemeralization: doing more with less 24
  • Reduction of friction. 27
  • Extension of cause and effect chains 29
  • Dangers of reduced friction. 30
  • Cascading failures 31
  • Accelerating change. 33
  • The technological singularity 35
  • Technological capabilities extrapolated to the limit 36
  • Return to Eden: a techno-utopia. 39

Dangers and negative side effects of technology. 40

  • Technology effects tend to be unpredictable. 40
  • Technologies can be used for immoral purposes 42
  • Technologies can make us lose control 43
  • Technology tends to marginalize human values 46
  • Technology can make us lose touch with reality 47
  • Technology tends to create psychological parasites 49
  • Technology threatens health and well-being. 52
  • Technology tends to upset the ecosystem.. 55
  • Technology may produce unemployment 58
  • Technologies can be monopolized by special interests 60
  • Technology can amplify or reduce inequalities 62
  • Technologies evolve too quickly for us to cope. 64

Human-technology co-evolution. 67

  • Technological niches 67
  • Actor-network theory. 68
  • Human-technology symbiosis 69
  • Transparent user interfaces 71
  • Technology as mediator 71
  • Technology affects our choices 74
  • Mobilizing the user 75

Towards an ethics of technology. 77

  • Normative ethics 77
  • Virtue ethics 78
  • Deontological ethics 78
  • The precautionary principle 80
  • Utilitarian ethics 81
  • Pragmatic ethics 82
  • Side effect and dangers of ethical evaluation. 83
  • Towards an integrated technoethics 85
  • Clarifying the utility of technology 87
  • Individual human needs 87
  • Needs of the socio-technological system. 89
  • Coordination needs 91

Recent issues in the philosophy of technology. 94

  • Becoming cyborgs 94
  • Transhumanism. 96
  • Artificial intelligence. 98
  • Are AI programs truly intelligent?. 99
  • Neural networks 102
  • Mind Uploading. 104
  • The global superorganism. 107

References. 112

Further reading. 119