PHIL3910 - Technology and Human values

This study of human values as they apply to technology is focused on the nature and systematic analysis of normative design decisions in engineering within the context of a systems dynamic approach to modeling. It aims to set the study in a larger framework of analysis of Western commercial, political and social systems. It looks at the functionality of these systems and the professional ethics concerned.


The success of a technological solution depends not only on technical aspects but also on societal issues.
Technologies can be described as amplifiers of human values (in terms of designer, dominant classes, society as a whole or cultural norms).
There are a number of difficulties in performing a value enquiry; value assumptions can be hidden, questions are generally open-ended, judgements are partly independent from facts and values can come into fundamental conflict.
The 'Three Principles' of technological design are:

  • They will not work unless they are appropriate to the wider system
  • Design reflects the values of the designer and/or user
  • Technologies we design end up being more subtle & complex than we intend.

Value and design I

A value can be defined in terms of currency, aesthetics, emotional attachment, utility, as a statement different from a fact or as a social regulatory system.
Liberalism states that 'the liberty/freedom of the individual ought to be of paramount importance'. It has been the paradigm adopted in the west because of religious warfare, religious reformation and the rise of empiricism throughout the ages.
A value judgement is a rational decision concerning value. It typically involves uncertainty (although judgements with uncertainty are not necessarily value judgements - ie: rest mass of a photon).
A value enquiry includes: identifying issues, separating fact from value, evaluating fact/value judgement and performing a critique.
A decision is rational only relative to some set of values/aims.

Value and design II

There are a number of misconceptions regarding technologies relationship with human value. These include:

  1. Technology is developed by independent professionals based on fact
  2. The free market chooses the best technology
  3. Technology is value neutral

Any technological device is one possible solution to a problem. Which is selected depends on the values of the designer/client.
Street design has gone from being designed to maximize functional terms (ie: car throughput per hour) to being designed to maximize qualitative ones. This is the result of the negative issues associated with urban sprawl (loss in farmland/ecology, infrastructure costs, health & societal impacts).

New urbanism aims to design urban environments for the maximization of aesthetics, health, social benefit, economic worth and environmental preservation.
It proposes a number of ideas to achieve this:

  1. Designing for human-scale
  2. Integration of facilities
  3. Designing for appropriate densities
  4. Placing a focus on public spaces
  5. Hiding car parks
  6. Thinking intuitively

Thermodynamics, life and ecosystem

The context within which technological design takes place is governed by the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics. These state (respectively) that for any energetically closed system:

  • Energy cannot be destroyed or created
  • So long as the net change in entropy of the system plus its surroundings in positive, the process can take place spontaneously.

Entropy is a measure of the ability of a system to perform work; lower entropy means the system is more able to perform work.
Irreversible-far-from-equilibrium systems are those that increase order (decrease internal entropy) by absorbing energy from their surroundings. A system is said to be reversible if the system and all of its surroundings can be exactly restored to their initial state after the process has taken place and irreversible otherwise.

Researching into ecological modelling has yielded a number of models. These include:

  • Biosphere as a semi-permeable membrane
  • Biosphere as chains of heat-engines

And more recently:

  • Biosphere as IFFE system.
  • Biosphere as a self-organising dissipative structure

These systems exhibit a number of characteristics: spatio-temporally differentiated structures, path-dependence and the locking-in effect. It follows that the understanding of such concepts may help in the design of effective (and ecologically sensitive) technologies.

Non-linearity, Feedback and Stability

"Linearity refers" to the rate of change of a variable. We typically define the linearity of a relationship as being either linear (ie: y = mx + b) or non linear (y = mx2 + b).
"Stability" refers the the system's ability to return to a stable state after a disturbance. Low stability means the system has difficulty recovering from or cannot recover from a disturbance. High stability means the opposite.
During the past three decades researchers have begun to construct new models based on dynamics observed in the ecosystem. Non-linear systems have been found to be useful in the modelling of ecosystem dynamics.
Characteristics of these dynamic systems include:

  1. Episodic changes
  2. Patchy spatio-temporal attribute
  3. Multiple equilibria

The Holling model is a cyclical model that describes the dynamic and organisational changes of an ecosystem using 4 phases:

  • Exploitation
  • Conservation
  • Release
  • Reorganisation

Liberal values and social dynamics

There are four types or 'degrees' of liberalism:
* Pure Liberalism / Market Anarchy (no implications apart from the recognition of property right).
* Hobbesian Liberalism (Pure Liberalism with a police force and army).
* State Liberalism (Hobbesian Liberalism with a government to maintain the free market).
* Welfare State Liberalism (State Liberlism with the addition of social welfare / ethics).

The Perfect free-market is one in which supply and demand are not subject to regulation other than perfect competition, but in which property rights are allocated and upheld so that trade can occur.
Adam Smith (17th century British economist) described the phenomena of the "invisible hand" in a free-market economy whereby the selfish goal of increasing your own profit will tend to promote the interests of society as a whole.
The benefit of the free market is that when it reaches this equilibrium state, it will achieve the best possible resources distribution and skill composition; this is called Pareto-optimality.

There are a number of conditions that must be met to ensure we are operating under a truly free market.

  • No externalities
  • No market distortions (monopoly or oligopoly)
  • No institutional inefficiencies (ie: contracts or regulations)
  • Consumer is sovereign (demand → corporate production)
  • Market is infinitely adaptable
  • Information and knowledge are freely accessible

The Tradegy of the commons and the Prisoner's dilemma are two theoretical exercises that show that what is best for the individual may negatively impact society as a whole.
Ways of dealing with these situations involve:

  • External coercion (threat or coercion by an external party)
  • Mutually assured destruction (both parties possess the ability to eradicate one another)
  • Internal coercion (religious or cultural conditioning)

Feedback and the Free-market

There are a number of alternate models of the market dynamics which occur in a free market. Some of these include:

  1. Diminishing return: where the market quickly settles at an equilibrium
  2. Constant return: market will quickly settle at one of many equilibria; initial gain in market share has a significant influence on the final steady state. Final steady state can not be predicted.
  3. Increasing return: one or few of the competing technologies will eventually dominate the market. Initial gain in market share is critical in determining which technology will be "selected". The technology selected is not necessarily the best choice.

High-tech products require large initial capital investments. These increase a company's chance (and incentive) to monopolise a market. High-tech products set up standards for later technological development (the locking-in effect). In the high-tech market a demand-supply equilibrium is not met; instead the market is governed by positive feedback mechanisms.
Polya processes present a method of modelling positive feedback systems. The analogy is:

  • Imagine a urn of infinite capacity
  • Two coloured balls are added (red and white)
  • We indefinitely repeat the process:
    • Remove a ball, return the ball and add another of the same colour

(Project lecture)

Economy and society I

The current industrial system design is a linear system in terms of energy and material flow. At every stage waste is produced, which ends up in the sink (the Earth).

  • Primary industry extracts raw material from nature
  • Secondary industry produces commodities using these raw materials
  • Tertiary industry (retailing sector) distributes commodities

These linear industrial designs are adopted because linear systems are the simplest to design and the market favours these simple linear system designs. This linear industrial system is however unstable as the result of finite resources, finite sink, internal driving forces and the difficulty of managing/coordinating size.

It is commonly accepted that economic growth is a good thing. However, in macroeconomics (economics of the world as a whole) expense and assets are added together as economic activity and counted as economic growth.
The leading ecological economist Herman E. Daly was the first one to formalise this problem. He recognised there is a point where any more growth will cost more than the benefit we are getting from the growth.

There are a number of circumstances that can trigger a poverty cycle.

  • Non-fertile land
  • No transport network
  • Little / no social security system
  • Little / no education available

(Possible) solutions to the poverty cycle include:

  • External help
  • Changes in social system design
  • Internal changes

A wealthy country typically has:

  • A social security system
  • More capital available for R&D → higher productivity / better products & services
  • Education as security policy → smaller, better educated population with hi-tech agriculture

Economy and society II

The economy before the industrial revolution was fairly simple; primarily occuring as local market exchange with some intercontinental trading (mostly for the benefit of upper classes).
After the industrial revolution the social structure of the local community and family were all drastically changed. Although humanity has always been exploiting the potential of technology for economic gain, it was not until the industrial revolution that brought the enormous changes in the society. Europe witnessed unprecedented economic growth along with unprecedented human misery. A number of economists/philosophers proposed reasons for this.

  • Thomas Robert Malthus Stated the problems attributed to the industrial revolution were the result of fast population growth and slow increase in productivity.
  • Karl Heinrich Marx attributed the problems to wealth distribution. He argued that the political and economic institution are established in such a way that the capitalists were able to accumulate wealth by exploiting the labourers hired by them.
  • John Maynard Keynes saw the problem differently, and instead formulated the theory of modern economics. This states that decline in the economy → decline in production → cutting wages → saving money for investment → increase economic activity → creates demand for labour → wages increase → decline in the economy…

The "growth forever" neo-classical economist solution argues:

  • Economic growth → lower birth rates
  • Lower birth rates → fairer wealth distribution
  • Unemployment is reduced

Economy and society III

Throughout history humans have almost always settled on the best available places in terms of natural resources (food, water) and locality. With more natural resources & manpower it becomes possible to upgrade infrastructure (roads, irrigation, etc) and set up a government. In some cases a centre emerges - this could be a city state, kingdom or even an empire.
If we ignore the constraints which may restrict the development of such a society, we are left with a positive feedback system resulting in the emergence of commercial and political centres.

  • Once the population reaches a critical mass, competition arises because of the increase in supplies and services.
  • Competition leads to specialisation
  • Specialisation leads to higher productivity → capacity to support a larger population

Because of specialisation within a city there is a need to produce the best quality products possible. In order to create a better product, it is more effective to specialise in producing one thing. This may require training from a third-party, such as a trainer or educational institution.
In many aspects, city dynamics are similar to those of a tropical ecology.
Migration to the city centres leaves a sparsely populated area around the city called the Hinterland. The main economic activities in these areas is agriculture, and in terms of energy and material flow they are similar to the polar ecology.
Information can be any collection of data, whereas knowledge is based on information but organised into some structure.
Throughout history, information and knowledge have been stored and shared via different methods; including memory, books and finally the mass-media.
Information and its availability have affected the complexity of technology throughout the ages.
Science and technology can be represented as a machine that transforms: the social and ecological environment, itself, the resources supporting the machine and the process of evolution of society.

Profession, ethics and culture

Appropriate technology

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