A Brief Critique Of Tech Values

Often enough it’s said that technology is nothing but a tool. As such, it has no value built into it. Hence, it’s up to us whether and how we use the tool.

This is a version of the fact/value split, and it’s plainly wrong.

According to this view, technology supplies us with facts and humans merely drape values overtop the technological tool or device. But such a view is not actually squareable with our experience.

Take a simple example. When you go to start a new YouTube channel, the first question you get asked is what you’re going to do to grow your audience. Likes, comments, shares, SEO-friendly titles, and more are du jour: all these illustrate how a tech platform actually embeds (there’s another tech concept!) within itself a set of values for optimal (another one!) use (a third!).

You don’t just wish to think hard about something. You’re supposed to want a lot of subscribers or users! Why? No one knows except that scale has become a sacred value even though it couldn’t possibly be an end in itself. More: you don’t just want to say something in the hopes of becoming clear about it. You want likes–meaning you want your ego to be confirmed: “I’m not alone”; “I’m not invisible”; “I’m not unworthy.”

“But these are our values that we superimpose on platforms like Twitter or Instagram.” No, each platform, tool, or device actually helps to teach you not just how to use it but also how to adopt the values it holds dear. Never has technology been a purely technical matter. Medium, for instance, uses an algorithm to come up with how much the story you wrote there is worth. I kid you not. While the algorithm is not available to users (here we go again!), it’s clear that the number of views, (presumed) number of readers, overall engagement on the platform, and so on are what count in the resultant calculation. See how absurd this is? A viral article about cats doing flips would be, on this view, more valuable than an exquisitely beautiful poem read by only a few people. Technology can do away with hard questions of taste–just like that! Obviously, in the Age of Technology, quantity trumps quality and, in turn, quality returns in pale form: namely, as a product of quantity.

I’ll take a stand here. I’m a firm believer in “appropriate technology,” which, in practice, requires being very clear about how–against the grain–I’ll use Skype, Zoom, and so on. Even so, I can see how easy it is to default to the lowest common denominator. Of course, I’m not the first person to critique mainstream tech values, but I don’t hear enough philosophical talk about fundamentals. At the heart of a critique of technology in our time, then, needs to be a reconsideration of the fact/value split.

When people, as they do today, point to the sophisticated ways in which the Amish deliberate upon which technological inventions they’ll accept into their communities, we do well to follow their fingers to see that at which they’re pointing. Unfortunately, given that we’re not living at present in small scale communities governed by shared values and bound by a common way of life, it’s just not clear how helpful the Amish will be to those of us who are thrown into an atomistic world where globalization reigns supreme.