Sunday, 30 June 2013

The role of technology in political debate

Before getting started on this post, it's worth noting that I define technology pretty broadly. I think of it as any process, technique, tool or system that is not is not inherent (i.e. is not genetic in origin, but has been created by man) but that allows man to act on the environment, or each other, to achieve a goal. It is about practical knowledge - knowledge that let's you do things. As an example of the breadth of my definition, my broad definition of technology includes language, as it is a technique that allows man to coordinate acts with others to achieve a goal, and is something that has built up over years - it is something created by man rather than something in our genes.

Today's observation is that the role of technology in political and moral debate is too frequently ignored. However, the available technology sets what is practical, which in turn sets morality*.

Take for example the debate between whether the outcomes or intentions of actions are relevant when making a moral judgement. Those that focus on the outcomes in part do so because of the current limitation in ability to know intentions. But what if mind-to-mind or mind-to-computer communications technologies development sufficiently that knowing intentions is entirely possible. Does that not change how we look at that debate?

Another frequent debate is about the tragedy of the commons. This is relevant to political debate as a key argument for capitalism (in the capitalism vs communism debate) is that people will not put in as much effort to the maintenance of public assets as private assets, therefore it is better that assets be in private hands (there's obviously much more to the debate than that!). But what if monitoring technology could be used to effectively measure people's regard for a common asset: catching the people who drop chewing gum on the pavement; or measuring how hard people work at a shared task. If such technology existed (and it may yet do so), might our sentiments dip in favour of communism?

And last, but by no means least, nearly all political and moral debate assumes the existence of multiple individuals. But what if that paradigm were to shift? What if we assimilate into the hive mind? Will not the subjects of morality and political science cease to exist?

*I don't really believe in morality, but that's a separate topic...!

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