Is Technology Neutral?

The word “technology” refers to methods, systems, and devices which are the result of scientific knowledge being used for practical purposes. Examples are all around us. Whether you’re reading this question on a desktop, laptop, or a smartphone you are, of course, using technology.

Cameras are an example, from the early devices called daguerreotypes to today’s digital cameras. Are each of these devices neutral, their value only determined by their use? For example, cameras can be used positively or negatively.  You might capture a loved family portrait or stalk celebrities as an over-zealous paparazzi.

Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable Podcast, where Lee and Michael discuss this question: ‘Is technology neutral?’ We also discuss another question as well, ‘Freedom or security?’

In addition, what about technology being used on a grander scale? For instance, the science of splitting the atom is used to produce electricity from nuclear reactors as well as to build potentially population-erasing bombs. Are these technologies neutral or do they have inherent value?

Simply asking if nuclear energy is “clean,” or do its waste stockpiles serve as a danger for current and countless future generations implies value, doesn’t it?

Do nuclear bombs make us less safe due to their destructive capacity? Or alternately, do they make us safer because of the deterrence their existence creates?

This debate is a long-standing one. Critics claim that technology is used/built for a reason — reasons that carry inherent positive or negative values — while the other side posits that it is simply a process or tool that derives value solely from its use by the user.

Where do you stand on this issue? Is technology neutral?

Related questions: Are science and religion compatible? What role does technology play in your life? What do you get out of social media?

7 thoughts on “Is Technology Neutral?”

  1. Someone or some institution pays for a technology to be created. They have an intended purpose for what they fund. So, no, technology is not neutral; it does not simply obtain a value after it is been used. Intent matters.

    I would also note that many technologies/inventions take more than financial resources to be produced. They require raw materials. For instance, I am typing this answer on a laptop. Computers of all types contain rare metals that must be mined to be put to use. That mining likely destroyed an ecosystem. Aside from intention, impact matters and carries a value of some sort.

    Mind you, I am not anti-technology. I am all for wheels, clocks, windmills, and energy-efficient lightbulbs. But I must also accept complicity in my love of such things like the latest version of a laptop or smartphone. I think we need to be more critical of the devices we use and products we consume. They have an intended value — some positive, some negative, some a combo of both. It would be helpful if we each considered such things before we introduce our own values and put a technology to use.

    1. While it is true that people often create things with specific intentions in mind — a gun is designed to shoot things, after all –it is often the case that devices and tools are used in ways or for purposes for which they were not originally conceived. The intention of the inventor is not binding or restricting to the person who uses it.

      On a related note, there is also the issue of unintended consequences. Let’s take social media, for example. The very name itself implies the purpose: to create a sense of connection between individuals. That’s a noble goal for people who feel so alone all the time. But as much as it can be used for making the isolated feel part of a society, it can also be used to strengthen bonds between people who happen to share racist or sexist views.

      So is Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al biased? I lean towards answering no. But I think these companies are too slow to accept what harm that can come from their use, and I think they have a responsibility to behave in a better way. But obviously what I think of as “better” is not the same as the stewards of those ships.

    2. Technology is a cumulative thing. The technology we have today is built upon all the technology that came before. By itself it is neutral, but the application is not. Technology does not decide on its own to come into existence, nor does it decide how it will be used. Fire, lightning, the wind, and the oceans have always existed. Technology has allowed us to use them. It has been suggested here that technology is created through science. I submit that the first technologies were created through observation and trial and error. This knowledge was passed down orally until (sometimes) it was recorded in writing. As math and science evolved, these were first used to explain and then create technology. As math and science explained technology, it could be extended. These extensions created more technology and so on.

      In many ways, technology may exist without being applied. Even when applied, good intent may not be enough to keep it from becoming a negative thing. Fishing nets are designed to catch food (good), but too much netting results in dangerously low fish populations (bad) but it is no one’s intent to create a bad situation by over-fishing. However, once the fisherman realizes that he or she is over-fishing, does he or she have the obligation to regulate themselves? This is the moral question, and the technology cannot answer that.

      Software is a really interesting facet to this question. It is totally intent-driven. Physically it does not exist, and yet can enable and execute things in a physical way. Software will only do what you tell it to do, so it has to be tested thoroughly.

      We have to remember that even though humans use the most sophisticated levels of technology, other animals use it as well. For some it is instinctual and for others there is actual thought and reasoning.

    3. Michael, I agree. We need to be better informed consumers. Today I played virtual golf (I hope that’s the right word) where you can play world famous golf courses by hitting the ball at a screen. After I signed up, I realized that the golf course we were playing is owned by Donald Trump. Yikes!!!

  2. The science is neutral.
    Technology is what we get when we use the science in an application….and that is where a value choice has very likely been added.

  3. I don’t know if technology is neutral – I’m guessing yes. I do know that I think it’s great! This week several of my wife’s family in Latin America called to wish her “Happy Birthday”. That wouldn’t have happened twenty or thirty years ago.

    I think back to my days in the Navy when we used manual typewriters and carbon paper for copies. When you made an error, it was pretty messy! We had no copier, just a mimeograph machine.

    Of course, technology can be misused, a la “cyber bullying” or even worse, manipulating the news on social media. I guess the optimist in me thinks the good outweighs the bad. This blog is a good example of the benefits of technology.

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