Values, biases, choices and technological progress


“The program we had in 1949 was a tortured thing that you could well argue did not make a great deal of technical sense. It was therefore possible to argue that you did not want it even if you could have it. The program in 1951 was technically so sweet that you could not argue about that. The issues became purely the military, the political and the humane problems of what you were going to do about it once you had it.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer in regards to hydrogen bomb development

Technology, as extensions of ourselves, does not merely assist us in our activities, but also reshapes those activities, their meaning and our interactions in the process. Clocks were designed to improve precision of religious activities, and became the driving force of efficiency during the industrial revolution. Automobiles, though inefficient means of transportation when compared to other modes, heavily influence urban design. However, it is our values and biases that shape the technologies we are creating; we bring into being what we envision. Choices we make have consequences; but we need to learn to make choices that lead to outcomes that are in the favor of the humanity.

“Think different.”

Technology is not deterministic; it evolves based on the choices and tradeoffs we make, and the meaning we inject. In a simplistic view, the technology product lifecycle involves five stages:

  • Invention: initial idea to the development of that idea;
  • Commercialization: introducing the product or service to its market;
  • Diffusion: spread and acceptance of the idea by the market, society and culture;
  • Support and maintenance: providing product enhancements, updates and fixes to its customers;
  • Retirement: end of life process for the product or service.

From the beginning, as creators of technology, we bring our goals, values and biases to the creative process. Technology design and requirements processes are driven by what is valued, from the perspective of all the participants, employees, shareholders, suppliers, customers, etc., but as interpreted and prioritized by its developers. While goals are about a desired future state, values represents our understanding of what is important to us: beliefs and ideals. Values, along with our biases, are shaped by the society we are part of, creating a subjective reality distortion field influencing our decisions and choices.

In technology development, there is a ‘good-enough‘ principle to meet certain quality, performance, safety and sustainability levels. Our customer and market research identifies important design and functionality factors and their priorities. However, too often technologists make tradeoff decisions (efficiency, price, environmental, maintenance, …) without truly understanding the society and the culture that the technology will be a part of, and therefore without effectively identifying and evaluating alternative options.

As technology creators and engineers, do we recognize our biases? Arnold Pacey puts forth an interesting discussion which highlights that our strengths are also our biggest weakness. In the path to demonstrate what is doable, we adopt a reductionist, tunnel vision approach, ignoring or neglecting larger social, political and environmental issues. Emphasizing poorly handled water and sewage system projects in Africa as examples, Pacey emphasizes that prevention, maintenance, organization and end-use are all invisible aspects of technological development, uninteresting and marginalized by the developers, yet crucial for positive performance in the society that they operate in. Furthermore, Pacey also brings forth gender value differences, and indicates women engineers may stimulate operation, maintenance and use aspects of technology as we value nurture over domination; thereby, counteracting male values built into the technology.[1]

Technological change affects social, political, economical, environmental and cultural conditions. The Amish recognize the transformative power of technology and have a process, driven by their cultural and religious values, for evaluating and determining if and how a new technology will be adopted by their community. This brings forth the question, what kind of world do we want to make?

“I choose what I was told to choose:
They told me gently who I was…
I wait, and wonder what to learn…
O here, twice blinded at being born.”
— David Wagoner

Our goals and values drive our actions, but our intentions are what keeps us on course. “Intention is the capacity to stay in touch with what is of prime importance to you, from moment to moment, in your daily life.” [2]. Through intentions, we avoid reactive responses and stay true to our core values when circumstances become challenging.

We have the power to shape and reshape the values and meanings of our creations. Patagonia is a living example of a company that has done just that. Through awareness and recognition of their values and intentions, Patagonia initiated a powerful conversation with their customers, inviting them to become clean climbers by switching from pitons to chocks.

“There is a word for it, and the word is clean. Climbing with only nuts and runners for protection is clean climbing. Clean because the rock is left unaltered by the passing climber. Clean because nothing is hammered into the rock and then hammered back out, leaving the rock scarred and the next climber’s experience less natural. Clean because the climber’s protection leaves little trace of his ascension. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man.”

— Doug Robinson [3, p 41]

Pacey, based on his study of history of technology and examination of causes of social change, concluded that “… in history, as I see it, technology is primarily an expression of varied, often confused human purposes …“[4, p 11] No doubt, technology and society comprise a dynamic, complex interactive system, continuously shaping each other’s values and biases. Given this complexity and difficulty in predicting technology’s impact and evolution, I do question our ability to shape technology perfectly to support human purpose. However, we must try!

[1] The Culture of Technology by Arnold Pacey
[2] Emotional Chaos to Clarity: How to Live More Skillfully, Make Better Decisions, and Find Purpose in Life by Phillip Moffitt
[3] The Responsible Company by Yvon Chouinard & Vincent Stanley
[4] Meaning in Technology by Arnold Pacey

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