Non-Technical Issues

Should we set limits to technology? How do we choose them? And is it legitimate to declare that a problem is technical just because we uncover a technical solution?

She privately listens to music through her wireless earbuds as she waits for the train. Suddenly, the music fades and her ringtone pipes in. She raises her smartwatch and eagerly accepts the incoming call, ending it as she boards the train. Then, she opens her laptop and seamlessly continues work that she started on her tablet last night.

You know this person. Maybe you are this person. Technology is a wonderful gift, and it helps us in daily and extraordinary situations alike. It seems able to bend or even define reality, and our reaction to it seems to hinge precisely on that fact – and by extension, on our definition of reality.

Science and Technology

As usual, I want to start with my definitions. While they are closely related, science and technology are not the same. Simply put, science uncovers and structures new knowledge about the world around us. Technology applies that knowledge to simplify or lower the effort to perform a task.

Here’s one example. A light switch uses a mechanical action to control an electric circuit. But if you could use one electrical signal to control or amplify another, it would enable several applications in communications and automation. That is what vacuum tubes did in the 20th century, paving the way for innovations like radio and television.

However, vacuum tubes were fragile, power hungry and voluminous. Several years before, science – physics – had uncovered a better option: semiconductors. Eventually, technology gave us the transistor, which paved the way for cheaper, pervasive, and even portable versions of devices that used to be stationary. It also brought the electrification of previously analog devices, like thermometers, thermostats and clocks, and made them much more durable, reliable, and accurate.

That’s the recurring pattern. Science observes the world around it, and through experimental validation of hypothesis formulates laws and properties of that world. Technology then applies that knowledge to make something better in some fundamental way. Naturally, this isn’t limited to electronics. The lever, the pulley, and even the wheel, were life-changing inventions in their time. They are technologies that apply the science of classical physics, and more specifically, mechanics.

Invading the Non-Technical

Somewhat surprisingly, modern technology features prominently in two crucial societal and cultural debates. First, I think that the speed of technological progress fallaciously fuels scientism – the viewpoint that science can replace philosophy in explaining the origin, purpose and ethics of life. Second, I think that we react to technology based on its impact on our definition of reality.

The first point elaborates on something I’ve said before: the question of origin belongs to philosophy, not science. Accelerating scientific progress doesn’t increase the scope of science. But also, the speed of technological progress isn’t the same as the speed of scientific progress. They evolve together, but at different rates.

This remains true even as science increasingly relies on technology. When Albert Einstein formulated his theories of relativity, it was technologically impossible to validate them empirically. However, as technology advanced, various experiments more than confirmed the theory. Modern science is highly theoretical, relying extensively on powerful supercomputers to develop and validate models way before experiments can confirm them. However, computers enable scientific research; they don’t perform it. Scientific progress remains bookended by human ingenuity and the ability to validate findings in the real world – outside the computers.

My second point is a bit more elaborate, and I’ll spend the next few minutes on explaining it through my favorite controversial technology: cryptocurrency.

Is Money a Technical Problem?

Cryptocurrencies are cutting edge technology, and very polarizing too. Personally, I find them rather uninteresting, but they provide a great example of how we use our metaphysics – our definition of reality – to judge technology, because they percolate to the political and financial spheres of society.

At the core of every cryptocurrency is the blockchain. A blockchain is just a decentralized tamper-proof collection of records. That means that several parties can have copies of a blockchain, and through cryptography and other technologies, ensure that those copies remain in sync with each other and aren’t altered in fraudulent ways.

Blockchains are useful beyond currencies. Here’s a simple illustration. Imagine that I make a short shopping list – say, cheese, crackers and juice; and I give you a copy. Now we go to different grocery stores, each with our own copy of the list. Our copies aren’t connected (imagine they’re on paper). Chaos can easily ensue. We could get too much cheese and no juice. You could add something to the list (nuts!) after we split, and accuse me of not making a faithful copy. With no central copy, there is no way to guarantee the list’s integrity.

If you use Apple Notes or Google Keep or any other note-taking or grocery app, you could suggest putting our list there, and voila! Problem solved! But those services require a central authority to arbitrate changes and detect conflicts, which arguably comes with its own privacy problems and other implications. That’s the really hard problem that blockchain solves. Blockchain can keep consistent copies of lists without requiring a central authority. On top of that, blockchain makes it virtually impossible for someone to unilaterally alter or tamper with the record.

For these reasons, blockchain has several uses that don’t involve currencies, though none of them is as earth-shattering as the hype implies. It can enable so-called smart contracts, bringing a level of transparency and accountability to endeavors that lack them. To be sure, anyone can hire lawyers to draft and review contracts on anything. But options like this are often impractical or too expensive for certain things. Blockchain technology enables a potentially simpler and cheaper way. Blockchain can also be used to track provenance where integrity is important, such as the end-to-end movement of Fair Trade coffee.

But the quintessential application of blockchain is cryptocurrencies, and it’s fascinating to see how this connects to problems or situations that aren’t at all technical. In recent history, the economy has relied on centralized fiscal and monetary policies – the type of powers and capabilities that are only available to governments. A monetary system that fulfills established monetary requirements without the oversight of a central authority inevitably invites political, diplomatic and governance considerations.

Note the nuanced, but critical distinction. To be sure, there are pros and cons to the ideas of central banks and of specific degrees of government intervention or control over the economy. But arguably, cryptocurrencies merely change the parameters under evaluation; they don’t fundamentally settle these debates. It’s similar to what happened when air travel went mainstream. The fundamental reality of physics didn’t change. One object can only occupy one place at a time, and moving it around costs time and energy. Air travel significantly altered those parameters – notably, travel times; but it really didn’t bring places any closer. It didn’t deny the underlying physical reality.

Cryptocurrencies might significantly shift the parameters we use to think about money, but they introduce problems of their own, like anonymity, fraud potential, and speculative value. Decentralized systems can give electronic transactions the anonymity of cash-only transactions. Again, that changes the parameters of the debate on the convenience and appropriateness of anonymous exchanges in several contexts. Any technology that isn’t sufficiently understood by the public at large is more prone to fraud and exploitation. And of course, anything that can be speculatively bought and sold will carry risks around the difference between its price and its true value.

Technology notwithstanding, the fundamental debate remains philosophical and political above all else.

Philsophy > Technology

In the end, these technologies are largely neutral in and of themselves. I don’t think there is a case to be made from a Christian worldview – or any worldview, really – to say that crypto money is unequivocally good or unequivocally bad. For the most part, it simply alters the parameters of pre-existing debates, like the balance between individual rights and freedoms versus societal order, or the role of government in preventing fraud or controlling the economy, or the relationship between risk and opportunity in investment.

We impose our philosophical views – what is reality, what’s our purpose, and what’s right and wrong – on everything we interact with, including technology. This explains much of the debate around the metaverse too. And this isn’t limited to electronics or the internet; the same thing happens with biology, for instance. Your attitudes towards Neuralink or xenotransplantation (like the pig heart recently given to a man) or several other medical procedures will largely stem from your definition of what makes us human, and what lines must not be crossed on that. In other words, your philosophy.

I won’t elaborate on all these examples. Just notice, once again, that having a clear articulation of our philosophy is extremely important to make sense of anything around us – no matter how new it is, or that it moves at vertigo-inducing speeds.

Published: January 30, 2022