Archives For Utopia

Author Information: Jim Collier, Virginia Tech, jim.collier@vt.edu.

Collier, James H. “Social Epistemology for the One and the Many: An Essay Review.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 15-40.

Jim Collier’s article “Social Epistemology for the One and the Many” will be published in four parts. The pdf of the article includes all four parts as a single essay, and gives specific page references. Shortlinks:

Introduction: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZN

Part One, Social Epistemology as Fullerism: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZY

Part Two, Impoverishing Critical Engagement: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-402

Part Three, We’re All Californians Now: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ZR

Fuller’s recent work has explored the nature of technological utopia.
Image by der bobbel via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Third, Remedios and Dusek submit to a form of strict technological determinism as promulgated in the Californian ideology (Barbrook and Cameron 1996), packaged by Ray Kurzweil, and amplified by Fuller in his “trilogy on transhumanism” (vii). Such determinism leaves unexamined the questionable, if not ridiculous, claims made on behalf of transhumanism, generally, and in Fuller’s “own promethean project of transhumanism” (99).

Of Technological Ontology

Missing in the list delineating Fuller’s “extensive familiarity” (10) with an unbelievable array of academic fields and literatures are the history and the philosophy of technology. (As history, philosophy, and “many other fields” make the list, perhaps I am being nitpicky.) Still, I want to highlight, by way of contrast, what I take as a significant oversight in Remedios and Dusek’s account of Fullerism—a refined conception of technology; hence, a capitulation to technological determinism.

Remedios and Dusek do not mention technological determinism. Genetic determinism (69) and Darwinian determinism (75, 77-78) receive brief attention. A glossary entry for “determinism” (143) focuses on Pierre-Simon Laplace’s work. However, the strict technological determinism on which Fullerism stands goes unmentioned. With great assuredness, Remedios and Dusek repeat Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity mantra, with a Fullerian inflection, that: “converging technologies, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computer technology, are transforming and enhancing humanity to humanity 2.0” (33).[1] Kurzweil’s proclamations, and Fuller’s conceptual piggybacking, go absent scrutiny. Unequivocally, a day will come in 2045 when humans—some humans at least—“will be transformed through technology to humanity 2.0, into beings that are Godlike” (94).

The “hard determinism” associated with Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (1964), and, I argue, with Fuller as relayed by Remedios and Dusek, holds that technology acts as an uncontrollable force independent from social authority. Social organization and action derive from technological effects. Humans have no freedom in choosing the outcome of technological development—technology functions autonomously.

Depending on the relative “hardness” of the technological determinism on offer we can explain social epistemology, for example, as a system of thought existing for little reason other than aiding a technological end (like achieving humanity 2.0). Specifically, Fuller’s social and academic policies exist to assure a transhuman future. A brief example:

How does the university’s interdisciplinarity linked [sic] to transhumanism? Kurzweil claims that human mind and capacities can be uploaded into computers with increase in computing power [sic]. The problem is integration of those capacities and personal identity. Kurzweil’s Singularity University has not been able to address the problem of integration. Fuller proposes transhumanities promoted by university 2.0 for integration by the transhumanist. (51)

As I understand the passage, universities should develop a new interdisciplinary curriculum, (cheekily named the transhumanities) given the forthcoming technological ability to upload human minds to computers. Since the uploading process will occur, we face a problem regarding personal identity (seemingly, how we define or conceive personal identity as uploaded minds). The new curriculum, in a new university system, will speak to issues unresolved by Singularity University—a private think tank and business incubator.[2]

I am unsure how to judge adequately such reasoning, particularly in light of Remedios and Dusek’s definition of agent-oriented epistemology and suspicion of expertise. Ray Kurzweil, in the above passage and throughout the book, gets treated unreservedly as an expert. Moreover, Remedios and Dusek advertise Singularity University as a legitimate institution of higher learning—absent the requisite critical attitude toward the division of intellectual labor (48, 51).[3] Forgiving Remedios and Dusek for the all too human (1.0) sin of inconsistency, we confront the matter of how to get at their discussion of interdisciplinarity and transhumanism.

Utopia in Technology

Remedios and Dusek proceed by evaluating university curricula based on a technologically determined outcome. The problem of individual identity, given that human minds will be uploaded into computers, gets posed as a serious intellectual matter demanding a response from the contemporary academy. Moreover, the proposed transhumanities curriculum gets saddled with deploying outmoded initiatives, like interdisciplinarity, to render new human capacities with customary ideas of personal identity.

University 2.0, then, imagines inquiry into human divinity within a retrograde conceptual framework. This reactive posture results from the ease in accepting what must be. A tributary that leads back to this blithe acceptance of the future comes in the techno-utopianism of the Californian ideology.

The Californian ideology (Barbrook and Cameron 1996) took shape as digital networking technologies developed in Silicon Valley spread throughout the country and the world. Put baldly, the Californian ideology held that digital technologies would be our political liberators; thus, individuals would control their destinies. The emphasis on romantic individualism, and the quest for unifying knowledge, shares great affinity with the tenor of agent-oriented epistemology.

The Californian ideology fuses together numerous elements—entrepreneurialism, libertarianism, individualism, techno-utopianism, technological determinism—into a more or less coherent belief system. The eclecticism of the ideology—the dynamic, dialectical blend of left and right politics, well-heeled supporters, triumphalism, and cultishness—conjures a siren’s call for philosophical relevance hunting, intervention, and mimicry.

I find an interesting parallel in the impulse toward disembodiment by Kurzweil and Fuller, and expressed in John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996). Barlow waxes lyrically: “Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge.”

The demigod Prometheus makes appearances throughout Knowing Humanity in the Social World. Remedios and Dusek have Fuller play the rebel trickster and creator. Fuller’s own transhumanist project creates arguments, policies, and philosophical succor that advocate humanity’s desire to ascend to godhood (7, 67). In addition, Fuller’s Promethean task possesses affinities with Russian cosmism (97-99), a project exploring human enhancement, longevity (cryonics), and space travel.[4] Fuller’s efforts result in more or less direct, and grandiose, charges of Gnosticism. Gnosticism, a tangled doctrine, can refer to the Christian heresy of seeking secret knowledge that, in direct association with the divine, allows one to escape the fetters of our lesser material world.

Gnostic Minds

Befitting a trickster, Fuller both accepts and rejects the charge of Gnosticism (102), the adjudication of which seems particularly irrelevant in the determinist framework of transhumanism. A related and distressing sense of pretense pervades Remedios and Dusek’s summary of Gnosticism, and scholastic presentation of such charges against Fuller. Remedios and Dusek do more than hint that such disputations involving Fuller have world historic consequences.

Imitating many futurists, Fuller repeats that “we are entering a new historical phase” (xi) in which our understanding of being human, of being an embodied human particularly, shifts how we perceive protections, benefits, and harms to our existence. This common futurist refrain, wedded to a commonsense observation, becomes transmogrified by the mention of gnosis (and the use of scare quotes):

The more we relativize the material conditions under which a “human” existence can occur, the more we shall also have to relativize our sense of what counts as benefits and harms to that existence. In this respect, Gnosticism is gradually being incorporated into our natural attitude toward the secular world. (xi)

Maybe. More likely, and less heroically, humans regularly reconsider who they are and determine what helps or hurts them absent mystical knowledge in consultation with the divine. As with many of Fuller’s broader claims, and iterations of such claims presented by Remedios and Dusek, I am uncertain how to judge the contention about the rise of Gnosticism as part of being in the world. Such a claim comes across as unsupported, certainly, and self-serving given the argument at hand.

The discussion of Gnosticism raises broader issues of how to understand the place, scope and meaningfulness of the contestations and provocations in which Fuller participates. Remedios and Dusek relay a sense that Fuller’s activities shape important social debates—Kitzmiller being a central example.[5] Still, one might have difficulty locating the playing field where Gnosticism influences general attitudes to matters either profane or sacred. How, too, ought we entertain Fuller’s statements that “Darwinism erodes the motivations of science itself” or “Darwin may not be a true scientist” (71)?

At best, these statements seem merely provocative; at worst, alarmingly incoherent. At first, Remedios and Dusek adjudicate these claims by reminding the reader of Fuller’s “sweeping historical and philosophical account” and “more sophisticated and historically informed version” (71) of creationism. Even when Fuller’s wrong, he’s right.

In this case, we need only accept the ever-widening parameters of Fuller’s historical and philosophical learning, and suspend judgment given the unresolved lessons of his ceaseless dialectic. Remedios and Dusek repeatedly make an appeal to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) and, in turn, set social epistemology on a decidedly anti-intellectual footing. In part, such footing and uncritical attitude seems necessary to entertain Fuller’s “own promethean project of transhumanism” (99).

Transhuman Dialectic

Fuller’s Promethean efforts aside, transhumanism strives to maintain the social order in the service of power and money. A guiding assumption in the desire to transcend human evolution and embodiment involves who wins, come some form of end time (or “event”), and gets to take their profits with them. Douglas Rushkoff (2018) puts the matter this way:

It’s a reduction of human evolution to a video game that someone wins by finding the escape hatch and then letting a few of his BFFs come along for the ride. Will it be Musk, Bezos, Thiel…Zuckerberg? These billionaires are the presumptive winners of the digital economy — the same survival-of-the-fittest business landscape that’s fueling most of this speculation to begin with.[6] (https://bit.ly/2MRgeIw)

Fuller’s staging of endless dialectic—his ceaseless provocations (and attendant insincerity), his flamboyant exercises in rehabilitating distasteful and dangerous ideas—drives him to distraction. We need look no further than his misjudgment of transhumanism’s sociality. The contemporary origins of the desire to transcend humanity do not reside with longing to know the mind of god. Those origins reside with Silicon Valley neoliberalism and the rather more profane wish to keep power in heaven as it is on earth.

Fuller’s transhumanism resides with the same type of technological determinism as other transhumanist dialects and Kuzweil’s Singularity. A convergence, in some form, of computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence leads inevitably to artificial superintelligence. Transhumanism depends on this convergence. Moore’s Law, and Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, will out.

This hard determinism renders practically meaningless—aside from fussiness, a slavish devotion to academic productivity, or perverse curiosity—the need for proactionary principles, preparations for human enhancement or alternative forms of existence, or the vindication of divine goodness. Since superintelligence lies on the horizon, what purpose can relitigating the history of eugenics, or enabling human experimentation, serve? [7] Epistemic agents can put aside their agency. Kurzweil asserts that skepticism and caution now threaten “society’s interests” (Pein 2017, 246). Remedios and Dusek portray Fuller as having the same disturbing attitude.

At the end of Knowing Humanity in the Social World, comes a flicker of challenge:

Fuller is totally uncritical about the similarly of utopian technologists’ and corporate leaders’ positions on artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and space travel. He assumes computers can replace human investigators and allow the uploading of human thought and personality. However, he never discusses and replies to the technical and philosophical literature that claims there are limits to what is claimed can be achieved toward strong artificial intelligence, or with genetic engineering. (124)

A more well-drawn, critical epistemic agent would begin with normative ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions regarding Fuller’s blind spot and our present understanding of social epistemology.  Inattention to technological utopianism and determinism does not strike me as a sufficient explanation—although the gravity of fashioning such grand futurism remains strong—for Fuller’s approach. Of course, the “blind spot” to which I point may be nothing of the sort. We should, then, move out of the way and pacify ourselves by constructing neo-Kantian worlds, while our technological and corporate betters make space for the select to occupy.

The idea of unification, of the ability of the epistemic agent to unify knowledge in terms of their “worldview and purposes,” threads throughout Remedios and Dusek’s book. Based on the book, I cannot resolve social epistemology pre- and post- the year 2000. Agent-oriented epistemology assumes yet another form of determinism. Remedios and Dusek look more than two centuries into our past to locate a philosophical language to speak to our future. Additionally, Remedios and Dusek render social epistemology passive and reliant on the Californian political order. If epistemic unification appears only at the dawn of a technologically determined future, we are automatons—no longer human.

Conclusion

Allow me to return to the question that Remedios and Dusek propose as central to Fuller’s metaphysically-oriented, post-2000, work: “What type of being should the knower be” (2)? Another direct (and undoubtedly simplistic) answer—enhanced. Knowers should be technologically enhanced types of beings. The kinds of enhancements on which Remedios and Dusek focus come with the convergence of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computer technology and, so, humanity 2.0.

Humanity 2.0’s sustaining premise begins with yet another verse in the well-worn siren song of the new change, of accelerating change, of inevitable change. It is the call of Silicon Valley hucksters like Ray Kurzweil.[8] One cannot deny that technological change occurs. Still, a more sophisticated theory of technological change, and the reciprocal relation between technology and agency, seems in order. Remedios and Dusek and Fuller’s hard technological determinism cries out for reductionism. If a technological convergence occurs and super-intelligent computers arise what purpose, then, in preparing by using humanity 1.0 tools and concepts?

Why would this convergence, and our subsequent disembodied state, not also dictate, or anticipate, even revised ethical categories (ethics 2.0, 109), government programs (welfare state 2.0, 110), and academic institutions (university 2.0, 122)? Such “2.0 thinking,” captive to determinism, would be quaint if not for very real horrors of endorsing eugenics and human experimentation. The unshakeable assuredness of the technological determinism at the heart Fuller’s work denies the consequences, if not the risk itself, for the risks epistemic agents “must” take.

In 1988, Steve Fuller asked a different question: How should we organize and pursue knowledge collectively? [9] This question assumes that human beings have cognitive limitations, limitations that might be ameliorated by humans acting in helpful concert to change society and ourselves. As a starting point, befitting the 1980’s, Fuller sought answers in “knowledge bearing texts” and an expansive notion of textual technologies and processes. This line of inquiry remains vital. But neither the question, nor social epistemology, belongs solely to Steve Fuller.

Let me return to an additional question. “Is Fuller the super-agent?” (131). In the opening of this essay, I took Remedios’s question as calling back to hyperbole about Fuller in the book’s opening. Fuller does not answer the question directly, but Knowing Humanity in the Social World does—yes, Steve Fuller is the super-agent. While Remedios and Dusek do not yet attribute godlike qualities to Fuller, agent-oriented epistemology is surely created in his image—an image formed, if not anticipated, by academic charisma and bureaucratic rationality.

As the dominant voice and vita in the branch of social epistemology of Remedios and Dusek’s concern, Fuller will likely continue to set the agenda. Still, we might harken back to the more grounded perspective of Jesse Shera (1970) who helped coin the term social epistemology. Shera defines social epistemology as:

The study of knowledge in society. It should provide a framework for the investigation of the entire complex problem of the nature of the intellectual process in society; the study of the ways in which society as a whole achieves a perceptive relation to its total environment. It should lift the study of the intellectual life from that of scrutiny of the individual to an enquiry into the means by which a society, nation, of culture achieve an understanding of stimuli which act upon it … a new synthesis of the interaction between knowledge and social activity, or, if you prefer, social dynamics. (86)

Shera asks a great deal of social epistemology. It is good work for us now. We need not await future gods.

An Editorial Note

Palgrave Macmillian do the text no favors. We too easily live with our complicity—publishing houses, editors, universities, and scholars alike—to think of scholarship only as output—the more, the faster, the better. This material and social environment influences our notions of social epistemology and epistemic agency in significant ways addressed indirectly in this essay. For Remedios and Dusek, the rush to press means that infelicitous phrasing and cosmetic errors run throughout the text. The interview between Remedios and Fuller needs another editorial pass. Finally, the book did not integrate the voices of its co-authors.

Contact details: jim.collier@vt.edu

References

Barbrook, Richard and Andy Cameron. “The Californian Ideology.” Science as Culture 6, no. 1 (1996): 44-72.

Barlow, John Perry. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” 1996. https://bit.ly/1KavIVC.

Barron, Colin. “A Strong Distinction Between Humans and Non-humans Is No Longer Required for Research Purposes: A Debate Between Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller.” History of the Human Sciences 16, no. 2 (2003): 77–99.

Clark, William. Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Fuller, Steve. Social Epistemology. Bloomington and Indianapolis, University of Indiana Press, 1988.

Fuller, Steve. Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: The Coming of Science and Technology Studies. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Fuller, Steve. Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Fuller, Steve. “The Normative Turn: Counterfactuals and a Philosophical Historiography of Science.” Isis 99, no. 3 (September 2008): 576-584.

Fuller, Steve. “A Response to Michael Crow.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 25 November 2015. https://goo.gl/WwxFmW.

Fuller, Steve and Luke Robert Mason. “Virtual Futures Podcast #3: Transhumanism and Risk, with Professor Steve Fuller.”  Virtual Futures 16 August 2017. https://bit.ly/2mE8vCs.

Grafton, Anthony. “The Nutty Professors: The History of Academic Charisma.” The New Yorker October 26, 2006. https://bit.ly/2mxOs8Q.

Hinchman, Edward S. “Review of “Patrick J. Reider (ed.), Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency: Decentralizing Epistemic Agency.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2 July 2018. https://ntrda.me/2NzvPgt.

Horgan, John. “Steve Fuller and the Value of Intellectual Provocation.” Scientific American, Cross-Check 27 March 2015.  https://bit.ly/2f1UI5l.

Horner, Christine. “Humanity 2.0: The Unstoppability of Singularity.” Huffpost 8 June 2017. https://bit.ly/2zTXdn6.

Joosse, Paul.“Becoming a God: Max Weber and the Social Construction of Charisma.” Journal of Classical Sociology 14, no. 3 (2014): 266–283.

Kurzweil, Ray. “The Virtual Book Revisited.”  The Library Journal 1 February 1, 1993. https://bit.ly/2AySoQx.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin Books, 2005.

Lynch, Michael. “From Ruse to Farce.” Social Studies of Science 36, vol 6 (2006): 819–826.

Lynch, William T. “Social Epistemology Transformed: Steve Fuller’s Account of Knowledge as a Divine Spark for Human Domination.” Symposion 3, vol. 2 (2016): 191-205.

McShane, Sveta and Jason Dorrier. “Ray Kurzweil Predicts Three Technologies Will Define Our Future.” Singularity Hub 19 April 2016. https://bit.ly/2MaQRl4.

Pein, Corey. Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition, 2017.

Remedios, Francis. Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Lexington Books, 2003.

Remedios, Francis X. and Val Dusek. Knowing Humanity in the Social World: The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2018.

Rushkoff, Douglas. “Survival of the Richest: The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind.” Medium 5 July 2018. https://bit.ly/2MRgeIw.

Shera, J.H. Sociological Foundations of Librarianship. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1970.

Simonite, Tom. “Moore’s Law Is Dead. Now What?” MIT Technology Review 13 May 13, 2016. https://bit.ly/1VVn5CK.

Talbot, Margaret. “Darwin in the Dock.” The New Yorker December 5, 2005. 66-77. https://bit.ly/2LV0IPa.

Uebel, Thomas. Review of “Francis Remedios, Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge: An Introduction to Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 3 March 2005. https://ntrda.me/2uT2u92

Weber, Max. Economy and Society, 2 vols. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, CA; London; Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1922 (1978).

[1] “Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, is a well-known futurist with a high-hitting track record for accurate predictions. Of his 147 predictions since the 1990s, Kurzweil claims an 86 percent accuracy rate. At the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, Kurzweil made yet another prediction: the technological singularity will happen sometime in the next 30 years” (https://bit.ly/2n8oMkM). I must admit to a prevailing doubt (what are the criteria?) regarding Kurzweil’s “86 percent accuracy rate.” I further admit that the specificity of number itself—86—seems like the kind of exact detail to which liars resort.

[2] Corey Pein (2017, 260-261) notes: “It was eerie how closely the transhuman vision promoted by Singularity University resembled the eugenicist vision that had emerged from Stanford a century before. The basic arguments had scarcely changed. In The Singularity Is Near, SU chancellor Kurzweil decried the ‘fundamentalist humanism’ that informs restriction on the genetic engineering of human fetuses.”

[3] Pein (2017, 200-201) observes: “… I saw a vast parking lot ringed by concrete barriers and fencing topped with barbed wire. This was part of the federal complex that housed the NASA Ames Research Center and a strange little outfit called Singularity University, which was not really a university but more like a dweeby doomsday congregation sponsored by some of the biggest names in finance and tech, including Google. The Singularity—a theoretical point in the future when computational power will absorb all life, energy, and matter into a single, all-powerful universal consciousness—is the closest thing Silicon Valley has to an official religion, and it is embraced wholeheartedly by many leaders of the tech industry.”

[4] Remedios and Dusek claim: “Cosmist ideas, advocates, and projects have continued in contemporary Russia” (98), but do little to allay the reader’s skepticism that Cosmism has little current standing and influence.

[5] In December 2006, Michael Lynch offered this post-mortem on Fuller’s participation in Kitzmiller: “It remains to be seen how much controversy Fuller’s testimony will generate among his academic colleagues. The defendants lost their case, and gathering from the judge’s ruling, they lost resoundingly … Fuller’s testimony apparently left the plaintiff’s arguments unscathed; indeed, Judge John E. Jones III almost turned Fuller into a witness for the plaintiffs by repeatedly quoting statements from his testimony that seemed to support the adversary case … Some of the more notable press accounts of the trial also treated Fuller’s testimony as a farcical sideshow to the main event [Lynch references Talbot, see above footnote 20] … Though some of us in science studies may hope that this episode will be forgotten before it motivates our detractors to renew the hostility and ridicule directed our way during the ‘science wars’ of the 1990s … in my view it raises serious issues that are worthy of sustained attention” (820).

[6] Fuller’s bet appears to be Peter Thiel.

[7] Remedios and Dusek explain: “The provocative Fuller defends eugenics and thinks it should not be rejected though stigmatized because of its application by the Nazis” (emphasis mine, 116-117). While adding later in the paragraph “… if the [Nazi] experiments really do contribute to scientific knowledge, the ethical and utilitarian issues remain” (117), Remedios and Dusek ignore the ethical issues to which they gesture. Tellingly, Remedios and Dusek toggle back to a mitigating stance in describing “Cruel experiments that did have eventual medical payoff were those concerning the testing of artificial blood plasmas on prisoners of war during WWII …” (117).

[8] “Ray Kurzweil is a genius. One of the greatest hucksters of the age …” (PZ Myers as quoted in Pein 2017, 245). From Kurzweil (1993): “One of the advantages of being in the futurism business is that by the time your readers are able to find fault with your forecasts, it is too late for them to ask for their money back.”

[9]  I abridged Fuller’s (1988, 3) fundamental question: “How should the pursuit of knowledge be organized, given that under normal circumstances knowledge is pursued by many human beings, each working on a more or less well-defined body of knowledge and each equipped with roughly the same imperfect cognitive capacities, albeit with varying degree of access to one another’s activities?”

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech, damienw7@vt.edu

Williams, Damien. “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3US

Image by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

Vallor breaks the work into three parts, and takes as her subject what she considers to be the four major world-changing technologies of the 21st century.  The book’s three parts are, “Foundations for a Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” “Cultivating the Self: Classical Virtue Traditions as Contemporary Guide,” and “Meeting the Future with Technomoral Wisdom, OR How To Live Well with Emerging Technologies.” The four world changing technologies, considered at length in Part III, are Social Media, Surveillance, Robotics/Artificial Intelligence, and Biomedical enhancement technologies.[2]

As Vallor moves through each of the three sections and four topics, she maintains a constant habit of returning to the questions of exactly how each one will either help us cultivate a new technomoral virtue ethic, or how said ethic would need to be cultivated, in order to address it. As both a stylistic and pedagogical choice, this works well, providing touchstones of reinforcement that mirror the process of intentional cultivation she discusses throughout the book.

Flourishing and Technology

In Part I, “Foundations,” Vallor covers both the definitions of her terms and the argument for her project. Chapter 1, “Virtue Ethics, Technology, and Human Flourishing,” begins with the notion of virtue as a continuum that gets cultivated, rather than a fixed end point of achievement. She notes that while there are many virtue traditions with their own ideas about what it means to flourish, there is a difference between recognizing multiple definitions of flourishing and a purely relativist claim that all definitions of flourishing are equal.[3] Vallor engages these different understandings of flourishing, throughout the text, but she also looks at other ethical traditions, to explore how they would handle the problem of technosocial opacity.

Without resorting to strawmen, Vallor examines The Kantian Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism, in turn. She demonstrates that Kant’s ethics would result in us trying to create codes of behavior that are either always right, or always wrong (“Never Murder;” “Always Tell the Truth”), and Utilitarian consequentialism would allow us to make excuses for horrible choices in the name of “the Greater Good.” Which is to say nothing of how nebulous, variable, and incommensurate all of our understandings of “utility” and “good” will be with each other. Vallor says that rigid rules-based nature of each of these systems simply can’t account for the variety of experiences and challenges humans are likely to face in life.

Not only that, but deontological and consequentialist ethics have always been this inflexible, and this inflexibility will only be more of a problem in the face of the challenges posed by the speed and potency of the four abovementioned technologies.[4] Vallor states that the technologies of today are more likely to facilitate a “technological convergence,” in which they “merge synergistically” and become more powerful and impactful than the sum of their parts. She says that these complex, synergistic systems of technology cannot be responded to and grappled with via rigid rules.[5]

Vallor then folds in discussion of several of her predecessors in the philosophy of technology—thinkers like Hans Jonas and Albert Borgmann—giving a history of the conceptual frameworks by which philosophers have tried to deal with technological drift and lurch. From here, she decides that each of these theorists has helped to get us part of the way, but their theories all need some alterations in order to fully succeed.[6]

In Chapter 2, “The Case for a Global Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” Vallor explores the basic tenets of Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist ethics, laying the groundwork for the new system she hopes to build. She explores each of their different perspectives on what constitutes The Good Life in moderate detail, clearly noting that there are some aspects of these systems that are incommensurate with “virtue” and “good” as we understand them, today.[7] Aristotle, for instance, believed that some people were naturally suited to be slaves, and that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men, and the Buddha taught that women would always have a harder time attaining the enlightenment of Nirvana.

Rather than simply attempting to repackage old ones for today’s challenges, these ancient virtue traditions can teach us something about the shared commitments of virtue ethics, more generally. Vallor says that what we learn from them will fuel the project of building a wholly new virtue tradition. To discuss their shared underpinnings, she talks about “thick” and “thin” moral concepts.[8] A thin moral concept is defined here as only the “skeleton of an idea” of morality, while a thick concept provides the rich details that make each tradition unique. If we look at the thin concepts, Vallor says, we can see the bone structure of these traditions is made of 4 shared commitments:

  • To the Highest Human Good (whatever that may be);
  • That moral virtues understood to be cultivated states of character;
  • To a practical path of moral self-cultivation; and
  • That we can have a conception of what humans are generally like.[9]

Vallor uses these commitments to build a plausible definition of “flourishing,” looking at things like intentional practice within a global community toward moral goods internal to that practice, a set of criteria from Alasdair MacIntyre which she adopts and expands on, [10] These goals are never fully realized, but always worked toward, and always with a community. All of this is meant to be supported by and to help foster goods like global community, intercultural understanding, and collective human wisdom.

We need a global technomoral virtue ethics because while the challenges we face require ancient virtues such as courage and charity and community, they’re now required to handle ethical deliberations at a scope the world has never seen.

But Vallor says that a virtue tradition, new or old, need not be universal in order to do real, lasting work; it only needs to be engaged in by enough people to move the global needle. And while there may be differences in rendering these ideas from one person or culture to the next, if we do the work of intentional cultivation of a pluralist ethics, then we can work from diverse standpoints, toward one goal.[11]

To do this, we will need to intentionally craft both ourselves and our communities and societies. This is because not everyone considers the same goods as good, and even our agreed-upon values play out in vastly different ways when they’re sought by billions of different people in complex, fluid situations.[12] Only with intention can we exclude systems which group things like intentional harm and acceleration of global conflict under the umbrella of “technomoral virtues.”

Cultivating Techno-Ethics

Part II does the work of laying out the process of technomoral cultivation. Vallor’s goal is to examine what we can learn by focusing on the similarities and crucial differences of other virtue traditions. Starting in chapter 3, Vallor once again places Aristotle, Kongzi (Confucius), and the Buddha in conceptual conversation, asking what we can come to understand from each. From there, she moves on to detailing the actual process of cultivating the technomoral self, listing seven key intentional practices that will aid in this:

  • Moral Habituation
  • Relational Understanding
  • Reflective Self-Examination
  • Intentional Self-Direction of Moral Development
  • Perceptual Attention to Moral Salience
  • Prudential Judgment
  • Appropriate Extension of Moral Concern[13]

Vallor moves through each of these in turn, taking the time to show how each step resonates with the historical virtue traditions she’s used as orientation markers, thus far, while also highlighting key areas of their divergence from those past theories.

Vallor says that the most important thing to remember is that each step is a part of a continual process of training and becoming; none of them is some sort of final achievement by which we will “become moral,” and some are that less than others. Moral Habituation is the first step on this list, because it is the quality at the foundation of all of the others: constant cultivation of the kind of person you want to be. And, we have to remember that while all seven steps must be undertaken continually, they also have to be undertaken communally. Only by working with others can we build systems and societies necessary to sustain these values in the world.

In Chapter 6, “Technomoral Wisdom for an Uncertain Future,” Vallor provides “a taxonomy of technomoral virtues.”[14] The twelve concepts she lists—honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom—are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible technomoral virtues.

Rather, these twelve things together form system by which to understand the most crucial qualities for dealing with our 21st century lives. They’re all listed with “associated virtues,” which help provide a boarder and deeper sense of the kinds of conceptual connections we can achieve via relational engagement with all virtues.[15] Each member of the list should support and be supported by not only the other members, but also any as-yet-unknown or -undiscovered virtues.

Here, Vallor continues a pattern she’s established throughout the text of grounding potentially unfamiliar concepts in a frame of real-life technological predicaments from the 20th or 21st century. Scandals such as Facebook privacy controversies, the flash crash of 2010, or even the moral stances (or lack thereof) of CEO’s and engineers are discussed with a mind toward highlighting the final virtue: Technomoral Wisdom.[16] Technomoral Wisdom is a means of being able to unify the other virtues, and to understand the ways in which our challenges interweave with and reflect each other. In this way we can both cultivate virtuous responses within ourselves and our existing communities, and also begin to more intentionally create new individual, cultural, and global systems.

Applications and Transformations

In Part III, Vallor puts to the test everything that we’ve discussed so far, placing all of the principles, practices, and virtues in direct, extensive conversation with the four major technologies that frame the book. Exploring how new social media, surveillance cultures, robots and AI, and biomedical enhancement technologies are set to shape our world in radically new ways, and how we can develop new habits of engagement with them. Each technology is explored in its own chapter so as to better explore which virtues best suit which topic, which good might be expressed by or in spite of each field, and which cultivation practices will be required within each. In this way, Vallor highlights the real dangers of failing to skillfully adapt to the requirements of each of these unprecedented challenges.

While Vallor considers most every aspect of this project in great detail, there are points throughout the text where she seems to fall prey to some of the same technological pessimism, utopianism, or determinism for which she rightly calls out other thinkers, in earlier chapters. There is still a sense that these technologies are, of their nature, terrifying, and that all we can do is rein them in.

Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.

The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.

While the implications of climate catastrophes, dystopian police states, just-dumb-enough AI, and rampant gene hacking seem real, obvious, and avoidable to many of us, many others take them as merely naysaying distractions from the good of technosocial progress and the ever-innovating free market.[17] With that in mind, we need tools with which to begin the process of helping people understand why they ought to care about technomoral virtue, even when they have such large, driving incentives not to.

Without that, we are simply presenting people who would sell everything about us for another dollar with the tools by which to make a more cultivated, compassionate, and interrelational world, and hoping that enough of them understand the virtue of those tools, before it is too late. Technology and the Virtues is a fantastic schematic for a set of these tools.

Contact details: damienw7@vt.edu

References

Vallor, Shannon. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[1] Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) ,6.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 19—21.

[4] Ibid., 22—26.

[5] Ibid. 28.

[6] Ibid., 28—32.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 45—47.

[11] Ibid., 54—55.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Ibid., 120.

[16] Ibid., 122—154.

[17] Ibid., 249—254.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3uu

Editor’s Note: Steve Fuller’s “A Man for All Seasons, Including Ours: Thomas More as the Patron Saint of Social Media” originally appeared in ABC Religion and Ethics on 23 February 2017.

Please refer to:

Image credit: Carolien Coenen, via flickr

November 2016 marked the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Utopia by Thomas More in Leuven through the efforts of his friend and fellow Humanist, Desiderius Erasmus.

More is primarily remembered today for this work, which sought to show how a better society might be built by learning from the experience of other societies.

It was published shortly before he entered into the service of King Henry VIII, who liked Utopia. And as the monarch notoriously struggled to assert England’s sovereignty over the Pope, More proved to be a critical supporter, eventually rising to the rank of “Lord Chancellor,” his legal advisor.

Nevertheless, within a few years More was condemned to death for refusing to acknowledge the King’s absolute authority over the Pope. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, More introduced “integrity”—in the sense of “moral integrity” or “personal integrity”—into English while awaiting execution. Specifically, he explained his refusal to sign the “Oath of Supremacy” of the King over the Pope by his desire to preserve the integrity of his reputation.

To today’s ears this justification sounds somewhat self-serving, as if More were mainly concerned with what others would think of him. However, More lived at least two centuries before the strong modern distinction between the public and the private person was in general use.

He was getting at something else, which is likely to be of increasing relevance in our “postmodern” world, which has thrown into doubt the very idea that we should think of personal identity as a matter of self-possession in the exclusionary sense which has animated the private-public distinction. It turns out that the pre-modern More is on the side of the postmodernists.

We tend to think of “modernization” as an irreversible process, and in some important respects it seems to be. Certainly our lives have come be organized around technology and its attendant virtues: power, efficiency, speed. However, some features of modernity—partly as an unintended consequence of its technological trajectory—appear to be reversible. One such feature is any strong sense of what is private and public—something to which any avid user of social media can intuitively testify.

More proves to be an interesting witness here because while he had much to say about conscience, he did not presume the privacy of conscience. On the contrary, he judged someone to be a person of “good conscience” if he or she listened to the advice of trusted friends, as he had taken Henry VIII to have been prior to his issuing the Oath of Supremacy. This is quite different from the existentially isolated conception of conscience that comes into play during the Protestant Reformation, on which subsequent secular appeals to conscience in the modern era have been based.

For More, conscience is a publicly accessible decision-making site, the goodness of which is to be judged in terms of whether the right principles have been applied in the right way in a particular case. The platform for this activity is an individual human being who—perhaps by dint of fate—happens to be hosting the decision. However, it is presumed that the same decision would have been reached, regardless of the hosting individual. Thus, it makes sense for the host to consult trusted friends, who could easily imagine themselves as the host.

What is lacking from More’s analysis of conscience is a sense of its creative and self-authorizing character, a vulgarized version of which features in the old Frank Sinatra standard, “My Way.” This is the sense of self-legislation which Kant defined as central to the autonomous person in the modern era. It is a legacy of Protestantism, which took much more seriously than Catholicism the idea that humans are created “in the image and likeness of God.” In effect, we are created to be creators, which is just another way of saying that we are unique among the creatures in possessing “free will.”

To be sure, whether our deeds make us worthy of this freedom is for God alone to decide. Our fellows may well approve of our actions but we—and they—may be judged otherwise in light of God’s moral bookkeeping. The modern secular mind has inherited from this Protestant sensibility an anxiety—a “fear and trembling,” to recall Kierkegaard’s echo of St. Paul—about our fate once we are dead. This sense of anxiety is entirely lacking in More, who accepts his death serenely even though he has no greater insight into what lies in store for him than the Protestant Reformers or secular moderns.

Understanding the nature of More’s serenity provides a guide for coming to terms with the emerging postmodern sense of integrity in our data-intensive, computer-mediated world. More’s personal identity was strongly if not exclusively tied to his public persona—the totality of decisions and actions that he took in the presence of others, often in consultation with them. In effect, he engaged throughout his life in what we might call a “critical crowdsourcing” of his identity. The track record of this activity amounts to his reputation, which remains in open view even after his death.

The ancient Greeks and Romans would have grasped part of More’s modus operandi, which they would understand in terms of “fame” and “honour.” However, the ancients were concerned with how others would speak about them in the future, ideally to magnify their fame and honour to mythic proportions. They were not scrupulous about documenting their acts in the sense that More and we are. On the contrary, the ancients hoped that a sufficient number of word-of-mouth iterations over time might serve to launder their acts of whatever unsavoury character that they may have originally had.

In contrast, More was interested in people knowing exactly what he decided on various occasions. On that basis they could pass judgement on his life, thereby—so he believed—vindicating his reputation. His “integrity” thus lay in his life being an open book that could be read by anyone as displaying some common narrative threads that add up to a conscientious person. This orientation accounts for the frequency with which More and his friends, especially Erasmus, testified to More’s standing as a man of good conscience in whatever he happened to say or do. They contributed to his desire to live “on the record.”

More’s sense of integrity survives on Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, whenever the account holders are sufficiently dedicated to constructing a coherent image of themselves, notwithstanding the intensity of their interaction with others. In this context, “privacy” is something quite different from how it has been understood in modernity. Moderns cherish privacy as an absolute right to refrain from declaration in order to protect their sphere of personal freedom, access to which no one— other than God, should he exist—is entitled. For their part, postmoderns interpret privacy more modestly as friendly counsel aimed at discouraging potentially self-harming declarations. This was also More’s world.

More believed that however God settled his fate, it would be based on his public track record. Unlike the Protestant Reformers, he also believed that this track record could be judged equally by humans and by God. Indeed, this is what made More a Humanist, notwithstanding his loyalty to the Pope unto death.

Yet More’s stance proved to be theologically controversial for four centuries, until the Catholic Church finally made him the patron saint of politicians in 1935. Perhaps More’s spiritual patronage should be extended to cover social media users.