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What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

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What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by sman123 » February 11th, 2019, 12:02 am

Hello everybody,

First post. Glad to be here!

People - from the most average man on the street to some of the world's most renowned technologists - keep reciting this mantra - "technology is neutral"/"tools are neutral" (and the corollary of it: it depends only on the people). You know, the classical "guns don't kill people, but people do" - the core of instrumentalist approach of technology.

What I wasn't able to find ANYWHERE - neither in this approach, nor in the critics of it - is a critic of the very concept of neutrality, or at least something like a "cultural history" of neutrality.

Where and when does the concept of "tool neutrality" come from? Who formulated it for the first time and what were his premises? So, how can tools be "neutral", after all, while us, their creators, aren't?

Any reference in this matter is much appreciated!

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Scott » February 11th, 2019, 11:35 am

Anecdotally, my personal experience doesn't match your claim that the mantra "technology is neutral" and/or "tools are neutral" are so frequently recited. I don't recall ever hearing those particular expressions before. So I find the premise doubtful, but for anecdotal reasons. Though, it also is actually subjective too since whether or not something is considered frequent is subjective.

With all that said, I would take those mantras to be the generalized principle for (as an example) the phrase, "guns don't kill people; people kill people." The same concept can be generalized to all tools not guns and generalized to actions in general not just killing. Granted, that concept is far from a given. Needless to say, frequency of statement is not evidence of truth.
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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Count Lucanor » February 11th, 2019, 9:12 pm

sman123 wrote:
February 11th, 2019, 12:02 am
Hello everybody,

First post. Glad to be here!

People - from the most average man on the street to some of the world's most renowned technologists - keep reciting this mantra - "technology is neutral"/"tools are neutral" (and the corollary of it: it depends only on the people). You know, the classical "guns don't kill people, but people do" - the core of instrumentalist approach of technology.

What I wasn't able to find ANYWHERE - neither in this approach, nor in the critics of it - is a critic of the very concept of neutrality, or at least something like a "cultural history" of neutrality.

Where and when does the concept of "tool neutrality" come from? Who formulated it for the first time and what were his premises? So, how can tools be "neutral", after all, while us, their creators, aren't?

Any reference in this matter is much appreciated!
I don't remember the neutrality of technology being specifically claimed so often, but I do remember the critique of the assumed neutrality of technology, which perhaps gives ground to the perception that there's this mantra. Also, Habermas is said to posit that technology is an instrumental nonsocial rationality, the technical action which by itself is neutral, inside a broader instrumental action.

In general, it seems to me that the "cultural history of neutrality" is implied in all critiques of modernity and in the development of the concept of ideology. In other words, the apparent neutrality of the prevailing ideas in society are revealed as socially determined by the dialectics of power.

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Consul » February 12th, 2019, 1:13 am

Is the sort of neutrality in question ethical/moral neutrality?

"One important general theme in the ethics of technology is the question whether technology is value-laden. Some authors have maintained that technology is value-neutral, in the sense that technology is just a neutral means to an end, and accordingly can be put to good or bad use (e.g., Pitt 2000). This view might have some plausibility in as far as technology is considered to be just a bare physical structure. Most philosophers of technology, however, agree that technological development is a goal-oriented process and that technological artifacts by definition have certain functions, so that they can be used for certain goals but not, or far more difficulty or less effectively, for other goals. This conceptual connection between technological artifacts, functions and goals makes it hard to maintain that technology is value-neutral. Even if this point is granted, the value-ladenness of technology can be construed in a host of different ways."

The Philosophy of Technology: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/technology/

For example, it can hardly be argued that the development of torture devices takes place in a moral vacuum.
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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by sman123 » February 12th, 2019, 2:32 am

@Consul, my suspicion is that one can not talk about the neutrality of technology before creating the necessary conditions for a radically divided and abstract thinking, in which the mind is supposed to be objective and outside the world (the world also including the mind's products, which are tools)- which, bluntly put, would be synthetized by the cartesian view. I guess this is the only way one can start separating the "neutral" tools from their causes, effects or even unintended consequences. So, I'd say this would be a cartesian-biased view, pretty hard to find in Ancient Greek philosophy. This, I guess, would explain both the "non-neutrality" of the Ancient World and the mainstream "neutralism" of the contemporary philosophy of technology.

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by LuckyR » February 12th, 2019, 3:39 am

sman123 wrote:
February 11th, 2019, 12:02 am
Hello everybody,

First post. Glad to be here!

People - from the most average man on the street to some of the world's most renowned technologists - keep reciting this mantra - "technology is neutral"/"tools are neutral" (and the corollary of it: it depends only on the people). You know, the classical "guns don't kill people, but people do" - the core of instrumentalist approach of technology.

What I wasn't able to find ANYWHERE - neither in this approach, nor in the critics of it - is a critic of the very concept of neutrality, or at least something like a "cultural history" of neutrality.

Where and when does the concept of "tool neutrality" come from? Who formulated it for the first time and what were his premises? So, how can tools be "neutral", after all, while us, their creators, aren't?

Any reference in this matter is much appreciated!
The origin of the concept occurs when governments seek to limit in some way a product, presumably because of some perceived negative aspect of said product. Folks who profit from the manufacturing and distribution of these can be predicted to trot out the products don't need to be regulated, since it is the misuse of the product that is responsible for the negative. This happens when the negative can't be denied outright.
"As usual... it depends."

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Scott » February 12th, 2019, 10:32 am

I'm just guessing, but I would bet the concept predates the existence of governments, so I doubt goverments are the literal origin of the concept.

I would imagine the concept is about as old as tools are. As soon as humans had tools, I'd bet those humans started wondering, asking, and answering (in different disagreeing ways) who among the creator, the user, and the tool itself is responsible for the good or bad results of the tool's usage and the consequences thereof.
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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Eduk » February 12th, 2019, 3:22 pm

Er neutral just means something which isn't taking sides. In the case of inanimate objects they can't take sides. Doesn't seem like much need to write a book to argue this point as it is the definition of the words.
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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by LuckyR » February 13th, 2019, 2:40 am

Scott wrote:
February 12th, 2019, 10:32 am
I'm just guessing, but I would bet the concept predates the existence of governments, so I doubt goverments are the literal origin of the concept.

I would imagine the concept is about as old as tools are. As soon as humans had tools, I'd bet those humans started wondering, asking, and answering (in different disagreeing ways) who among the creator, the user, and the tool itself is responsible for the good or bad results of the tool's usage and the consequences thereof.
The concept? Yes. But the injection of the concept into the public sphere through mass media (to the point that we are speaking of it now), needs a driving force and 13 billion dollars a year in jeopardy provides a driving force.
"As usual... it depends."

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by SnarkyBuddha » February 20th, 2019, 2:36 pm

Tools are not neutral. They are incredibly powerful with both the promise of utility and risk. Significant upside and downside contained within the same tool do not 'cancel out' to then become neutral. That said, a tool is always an extension of the user, and it hardly makes sense to talk about tools as if their ethical import is contained solely within their physical boundaries. Responsibility is the domain of humans - it is we that have the capacity to build representations of our present in order to (attempt to) predict the future. Yet a tool is partly the instantiation of human intent, and so is no mere object. Guns don't kill people, people kill people - both in the sense that it requires a human to pull the trigger or create the circumstances for a serious accident, but also in the sense that 'gun' is an extension of human imagination, and that any such thing exists is due to the collective will of persons applying themselves to the problem of 'how to make objects move very fast as projectiles to cause damage to organic structures, usually to procure food or defend/aggress against other human groups'. Which presupposes the desire to hunt animals or hurt people. If these desires did not exist, the tool would regress to mere object and would lose its meaning. Imagine an advanced alien race come to earth and doing archaeological work - their experience of gun would be like that just described, robbed of its meaning as a tool it becomes very hard to grasp at a basic level.

Perception is neither neutral nor objective. It is guided heavily by value-structures which are themselves partially evolved partially cultural or learned abstractions of action patterns and their effects over massive time scales. So when I see a 'gun' what I really see is 'thing I can use to hunt animals or hurt people' or perhaps 'thing that reminds me of my grandfather's role in WWII' or 'symbol of American independence' etc., and only secondarily do the object's particular physical attributes come into play. Though this is complex too as form often dictates function.

If the aim of making a 'tools are neutral' claim is to abdicate human responsibility for the tool's effects, then I think it is a foolish move to make. Especially considering algorithms in internet marketing where the true effects of the tool very quickly get lost in the complexity of the system. Complexity is no excuse - we always have the choice to walk away from an opportunity given that risks are impossible to quantify and totally unknown.

See any Jordan Peterson YouTube lectures to get a sense of where my arguments regarding perception, action, and value come from. Read Nassim Taleb books for a very sensible approach to risk that moves away from prediction to the construction of antifragile systems (hence tools that are less likely to run off an kill us in the future).

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Intellectual_Savnot » February 21st, 2019, 2:33 pm

Tools are neutral: When given the two possible outcomes of "smash face" and "lie on ground" the tool will be no more inclined to either outcome. However, the functionality of the tool is very sub-neutral. A hammer is very much more useful and functions substantially more effectively in situations where things need to be hit. It is in its proper form. Algorithmic system interacting sequences, or codes, are very not neutral. These will always act a certain way in a certain environment without fail until acted upon by an outside force. They will also always act. When face with the "whether to do" of an inappropriate YouTube video, hammer does not even respond, it has too little functionality to be anything relative to the situation. However, a YouTube algorithm is already predesignated to be inclined towards a certain outcome and will take prompt corrective action against this content. It is not neutral because it was designed to act and to target in certain manners. Code is not neutral.

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Intellectual_Savnot » February 21st, 2019, 2:35 pm

Based on technicality, all matter is neutral, and as such so is code. All acts only as a reactionary impulse. The only non neutral things are those that can consider, decide, and make opinion.

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Skydude » February 22nd, 2019, 11:15 am

Psychology will tell us, the presence of what we call A tool will change the choices and perceptions people have in relevant situations.

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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by LuckyR » February 22nd, 2019, 2:55 pm

Intellectual_Savnot wrote:
February 21st, 2019, 2:33 pm
Tools are neutral: When given the two possible outcomes of "smash face" and "lie on ground" the tool will be no more inclined to either outcome. However, the functionality of the tool is very sub-neutral. A hammer is very much more useful and functions substantially more effectively in situations where things need to be hit. It is in its proper form. Algorithmic system interacting sequences, or codes, are very not neutral. These will always act a certain way in a certain environment without fail until acted upon by an outside force. They will also always act. When face with the "whether to do" of an inappropriate YouTube video, hammer does not even respond, it has too little functionality to be anything relative to the situation. However, a YouTube algorithm is already predesignated to be inclined towards a certain outcome and will take prompt corrective action against this content. It is not neutral because it was designed to act and to target in certain manners. Code is not neutral.
Tools can lead to bias in a particular direction, ie they are not neutral. Take suicide for example. If the tool of guns has a 85% lethality rate (the highest of any method) and the tool of drug OD/poisoning has a 1.5% lethality rate, then the efficiency of the tool of guns raises the death rate of suicide. Thus while the observation that guns don't cause suicidal ideation is correct, it misses the point that guns drastically change the outcome of suicide attempt.
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Re: What exactly is the "Neutrality" of technology?

Post by Skydude » February 22nd, 2019, 3:58 pm

LuckyR wrote:
February 22nd, 2019, 2:55 pm
Intellectual_Savnot wrote:
February 21st, 2019, 2:33 pm
Tools are neutral: When given the two possible outcomes of "smash face" and "lie on ground" the tool will be no more inclined to either outcome. However, the functionality of the tool is very sub-neutral. A hammer is very much more useful and functions substantially more effectively in situations where things need to be hit. It is in its proper form. Algorithmic system interacting sequences, or codes, are very not neutral. These will always act a certain way in a certain environment without fail until acted upon by an outside force. They will also always act. When face with the "whether to do" of an inappropriate YouTube video, hammer does not even respond, it has too little functionality to be anything relative to the situation. However, a YouTube algorithm is already predesignated to be inclined towards a certain outcome and will take prompt corrective action against this content. It is not neutral because it was designed to act and to target in certain manners. Code is not neutral.
Tools can lead to bias in a particular direction, ie they are not neutral. Take suicide for example. If the tool of guns has a 85% lethality rate (the highest of any method) and the tool of drug OD/poisoning has a 1.5% lethality rate, then the efficiency of the tool of guns raises the death rate of suicide. Thus while the observation that guns don't cause suicidal ideation is correct, it misses the point that guns drastically change the outcome of suicide attempt.
I am currently viewing tools as being nonneutral for the psychological effects they can have on humans. For example if I have to put A complicated object together with just my hands I may be too lazy and give up, while if I have my toolset I will most likely finish the job.

I disagree with the claim that weapons and other objects do not cause certain ideations or fantasies, myself and many others have had suicidal or violent thoughts just looking at certain objects.

Now if your definition of cause of suicidal ideation is purely biological(such as purely the firing of neurons or chemical imbalance) then disregard the previous statement.

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