Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pragmatic Technologies: beyond optimism vs. pessimism

Terminator,
image from IMDb

Fafnir the dragon
illustrated by Arthur Rackham
image from Wikipedia

In ancient myths, monsters were often dragons like Fafnir, but today’s monsters are usually machines like the Terminator.  A couple posts ago, I suggested that these mechanical monsters could be metaphors for the existential conflict between our machines and our humanity.  If we lose that conflict, then we’re doomed to suffer as villains like Darth Vader suffered.

Now when we ask questions like how do we relate to our machines without losing our humanity, we are in the realm of what’s called the philosophy of technology.  In the last post, we surveyed the philosophy of technology by looking at writers like Martin Heidegger (who warned us about technologies “enframing” us and turning us into natural resources), Langdon Winner (who warned us about losing control or “autonomy” over our technologies), Lewis Mumford (who warned us about the rise of “megamachines” becoming too big and powerful), and Jacques Ellul (who warned us about the dangers of technologies that overemphasize “absolute efficiency”).

There’s a lot to learn from these writers, although optimistic readers may not like their pessimistic tone about technology—and, boy, are they pessimistic!  Now I’m not so much concerned about technological optimism vs. pessimism, but a problem I do have with their writings is that they're subversive ad nauseam.  In other words, they love to list the problems with modern technology, but they offer little in the way of practical solutions.

Instead of na├»ve optimism vs. vain pessimism about technology, I prefer the quintessentially American approach of meliorism: the position that it’s possible to improve our lives with technology, but it's not inevitable (as in optimism) or futile (as in pessimism).  However, society can make progress only if we really understand our technology and how it works with our cognitive ability.  (For example, we can ask how media and mind work, or fail to work, togetherin short, what kinds of information-processing technologies work best with which kind of information-processing tasks?)

John Dewey
image from Wikipedia

William James 

image from Wikipedia

Popularized by William James (in his book Pragmatism, esp. Lecture III), meliorism forms a part of American Pragmatism, which is a philosophy that starts with human-environment interaction (what John Dewey called transaction or what cognitive scientists call enaction).  Here, the emphasis is on action, so for pragmatists, thoughts are tools to solve practical problems in an ever-changing world (thoughts are not a God’s-eye-view of some fixed reality).  John Dewey (in his books Experience and Nature and Human Nature and Conduct) liked to say that our thoughts are “instrumental.”  But by ‘instrumental’ he did not mean mechanical (a common misunderstanding); instead, he meant ‘all-out’ and ‘hands-on’: thinking involves perception, emotion, intelligence, and a careful compromise of human ideals with actual reality as we adjust to our world and change it for the better.  For Dewey, 'instrumental' meant 'practical,' not in the sense of 'expedient' but in the sense of what we would call meaningful action in human experience.


In this spirit of meaningful action, American Pragmatism gave us what James called "the pragmatic method" (see Pragmatism, esp. Lecture II).  James adopted this method from his friend Charles Sanders Peirce, who outlined it in a famous essay, "How to Make Our Ideas Clear."  The pragmatic method deals with ideas, objects, or technologies by asking a simple question: what practical difference do they make in my life?

American Pragmatism also includes what James referred to as "radical empiricism" (which he discussed in his two follow-up books, The Meaning of Truth and Essays in Radical Empiricism).  According to ordinary empiricism, we gain knowledge from our sensory experience of physical things.  James' radical empiricism agrees, but it goes much further: experience includes not only physical things but also non-physical processes, such as relationships (what James called "transitions" or "relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive") and their concomitant activities, values, and meanings.  For example, if we are empirical about technology, then we take it apart and analyze its components; but if we are radically empirical about technology, then we see how it affects human relationships and social values too.

So what does American Pragmatism contribute to the philosophy of technology?  Lots, but for the purposes of this post let me mention two things.
  1. Technology as art: Pragmatists like James and Dewey see technology as a kind of art to create a better world—a view I’ve also ardently defended.  After all, we get the word ‘technology’ from the Greek word for art: techne, which meant artistic technique or skill.  In fact, Dewey liked to remind us (esp. in his books Art as Experience and Democracy and Education) that there was a time when we talked about tradespersons in the “industrial arts—e.g., mechanics, technicians, garment technologists, technical writers, etc.  These workers are not just professionals but also practical artists, using their creative skills and techniques to edify their world.
  2. Technology as problem solvingPragmatists like James and Dewey also see technology as inseparable from scientific inquiry, or practical problem solving.  Like our thoughts, our technologies are tools for solving problems.  As Larry Hickman, the Director of the Center for Dewey Studies, explains (in his book Philosophical Tools for Technological Culture), a pragmatist sees technology as "a cognitive deployment of tools" for finding "resolutions of perceived problems."  In fact, in much of Dewey's writings, the word 'technological' is often synonymous with what we earlier just referred to as 'instrumental.'  As Hickman points out (in his book John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology), "instrumentalism" for Dewey basically means "technological production and construction"—again, in the sense of meaningful, not mechanical, action.
So the moral is that technologies by themselves will not optimistically save us or pessimistically doom us.  Technologies have potential to help us, but only when they are integrated into artful action and guided by practical problem solving.  That, in short, is the melioristic message of American Pragmatism when applied to the philosophy of technology.  Personally, I see many technology-related professions like engineering, behavioral economics, and ergonomics or usability as exemplary professions that embody this message.

To recap the significance of American Pragmatism, check out this short video on how it was revived by philosophers Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty—the video also includes a brief spot with Larry Hickman (at about 2 min) mentioning Pragmatism's relevance to the philosophy of technology.