How to outsmart our smartest technologies
Dr Edward H Spence looks at the current trend with 'smart' technologies and how to stay one step ahead using philosophy
The question whether technology is good for us seems superfluous for the answer is plainly obvious: of course it is good for us - so good that we can't possibly imagine our lives without it. Technology is ever-present and actively participates, and mediates, in all our activities.
In sport, education, at home or at work, in entertainment and communication, in health care and transportation, when we are at play or at rest (no, this is not an ad for VB) in the cosmetic and fashion industries, the weather satellites and the machineries of war, in space or oil exploration, technology is there to lend a hand or take one, if you give it half a chance. Whether we like it or not - and most of us for most of the time like what technology has to offer - technology is here to stay. What is not obvious, however, is why technology is good for us. Sure it provides the means for getting what we need and desire whether it's a cup of coffee, a trip to the Greek islands, or a pacemaker.
But does it provide the means for achieving our ultimate end, which, according to Aristotle, is to have a good life and be happy. According to Aristotle, that is what we all value for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. If he is right, then it is not obvious that a lot of technology no matter how useful otherwise, will make us happy. If a good life ultimately is one that can enable us to attain self-fulfilment, well-being or happiness - what the Greek philosophers called eudaimonia (otherwise what would it be good for?) then we can evaluate technology's capacity to contribute to good life on the basis of Wisdom.
Defined as "knowing how to live well and successfully applying that knowledge to living well" wisdom provides the measure to evaluate the contribution technology makes to the realisation of a good life. As the essential condition for both the conception and successful achievement of a good life, wisdom is the missing link between technology and the good life. It is indispensable for evaluating the contribution that various technologies make to a good life and provides the answer to the question why technology is good for us. Which is that technology is only good if it contributes to human flourishing and eudaimonia. We can in fact think of wisdom as a type of higher-order technology: a Meta-Technology of the Self.
For to the extent that technologies contribute the means to the end or telos of having a good life, wisdom as the means of both finding out what a good life and achieving its realisation, is a Meta- Technology of the Self, the technology par excellence. It enables us to master all the technologies we need for achieving good and happy lives. And the means to the realisation of a good life may include and often does include technologies such as computers and cars.
If computers can be considered as extensions of the self (extensions of the mind) as some philosophers have argued, then the degree by which they form part of the self also becomes a question concerning wisdom. To what degree do computers as extensions of the self, contribute to a good life for the attainment of eudaimonia? Wisdom seems particularly useful in evaluating the contribution that emerging technologies, such as nanotechnologies, can make to a good life. For some of the potential effects and consequences of nanotechnologies cannot be assessed with any degrees of certainty at present.
In a forthcoming article in the International Encyclopedia of Ethics, Professor John Weckert (a philosopher of technology at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University) signals the concern that the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics and sunscreens may penetrate the skin and lodge themselves in various bodily organs. This can potentially cause certain forms of cancer.
Though by no means proven, such concerns should give us pause. We should more reflectively examine the potential risks associated with nanotechnologies and other emerging technologies (such as autonomous robotics) and evaluate their potential benefits not primarily in terms of new knowledge or convenience but foremost in terms of the potential contribution they make to a good life. And for that, we need to develop our highest and best technology of all - the meta-technology of wisdom. Rather than blindly following technology, we should become wiser in designing, making, and using technologies to make our lives better and happier and those of the future citizens that will follow.
* Dr Edward Spence is a Senior Research Fellow at the ARC Special Research Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. He teaches applied philosophy and communication ethics in the School of Communication and Creative Industries at Charles Sturt University. His edited book "A Good Life in a Technological Age" is forthcoming (Routledge).
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