Relay: Is Technology Destroying Jobs?

From the “philosophy of technology not-so-deeply discussed” file comes this article from TechCrunch. It’s nice to see some of the ironic nature of technology considered:

Many of us take for granted that technology is the brightest spot in the economy, where most of the innovation and job creation occurs. But if you look more broadly at the impact of technology across every industry, it doesn’t look so great. Technology makes businesses more efficient, often by eliminating the need for repetitive tasks and the workers who do them. We are not replacing those jobs with enough new, higher-skilled ones to make up for the loss.

This, of course, has been happening for a long time, though the author makes the analogy to the workhorse rather than the industrial-age citizen:

Is the U.S. worker in the same position today as the workhorse was 100 years ago when it was replaced by another technology: the engine (first steam, and then internal combustion). Peak employment for horses was in 1901, there were 3.25 million working horses in the England. Those jobs went away with the introduction of machinery, tractors, cars, and trucks.

Another great quote, very relevant to the recent Borgmann blogs I have been writing:

But wait a second, says [Erik] Brynjollffson. His central argument, which he puts forth in Race Against the Machine, a book he co-authored with Andrew McAfee, is that it is not people versus machines. It is people with machines. Technology is just a tool that lets us be even more productive.

The problem is that not enough people know how to use the new tools of the Internet, mobile, and cloud computing. The workforce as a whole does not have the right mix of skills. Hence tech companies can’t hire enough engineers while the rest of the economy suffers from perpetual unemployment.

What a brilliant example of the instrumentalist view of technology! The problem doesn’t have anything to do with technology per se, says Brynjollffson—we simply haven’t adapted as a human race to the kinds of jobs and experiences that await in a thoroughly technological society. This is of course a valid point, but isn’t it more reasonable to ask what human flourishing consists in before capitulating to a technological paradigm? It seems to me we should be asking whether a technological society fulfills (as Borgmann put it in the last chapter I blogged about) our deepest aspirations, and only then decide how thoroughly technologized to become.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 4, “Scientific Theory”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

In this chapter we begin to look at the relationship of science and technology, by initiating an inquiry into the nature of science. Borgmann spends much of this brief chapter painting a rough picture of what people say and think about science. This outline of popular sentiment is important since much of Borgmann’s work is devoted to critically examining common worldviews: “The entire exercise will of course be pointless if no attempt is made to expose today’s normal world citizenship to criticism, to expose its inconsistencies and liabilities, and strengthen its proudest aspirations” (17).

Any theory of technology must deal with science since it is crucially dependent on science; without that aspect of human history, the technological paradigm would not exist. Technology can also in some sense be thought of as being in competition with science: science sets the standard of explanation in our time, and Borgmann’s theory of technology may fall under a different standard. (As we will see in later chapters, what exactly a “scientific” explanation even consists of is a problematic question).

From the perspective of some kind of sociological intuition, it can be presupposed that people today generally try to give what they consider scientific explanations rather than looking to the wrath of God or flying dragons to explain phenomena. Does this fit with empirical sociological data? Unfortunately, surveys which obtain this data accurately are hard to formulate and/or find. Borgmann’s view is that there is no “clear and common notion” of science, either in the public or in the scientific community. (Anecdotally, my experience is that the philosophy of science (the field which looks at the grounding claims of scientific reasoning and principles) is more or less unknown to scientists as well as non-scientists).

Empirically, we can say a few things:

  • The public’s command of scientific facts is extremely minimal (i.e., science is an external authority; the actual knowledge is not owned by people themselves).
  • People generally think highly of science.
  • People respect and trust science more the more they are acquainted with it. (Implying that it proves satisfying in some regard, in some context).
  • One study suggests that people take a “scientific” view when they’re in command of their situation, and resort to religion for explanations when there are no available scientific ones.

Facts like these help to address a question which is of primary importance: with what degree of insight does the average citizen of modern technological society apprehend their world? In other words, how deep, nuanced, and structured are people’s worldviews in general? If it turns out that most people have a thin and undifferentiated veneer of “science” slathered on top of not much else, then there is ample room for a critique of modern culture (and its uncritical appropriation of the device paradigm) on that basis.

In order to dive into the confusion Borgmann claims most people have about science, he wants to initially divide the term into three senses (which normally are not distinguished):

  1. Science as a human, social enterprise
  2. Science as a body of established laws and theories
  3. Science in its applied form

These three sciences have vastly different features and descriptions. Science as a social enterprise is subject to all the vagaries of any such enterprise: ambition, heroism, treachery, jealousy, diligence, etc… In other words, in this sense science is no more privileged than business or politics or religion, as their practitioners will all exhibit similar classes of moral behavior.

Science as a body of established laws and theories, on the other hand, has a valid claim to objectivity. The content of a theory is independent of its human origin, and can be proved or disproved in the same way. How scientific laws are used doesn’t change their fundamental essence: they properly attempt only to describe nature. As Borgmann says, “It makes no difference to the validity of a scientific law whether it has been discovered by a Jesuit or a Communist and whether it is applied to kill or to cure” (17). (Of course, which theories gain funding and support is emphatically not an objective fact).

It’s this aspect of science that Borgmann wants to distinguish sharply from technology, and we’ll spend more time looking at it in future chapters. In particular, under the supposedly objective nature of scientific laws, there lurk deep philosophical problems not faced by the everyday proponent of a “scientific” worldview. Do all scientific theories have an equal claim to cogency and objectivity? What standard of explanation is relevant when comparing them?

Science in its applied form is most akin to what we mean by technology. It arises as a possibility from scientific laws, and both draws energy from and feeds energy into science as a social project. Borgmann is not sure that technology is merely applied science, however, and this will become clear in future chapters.

In Chapter 5, we will look at the topic of scientific explanation: how a given theory can be said to be explanatory, and what principles are proposed for distinguishing competing theories which all seem to have some claim to validity.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 3, “The Choice of a Theory”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

In this chapter, Borgmann is concerned to shore up the validity of the distinction between the substantive, instrumental, and pluralist views of technology. These distinctions carve up the possible theoretical space in a certain way, and Borgmann concedes that any such classification is going to suppress some aspects of reality and highlight others. We therefore need to be mindful of this in selecting a space within which to develop a theory of technology, and it’s open to anyone to ask whether Borgmann’s categorization is the best, or even a good, one.

What Borgmann gives us in Chapter 3 is essentially a case study: he examines a different classification of ideas about technology, namely that of Carl Mitcham. In comparing the features of Mitcham’s distinctions and their fruitfulness for providing an appropriate arena for asking and answering questions about technology, Borgmann is trying to convince us that we should stick with his picture. He does this with a measure of humility; he does not critique Mitcham’s classification (in fact much of the chapter praises it) so much as point out where it leaves residual areas of potential confusion.

Mitcham makes the same basic distinction Borgmann did, between the narrow sense of technology as engineering science and the broad sense of it in all its interfaces with society. The subsequent challenge Mitcham takes up is to address whether technology may be thought of as an “all-pervasive approach” to human affairs. (In other words, technology is one instance of a more inclusive phenomenon). He rejects this “radical” thesis, deciding that technology is rather “the human making and using of material artifacts in all forms and aspects” (13). (Here Borgmann says as an aside that the above challenge is the basis of his introduction of the distinction between the substantive and instrumental views). That technology is a “making” implies that it is not a “doing” in the Aristotelian sense (where human “doing” encompasses political, moral, and religious action), though Borgmann questions whether this distinction is even valid in modern society, given that “making” has so eclipsed “doing” in general.

Mitcham sees three major dimensions of technology: the subjective (or material, i.e., pertaining to the actual substances and methods of technology), the functional (or structural, i.e., the essential aspects of technology), and the social (or historical, i.e., technology as a social, historical enterprise). For Mitcham the functional dimension is the one we least understand, and he further subdivides it into technology-as-knowledge, technology-as-process, and technology-as-product. These correspond to three canonical philosophical entities: thoughts, activities, and objects, respectively. These distinctions in hand, Mitcham tries to address deeper questions of the essence of technology, and finds that he needs a fourth aspect (technology-as-volition, i.e., technology with respect to our will about ourselves and the world) in order to address the supreme question of whether technology fits our deepest aspirations or not. In Borgmann’s words, this question can be paraphrased by the possible answers to it: “Is technology a powerful instrument in the service of our values, a force in its own right that threatens our essential welfare, or is there perhaps no clear problem of technology at all, merely an interplay of numerous & variable tendencies?” (15)

For Borgmann, Mitcham’s multi-tiered classification of technology obscures as much as it illuminates, and he thinks the core questions are addressed better by the substantive/instrumental/pluralist distinctions. These distinctions form a set of competing tensions—no one viewpoint can be correct, he says, because modern technology is too complex. Within their defining boundaries, then, what can we discern as the fundamental pattern of technology? That is the task at hand. One major obstacle in pursuing this task is the lack of a “principled understanding of science.” Science and technology are usually thought of in the same vein (or as essentially identical approaches to knowledge and action, respectively), but Borgmann claims this is a fatally misleading assumption, and will spend the next few chapters discussing the relationship between these two concepts.