Technology is Not Values Neutral

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Consilience Project:

"The undeniable impact of “Big Tech” on humanity in recent decades should lead us to ask fundamental questions about technology. Exponential rates of technological change have brought the cutting edge of advanced technology into the heart of everyday experience. Rather than serving primarily in the background for labor or infrastructure, technological advances are in the immediate foreground—in the palm of our hands—central to the most intimate and consequential aspects of our lives, including education, communication, relationships, and politics. In recent decades, societies have been fundamentally transformed by the innovations of a relatively small number of technologists. The products and services of the modern digital economy continue to bring technology ever closer to the core of the human experience—and “the digital age” is just getting started.

It is clear that these changes have impacted nearly all aspects of material goods, manufacturing, supply chains, energy, and market transactions—technology means that the world works differently now. It is perhaps less clear to many that these changes have also impacted most aspects of culture, identity, community, language, meaning-making, and emotional patterning—technology means that worldviews, personalities, and values are different now. Technologies encode practices and values into the societies that adopt them. This happens in many ways, often unpredictably and unintentionally, as the second- and third-order effects of technologies.

Technologies in use today change our practices and values, right now, creating the future of humanity and its environments. Decades of environmentalist lobbying and education have made it more common for there to be real concerns about material and environmental consequences of technology. Such consequences are typically referred to as externalities. As hard as it was to raise awareness of these physical externalities of technology, it remains even more difficult to bring concern to the ethical, cultural, and psychological consequences—i.e., what could be called psychosocial externalities. Civilization now hinges on our ability to manage both kinds of concerns effectively. Changes to human behavior and value systems may play out over the long term as second- or third-order effects, but they are nevertheless part of the matrix of impacts in which technology innovation must place itself. Designing with these in mind is one of the great problems of our time, which this paper seeks to highlight for more widespread and concerted deliberation.

Values are Baked Into Technologies

Consider the smartphone and all the technologies that have interfaced and co-evolved with it. In 2022, the smartphone requires at least the basic capabilities of a personal computer, as well as the Internet, server farms, microchip supply chains, Wi-Fi, cameras, lenses, microphones, speakers, software apps, and communications satellites. Most phones are augmented with wearable biometric sensors, headsets, and may be linked to everything from your car to your washing machine. An ever-growing assortment of related innovations increase the smartphone’s power and presence in our lives.

It could be argued that the ecology of technologies surrounding the smartphone—the smartphone technology ecosystem—has resulted in an epoch-making shift in how humans relate to each other and the world around them. It has changed human behavior and psychology more profoundly in just two decades than perhaps any prior technology (religion, cultural movement, or empire) ever did in an equivalent timeframe. The scope of its impact on human society is difficult to estimate because of its far-reaching and intimate impacts on the very nature of human communication, thought, and social organization.

Think about all the ways in which our minds, relationships, and cultures changed with the widespread adoption of the smartphone technology ecosystem. How does it affect memory and navigation capacities, or attention span, or personal reflection? How has it affected the values enacted around a family dinner table, or the norms of social interactions in general? How has it affected our sense of time and space, and our expectations of relationship and communication across them? Was all of this intended or considered by the initial inventors and adopters? It was not. Only a small number of these impacts were desired and intended, and the vast majority were not even considered.

Most people today have built their lives around the choices made possible by the smartphone. As a result, their values have changed in innumerable ways, both subtle and not so subtle. The ways in which the affordances of smartphone apps impact self-understanding, mental health, ethics, and a host of other psychosocial dynamics has been well documented, especially in younger people[2]. At this point the psychological and cultural effects of widespread, habitual, and nearly non-stop use of these devices has become apparent. Philosophers and public intellectuals are taking for granted the relevance of theorizing about the high-tech future of the smartphone technology ecosystem as an extension and deepening of the human mind.

In fact, the changes to human psychology and social reality resulting from smartphone technology ecosystems are intrinsic to the possibilities built into them from the start. Technologies always create the potential for new forms of behavior, values, and thought, even when the technology is not explicitly made to do so. Smartphones were designed with the values of communication and access to information in mind. The smartphone has become central to human existence because humans highly value communication and information. But an inevitable result of enabling communication at a distance is a change in how humans value face-to-face interaction. Instant messaging and “Facetime” have come to replace in-person contact as the default modalities of communication. Easy access to nearly unlimited information also inevitably changes the value we place on skills such as memorization, information recall, and the ability to study and learn from books. A GPS device on your phone is designed to get you where you need to go, and it does that. It was not designed to weaken your sense of direction and make you dependent upon it to feel safe in urban or rural areas. Yet it also does that. What value is there now in having a good sense of direction or in being able to give and remember directions and locations? This may seem trivial, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Technologies much less complex than the smartphone have the same kinds of far-reaching impacts on human minds and cultures. Any new human-made tool has the potential to shape what is considered to be valuable and why. Consider something as simple as a bathroom scale, which made it possible for almost anyone to have an accurate measure of their own body weight. Given the history of standardized measurement technologies, from one perspective this is a remarkable innovation—a reliable scale for weighing humans, small enough to fit next to your toilet.

As a product, the bathroom scale was clearly widely desired, first by medical professionals and then by nearly everyone. However, it also made body weight into one of the most overvalued indexes of health, especially in America. A technology in one of the most intimate places in our homes gives us an objective, numerical view of ourselves. It produces a number that comes to seem all important. Tech-enabled quantification makes for a certain ease of self-objectification. One’s body weight has come to be obsessively overvalued and used as a meaningful index of health beyond its actual diagnostic value.


Technologies are created with both values and material outcomes in mind. When technologies are brought into the world they create a future: material, social, psychological, and cultural. This future inevitably escapes the control of the early inventors, implementers, and adopters. Even a technology as simple as the plow is created with values in mind, such as ease of labor, speed of work, and a desire for food surpluses that create a feeling of safety. It serves these values by affecting material outcomes, such as preparing fields for agriculture. The plow would also lead to urban fortifications for storing and protecting food surpluses, and thus change the nature of human habitats, warfare, and architecture. The plow favors men as farmers due to the upper body strength needed to use it, which changed ideologies about the respective value of the sexes. The plow led eventually to certain forms of animal domestication, in the long run altering the relationship between humans and the natural world, and thus moving religious beliefs from animistic to theocentric. Normalization of animal-drawn plowing as the basis of agriculture made it difficult for humans to value animals as sacred and as equal or surpassing humans in worth. It is hard to worship the sacred spirit of an animal that must be beaten all day to pull a plow. Dominion over animals in this way justified the spread of a cultural narrative that humanity’s role is to control nature, rather than to be a part of nature, which laid the foundations for a mindset that eventually resulted in the industrial revolution. These and countless other changes to human minds, behaviors, and culture followed from the invention of the plow.

Of course, the plow was not created with these outcomes in mind, nor could they have been predicted by those who first built and used them. Technologies co-evolve with value systems—neither determines the other, even though they are intimately related. Whole epochs of civilization, as ways of life and culture, come to be defined by certain sets of technologies and infrastructures."


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