Philosophy, Ethics, and Technology : A Conversation

by Sinan Farooqui

Philosophy, Ethics and Technology.

Three fields which have been interwoven into the fabric of time, overlapping increasingly due to the unstoppable tide of globalization in the modern era. The latest in the series of colloquiums hosted by the Humanities Research Center saw a conversation between two highly respected academics––Dr. Carl Mitcham (Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Colorado School of Mines) and Dr. Tom Wang (Associate Professor, School of Philosophy, Renmin University of China) ­–– who work in the intersection of these fields. Hosted in a different format than all that preceded it, this colloquium saw both speakers simply conversing with each other and the audience, based on a set of given questions, as opposed to just giving a lecture.

The first question posed was as follows:

  • How did you get interested in the intersection of the three fields in question?

    Dr. Tom Wang

According to Tom, his interest developed upon realization of the significance and permeability of these fields in our daily lives. He recognized that these spheres of study were radically relevant to having a good life in the modern society, which is starkly different to societies of the past. He especially noted the essentiality of technology, realizing that it is a developing academic subject which demands better understanding. Moreover, Wang was of the view that these fields help us to reflect on how we exist, breaking individuals away from the instrumentalization of life.

Mitcham took a different approach, relying instead on an anecdote. Growing up in Texas, Mitcham was witness to two conflicting perspectives of the nature of work. His father, a mechanical engineer, and his uncle, a farmer, showed a young Mitcham the disparity between the industrial and rural sectors of the economy. He reminisces about a specific time when his uncle told him that his father’s way of life was the future, something which stimulated Carl to dive into the spheres of technology and philosophy.

  • What are the key issues in all three fields in the modern era?

In response to this particular question, Wang brings up gene editing technology, a very controversial topic. He notes how even the Chinese society is generally against such experiments and brings up a significant philosophical dilemma. If we are allowed to edit our genes, humans would possibly try to build a better self. But what is a better self?

Moving on to social networks, Tom claimed that we have a human right to access social networks, all the while noting the restriction on such access in China. Furthermore, while he sees social media as a tool for communication, he recognizes that it has altered consumer and societal behavior, increasing chances of exposing private information.

According to Carl, techno-existential threats are divided into two main parts:

Dr. Carl Mitcham

Non-anthropogenic: asteroid impact, reversal of earth magnetic poles, volcanic eruption, etc.

Anthropogenic: nuclear disaster, global pandemic, financial collapse, nanotechnology, global climate change, etc.

Mitcham recognizes that humanity is on the cusp of a global crisis, and yet has no trust in our ability to manage the aforementioned issues. Rather surprisingly, Mitcham views authoritarian regimes as the answer, as according to him, democracy has been unable to deal with such issues. He gives the example of the democratic system in the United States, where he claims that massive population “stupidity” and “ignorance” exist, resulting in widespread denial climate change and evolution.

  • What are your contributions to these fields of study?

Mitcham, in a rather humble demeanor, made no claim for success, instead saying that he preferred to let others make this assessment. However, Tom calls him the first generation of techno-philosophy professors, bridging the gap between the western and eastern understanding of technology.

Returning to himself, Wang recalls since 2011, Pak-Hong Wong and he have been working on exploring a Confucian philosophy of technology in order to discuss the nature and ethics of democracy and in the Confucian framework which aims to provide an alternative approach to international discourse of philosophy of technology.

  • How have cross-cultural experiences affected their research?

Mitcham finds it difficult not to project onto other cultures one’s fantasies or fears, especially after noting the tendency to project the dark and repressed side of one’s own experiences onto other individuals. He gives the example of the US yet again, as to how Americans think of themselves as exceptions but in reality, are inherently colonialists. Mitcham is convinced that Chinese civilization is deeper and more profound than the American civilization, stating that he continues to learn from China. Mitcham concludes saying that individual learn something of who they are as a person when they immerse themselves into another culture.

The two professors talk about how cross-cultural experiences have affected their research

Tom recalls how he spent more than 4 years in the Netherlands, and a year in the US. The more he traveled, the more he confirmed that technology is the most common language used by humans. He noted how we are all technological beings who have not yet reflected on our unique existence very carefully

With this question, the dialogue concluded and was eventually opened up to the members of the audience. Both speakers, through their casual remarks and simple yet concise arguments, forced this realization unto their audience. Though we are the creators of technology, technology also exerts tremendous power over us. Through technology we have not only transformed the planet, we have also transformed ourselves.