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Visions of technology

Ubiquity, Volume 2007 Issue March | BY Bernhard Irrgang 


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   In the 20th century, with the advancement of technology as a world-historical force, philosophers have spoken of "the end of History" (Arnold Gehlen) and "the end of Philosophy" (Martin Heidegger). Technological progress replaces philosophy and reflection, and thereby accompanies the end of cosmologically oriented Metaphysics. Although it focused itself on ecological crisis for a short time at the end of 20th century, the 20th century was a revival of a natural philosophy style of thinking. Also, the cultural unity of a technological kind was threatened and is still threatened in the current period. But the current trends are moving in an opposite direction, and offering new meaningful thinking about culturally embedded technology—which in turn refers to the cultural understanding of technological development.
   Since the Industrial Revolution, the idea of alternative technological futures becomes increasingly central to plans for technical decisions. Thus arises the more general question of the concept for the future of technology, which we want to conceptualize in our vision, and for that purpose a technical utopia, perhaps a technological world-view, is necessary. Technological development in its ambivalent form and the future of technological development replaces the paradigm of technological progress. Also the generic future of human beings, to which technological progress has been directed since the Enlightenment, is an insufficiently broad concept. It needs to be changed and integrated into a concept of Sustainable Development. The concrete formation of human beings in its Bodily Existence should be placed at the center of the evaluation of technological progress. Since the Industrial Revolution, the coincidental technological evolution with its acceleration effects is taken over by an organizational model of projected technologies.
   Most organizational theories want to limit the borders of technologies, but not by transforming technological development. The formulation of moral limits, which propagates the return to a new simplicity, is the usual approach. However, one must acknowledge the limits of moral and political fixing of boundaries. The western theory means that alternative forms of the technologization (in other cultures and societies) are not possible. With a cultural theory in the background, the idea of an alternative technological future can be developed. The economic costs of regularization have to be considered and the conditions of the dominant economic culture have to be questioned. Technology is always actually adapted to changing conditions, and so alternative technologies are possible.
   The compensation theory of the Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences) by Odo Marquard goes back to the philosophical studies of Hermann Luebbe. In addition, Joachim Ritter perceives further scientific and technological development by the Geisteswissenschaften. In particular, the theory maintains a compensation of history by technology studies and natural sciences. However, preceding the hypothesis of compensation, some inherent thinking about the assumptions is needed; the substantiality of previous life forms could gain back the liability with the assistance of Geisteswissenschaften.
   The hypothesis of compensation keeps the myth of the two cultures intact. During this process, the compensation of adversity of modernization is publicized and the complementary function of the historical culture sciences is ignored. The hypothesis of compensation refers only to that part of the natural sciences which produces technical-industrially used knowledge. Joachim Ritter, in his study, gives a functionalistic analysis for the authorization of existence of the Geisteswissenschaften by modeling the hypothesis of compensation.
   Natural sciences and technology are embedded into a network of tradition. Innovation, correspondingly, is subsequently bounded with transformation of tradition. Technological development can be understood as a cultural-historical process. Needs and value conceptions resist technological development, whereas cultural perspectives are more important than general subordinates. This kind of resistance, however preferentially made by philosophers, is not analytical, although it would not be uninteresting for ethical evaluations. Also, an ethics of the technological development is not to be understood as a compensation. The thesis of dealing with technological knowledge and action implies also another concept of ethics. At this juncture, ethics is not added from the outside for technological development; rather, from the very beginning ethical evaluation/assessment is a part of technological action. This also changes the concepts of modernization. Technological development does not only happen exclusively for its own sake, even if this has sometimes appeared that way. Therefore, a new concept of modernization is urgently needed on the national and global scale.

   Cultural models are criticizing the particular technological alternatives as inhuman or ecologically harmful and focus on adapted or intelligent solutions. Ideas of naturalness or humanity have always been included into a path-dependent orientation of particular technological development. The substantial paths of individual technology advancement results from an interaction of various selected and limited conditions. With the dynamic of variation and construction, particular fields of technological development, routines of construction and paradigmatic solutions have been worked out. The routines of construction are established in the "State of Technology." In this respect a path dependency of technological developments results from the practice of technology advancement. There is no central authority which would structure the entire development. Therefore, one has to take various contexts of structuring into consideration, if researchers want to structure a particular frame of conditions.
   Technological action is defined as dealing with technological practice which goes along with traditions, paths of development, selective models. Models can be worked out in view of development trends. Here one can speak of trends, but not of preformed technological ideas. Though construction patterns of a technological kind seem to be more than mere social constructions of technological developments, technology is not arising from one single consistent project, so it cannot be planned in advance, but is being developed out of a gradual constitutive process. Yet neither Technology Assessment (Technikfolgenabsch√§tzung) nor Technology Structuring can be done only by one single project in advance but also has to be taken as a gradual process of constitution and reflection. Nevertheless the openness of technological development has nothing to do with irrationality; one can realize it and in the light of this openness one can also act rationally.
   In accordance with the cultural turn, technological development is taken as a model for cultural development. The fitness of certain means for certain purposes can always be estimated by success and failure, i.e., by reaching or missing a certain purpose (goal). The success of technological action does not have to depend on the actual agreement of various groups, but at all times it must demonstrate transculturally and prove its practical worth. Technical know-how has not only the characteristics of continuation and irreversibility, but it is also not revisable, which shows clearly a cumulative character.
   In this sense, in principle the technology goes through a progress of direction. Technological progress, as a progress of cognition and realization, can be methodically restored as a hierarchically structured and diversifying acting competence sufficiently developed such that it is available for action. Philosophy reconstructs those social practices, which imply poietic instrumental action (poesis action) or the result of a poietic action: such as practices of technological development and technological production, practical use of technology and the practices in which technology must be removed from the context of usage (including disposal, etc.). Therefore, the main feature of these artifacts is their relict character.
   A large number of decisions need to be made so that a technical organization can run smoothly, efficiently, inconspicuously, but only a relatively few organizations permit questions the technical organization perceive as suggesting it is a precarious conflict-laden business. The large and unhomogenous group of the Technics Designer is to be structured in such a way that itself works in principle, for which relevant differences bring ethical questions in discussion. Technology-organizing individuals usually receive no formal training in ethics. Different approaches to business ethics find easy access into operational practice and are also increasingly being introduced in industrialized countries. But compared to this, the application of ethical reflection for entrepreneurial technological organization is still in a very beginning phase.
   Technology-organizing practical men with their needs to receive guidance in concrete individual cases also continuously seek ethical assistance outside of the university system. Most people who participate in technological organizations do not have information about those different situations in which possible ethical consultation is already obstructed, but took part nonetheless. In each case, the contact with rather highly deterring expenditure is connected. Ethical criteria are an integral component of the new modernization discussion.
   Technological progress lies first within the instrumental range and requires a pragmatic and utilitarian justification. In addition, progress in technological action has an ethical dimension. To that extent, pragmatic and ethical legitimacy of examination can be differentiated methodically, but not completely be separated. The legitimacy regarding a practice must take the limitations of tradition and "teachability" into account. Legitimacy can only be done regarding the uncertainty of the technology consequences and future development. Overall, a deficit of complexity theory and the unsatisfactory causality of prognosis make the estimation more difficult for future developments, which however are not completely impossible.
   A part of the acceptance crisis of modern technology could have to be attributed to missing visions of technological development. People would rather talk about the frightful visions than about positive utopias, as they are significant for technological development. During earlier times of technological development optimistic progress was allowed. We are in the age of rapid technological change, of which however individual innovations, trends and megatrends are the characteristics. On the way toward the High Technology Civilization, there are a whole number of emerging successes, such as automobiles of the future, power supply innovations, high-tech medicine, and new building materials. What is missing is a model for cross-linking and embedding these new technologies - a vision for a coherent cultural paradigm, which ultimately helps to prepare the acceptance. This spells a new category of modernization, which has a new meaning.
   A vision of technology is not to be confused with prognosis. It has no prognostic features. It does not aim to predict what is likely to occur in the future. Instead, what it does is attempt a structuring of individual fields of technology, a security of technology and its cross-linking, not least in the indication of a successful technical progress (i.e. technological practice). However, it must be a practice based on the knowledge of its basic conditions and its background justifications. Prosperity and use were long-time legitimizing horizons for technological practice. Today, if only at a rudimentary level, at least successful life and a human practice is now morally, pragmatically, strategically - or instrumentally and technologically - judged by other criteria. This is a starting point for a better human practice. At the same time, it represents a challenge to technicians who are responsible for progress in the technological development and who believe that technological working order and fulfillment is already sufficient. I would not like to deny that the success and failure of human practice belong as the central indicators for the evaluation of technological practice.
   Technical criteria alone are not sufficient, but cultural-civilization models with a moral component such as sustainability or long-term responsibility will become part of a technology reflection culture. That culture, in order to be energized, must raise the question of acceptance between the involved technicians. On the one hand, engineering and economic transactions must be to be reflected, and on the other hand specialists for the acceptability of technologies will be needed. Communication, mobility and knowledge regarding information must be brought together in harmony with ecological, civilization and communicative embedding paradigms, in order to be able to finally clarify the questions of acceptability of technological practice. These issues must be examined in a transdisciplinary research practice.

About the author:
Prof. Dr. Dr. Bernhard Irrgang
Dr. Bernhard Irrgang (professor for philosophy of technology at TU Dresden) teaches courses in philosophy of technology and ethical hermeneutics in the Institute for Philosophy at Dresden University of Technology Germany. He has expertise in different fields of philosophy of technology and research on the philosophical issues and questions of techniques and technology especially in gene technologies, cultural theory of techniques, information technology, artificial intelligence and expert systems, technological assessments, hermeneutical ethics and medicine ethics. Main emphases are on: Philosophical questions and topics concerning technique and technology; Technology and Cultural transfer; Technical development and early technical cultures; Technoscience research; STS research (Science, Technology and Society studies), esp. Gene Technology, Culture theory of technique, Information Technology/Artificial Intelligence and Expert Systems; Technological Assessment and Organisation of technology; Study of limitations between philosophy and biology; Applied and Hermeneutics Ethics; Technological ethics; Ecological ethics, medical ethics, Intercultural environmental ethics. History of philosophy in 17th, 18th, 20th century.


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