By Mansi Rathour.

With the radical increase in the use of technology and the pervasiveness of technical artifacts, it becomes pertinent for us to analyze the concept of technology from varying perspectives. A significant theme has been the nature of technology and its inherent normativity. Since norms are claims about what a person ought to do, technology seems to be occupying a space in the zone of normativity where it is prescribing these norms. Conceptually, the idea of technology and its implications on society has been difficult to grasp. This is because, under many instances, the term ‘technology’ is used interchangeably for the process of technology and technology as an artifact or a technical object. Such a distinction has led to major branches in the Philosophy of Technology, one being the Engineering Philosophy of Technology looking at the process of technology and the second being the Humanities Philosophy of Technology which provides critical reflections on Technology (mainly technical objects) due to its impact on society and individuals. As norms are prescribed or directed, they have the capability to design and shape human behavior in ways that impact the political, social, and cultural sphere of our everyday lives. By the process of deconstruction, we shall see how the normative feature in the technological process directs the political and social landscape.

According to Hans Radder, a most basic understanding of norms entails that it is a socially embedded directive concerning what people should (or should not) say or do. This social embeddedness implies that the norms concern acts that are publicly accessible and that there is an expectation of reciprocal behavior of a certain kind. The expected behavior is then necessarily followed by the understanding of the consequences of not following the expected behavior or norms. Due to this logical flow to a negative value, norms presuppose a positive value or judgment prior to the act of assertion of these norms. For instance, the norm that we should not take someone’s life presupposes that ‘someone’s life’ has a positive value. Surely, life has not only instrumental but also inherent value. Similarly, if there is such a thing as technological normativity, we need to probe further into it to see what positive value it presupposes. If ‘technology as process’ has this presupposition, then the branch of philosophy that deals with ‘technology as technological object’ needs to adapt its view on technology and its interplay with society.

Could this lead us to a situation where we say, we should only have virtual or digital classrooms based on the presupposition that the previous modes of physical classrooms and notebooks, etc. have a negative value and that only virtual classrooms are judged to be positive in value, but not purely for instrumental reasons. Or that process of making and designing electronic voting machines (EVM’s) for the electoral process is presupposed to be a positive inherently. The implications of such a scenario where norms become standard practice are that it has the effect of excluding alternatives. In the above-mentioned example of virtual classrooms, the policy could be standardized to say that a cloud or virtual based system is the only legitimate means of education. As the scope of these norms increases with standard practice, they become exclusionary to any other claims or actions which further solidifies their position in the normative zone.

The success or efficiency of a technological process is judged by the realization of the technical object or product. Say we draw a dichotomy between the users of a technological object and its engineer/designer. As far as the designer is concerned, if success is designed upon realization (i.e. the technological object does what it was designed to do), that success is excluded from the domain of users, individuals who may use the objects. On the other hand, the basic fundamental process of beginning to create is based on satisfying the needs of people or to offer ways of solving an inconvenience faced by them. What is crucial here is the intention of the designer or creator. This key feature of intention present in the nature of the process of technology is what determines its normativity. When the intention is to respond to a need of the people, or grounded in functionality, it becomes a norm for that particular section of people. Its scope is determined by the margin of people to which it caters. This can be illustrated with the case of the popularity in developing technological models for adaptation to climate change. Though quite popular, it isn’t mandatory for it is currently a reality only for a limited few or those vulnerable to it (I write current reality as limited, not to dismiss the gravity of climate change, but rather to clarify how those unaffected by it will not have sufficient reasons to build systems towards it in the current scope). Normativity in this respect is relative to the scope of the function that the technology sets out to achieve but even with this relative dependency, it is also inherently normative in nature.

To further substantiate this claim, we need to look at the nature of a technological process. Any artifact or object is realized within a specific space and time. This requires the people within that region to enable the process of technology for successful results and not disturb it. As such, the process of the technology itself necessarily requires the enabling behavior by people in that region thereby controlling their actions. Even in the scenario, where the intention is not functionality, but rather innovative or exploratory (which may also result in accidental functions), the process needs an enabling environment which suits its intended or non-intended outcome. Take the case of, cooking as being similar to technology. When a chef prepares a food item with the intention of having a particular type of dish as the result, he would be needing some utensils and the exact specifications of certain ingredients. Only under the presence of such a desired result would he be able to prepare the dish. Now let’s take the case where a chef isn’t intending to make a specific dish, even then he would need some utensils, and some basic ingredients to work with. We wouldn’t surely call, air on the plate as coming under the terminology of a dish. Whichever the case, there have to be enabling circumstances for the chef to be able to create a food item and not be disrupted by anyone around. These enabling circumstances or behavior are directives for a process of creation to be realized successfully.

We have already seen the sense of normativity which is present in the process of technology. This normativity may manifest either actively, where it directs and controls people’s behavior with the expectation of consequences or in a latent manner where the norms are there but aren’t necessarily prescriptive in nature and don’t necessarily require a change in behavior by all people. Irrespective of whether active or latent, how these norms or directives shape and have implications on our political environment will be dealt with below-

Political Implications of Technological Normativity

Transformations in politics is correlated with advances in technology and its normativity in two ways. First, the emergence of only certain forms of governance being legitimate and second, the question of a fair and just distribution of the benefits of technology.

For the former, the normativity of technological processes could lead to a case of representative democracy being the only legitimate form of democracy. The introduction of EVMs reduces the chances of corrupt practices in terms of false counting and votes. On the one hand, it is making the electoral system fairer and transparent, but on the other, it is excluding a class of people who don’t have awareness about the usage of the EVMs against their basic right to vote. The EVMs come designed with a set of norms of how it is to be used, etc. A manual so to speak. And those who don’t have the knowledge of the language to understand this manual are then prevented from exercising their rights as a basic citizen.

Another example is the case of Cambridge Analytica (CA). As the various forms of technology such as social media became pervasive the latent normativity present in it was used to manipulate and direct the behavior of people towards a particular electoral result. Even in the case of latent normativity, the predictability that technology generates opens up the gates for directing people’s behavior and actions. Targeting voters by profiling them based on their activities online, making it easier for them to influence people. Furthermore, it wasn’t just manipulation of people who did sign up for certain apps on social media, but rather the app was able to gather data from their friends as well without their permission being sought or them being informed. While in India, CA was used by both the leading political parties of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and Indian National Congress (INC), the question remains who did CA wish to serve better for their vested interests.

In the latter context of a fair distribution of the benefits of technology, with digital and virtual classrooms, it caters to only a section of society that can afford things like laptops, internet connectivity, etc. There are heaps of benefits associated with the introduction of such forms of classrooms with students being offered the opportunity to collaborate and connect with other students across the globe to enable exchange and understanding of different cultures. What should be looked at and examined carefully is whether it is being legitimized without means of access for the excluded people to have a fairer distribution of its advantages.

Such is the impact of a technological process that directs our lives in ways unknown to us. What is then needed is a sense of multidisciplinary approach for the various branches prevalent in the society with careful examination over making things a standard practice or holding them to be legitimate. For with the extreme integration of the two, and the inherent normativity in technology there will be controlling and shaping of human behavior. And this directing is done with some intention or non-intention leading to the necessary exclusion of people from participating in activities which in itself is an injustice.

Further readings:

Meijers, Anthony (2009). Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences. Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, Volume 9. The Netherlands: Elsevier.

Mitcham, Carl (1994). Thinking Through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. The University of Chicago Press.

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad (2013). Science and Philosophy in Ancient India. Delhi: Aakar Books.

Cover Photo courtesy: Jens Johnsson


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