‘‘Technology’’ is ambiguous. When speaking of a particular kind of technology, such as airplane technology, we sometimes refer to its paradigm and sometimes to its devices and sometimes to both. A technological paradigm is a set of concepts, theories and methods that characterize a kind of technology. The technological paradigm for airplanes includes the concept of a machine that flies, the theory of aerodynamics, and the method of using surfaces to achieve and control flight. A technological device is a specific piece of technology. The Wright brothers’ airplane and commercial jetliners are examples of technological devices. Technological devices are instances or implementations of the technological paradigm. Technological development occurs when either the technological paradigm is elaborated in terms of improved concepts, theories, and methods or the instances of the paradigm are improved in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, safety, etc. Of course, technological development has occurred in numerous technologies over thousands of years.
But in some cases technological development has an enormous social impact. When that happens, a technological revolution occurs. Technological revolutions do not arrive fully mature. They take time and their futures, like the futures of small children, are difficult to predict. We do have an idea of how children typically develop and likewise I believe we have an idea of how revolutions typically develop. I will try to articulate that conception in terms of a plausible model of what happens during a typical technological revolution.
This is a model of open technological revolutions in the sense that the revolution occurs in an open society and the technology is accessible directly or indirectly by the general public as a good or service over time. I have been assuming a liberal democratic state in which market forces, even if regulated, play an important role. These are the conditions under which technological revolutions can flourish. The automobile revolution and electrification revolution are examples of reasonably open technological revolutions. In closed revolutions the access to the technology remains severely restricted by social, political, or economic forces. For example, a ruling elite or a military may maintain control by limiting access and use of particular technologies. The development of nuclear weapons would be an example of a closed technological revolution. Closed technological revolutions by definition will control the dispersal of the technology so that they are unlikely to proceed through all of the aspects of the permeation and power stages in this model.
To identify a technological revolution one must consider the technological paradigm, the technological devices that instantiate the paradigm, and the social impact of these devices.
The social impact of the devices instantiating the paradigm is most indicative of the stage of development. Without a significant social impact from the overall set of these devices, the revolution has not yet occurred.
The point is that sometimes a conceptual muddle is resolved first, through analogies or other reasoning, which in turn will influence the selection of a policy. And sometimes the policy is selected first based on analysis of consequences or other justificatory methods and the conceptual muddle is thereby resolved in reference to the new policy.
Because of the limitations of human cognitive systems, our ethical understanding of developing technology will never be complete
Note: I’m saving this quote because it’s a good example of how – in even such a throwaway line which to some it seem I’m overanalysing – linear assumptions about the kind of system we live in, and thus the kind of systems we can manage, influence how we model our practical understanding of the systems and our responses. So I would argue our ethical understanding will never be complete, not because of limitation of human cognition, but due to limitation of living in a complex system in which there is never complete understanding, no matter how much computational power you throw at it.
Ethicists need to be informed about the nature of the technology and to press for an empirical basis for what is and what is not a likely consequence of its development and use. Scientists and technologists need to confront considerations raised by ethicists and social scientists, considerations that may affect aspects of the next grant application or risky technological development.
Source: ‘Why we need better ethics for emerging technologies’