What Comes After the Failure of Technocracy?

Introduction

In the middle 2014, videos of people dumping large buckets of ice water over their heads began to go viral. The subjects of the videos included celebrities, professional athletes, and former US presidents, but there were vastly more from regular people without significant online platforms. The “Ice Bucket Challenge” was linked in 2014 to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating motor-neuron disease with no cure. The goal of this challenge was both to raise awareness for the disease and to raise money for ALS research, and by all accounts did spectacularly at both.[1]

The Ice Bucket Challenge is a great example of using digital communications technologies for a good cause. The challenge relied on videos largely recorded on mobile phones and then shared on social networking sites. Some specific videos went viral, meaning they spread quickly and widely throughout the internet, while associated hashtags like #IceBucketChallenge and #ALSIceBucketChallenge trended and drew greater attention to the campaign.

One key question many observers took from the Ice Bucket Challenge was how to replicate it. What might our organization do to repeat this success for our own worthy cause? What were the technical decisions that enabled this success?

Here I instead wish to ask a different question, not about the Ice Bucket Challenge itself, but the larger, technocratic context in which it took place. How have modern technologies shaped the way that people engage with the world? What sorts of beliefs, attitudes, and practices do such technologies encourage or inculcate? And what resources from the Christian tradition can help in response? In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis raises significant concerns about the “technocratic paradigm.”

Technology and the Technocratic Paradigm

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis describes the “technocratic paradigm” as

Exalt[ing] the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. (Laudato Si’ §106)

This description highlights a disordered relationship that many human beings have with whatever in creation is other from them. The worldview of the human subject is driven entirely by an instrumental view of the other, whether that is the natural world, some manufactured artifacts, or other human persons. In his 2014 “Address to the European Parliament,” Pope Francis lamented that:

We see technical and economic questions dominating political debate, to the detriment of genuine concern for human beings. Men and women risk being reduced to mere cogs in a machine that treats them as items of consumption to be exploited, with the result that—as is so tragically apparent—whenever a human life no longer proves useful for that machine, it is discarded with few qualms, as in the case of the sick, of the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb.

This is the great mistake made “when technology is allowed to take over”; the result is a confusion between ends and means”. It is the inevitable consequence of a “throwaway culture” and an uncontrolled consumerism. An essential problem, then, of the technocratic paradigm, is that it treats technological questions and practices as self-evident goods and ends in themselves. For example, what matters is a good economy, generally defined by faceless metrics like the gross domestic product, which are taken all too easily as a proxy for human flourishing.

Further, the technocratic paradigm is rooted in an optimism that any problem can be solved by technological innovation, including those problems created by past or current technological innovations (LS §109). Human beings are assumed to be able to fix anything that might be broken, if given a long enough time horizon. Since such solutions are, or someday will be, possible, we come to the happy conclusions that (a) personal and communal conversion are unnecessary, since we will someday fix whatever problems we or our predecessors created, and (b) that relentless technological innovation is a good in and of itself, since we will need it to fix such problems. From this reading of Pope Francis on the technocratic paradigm, three key features emerge:

  1. an instrumental view of all creation
  2. technology is seen as a good end in itself
  3. an optimistic assumption of continuous technological progress

What ought to be the response to this vision of the technocratic paradigm? Here I wish to offer four theses for thinking through this question.

Thesis 1: Technology should be thought of not only as instruments or tools, but as an ecology and formation system

Writing on technology often falls prey to one of three common temptations: (1) viewing technology as wholly good (a view the technocratic paradigm promotes),[2] (2) viewing technology as wholly bad (such as one finds in the classic Luddite position),[3] or (3) viewing technology as simple tools under rational human control. In his 1992 book Technopoly, Neil Postman pushes against these temptations and offers instead an “ecological” view of technology. He claims that “technological change is neither additive nor subtractive…one significant change generates total change.”[4] He explains this by giving the examples:

In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry.[5]

New technologies change the world in which they exist. These changes can go beyond marginal technical improvements to radically reshape our world. They are more than simple tools under our control, as they exercise formative influences on those who would seek to use them. Moreover, these changes are ambiguous, resulting in both positive and negative impacts on the wider society.

Pope Francis picks up on this ecological model of technology in Laudato Si’, saying that technology can “create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by interests of certain powerful groups” (LS §83). Put another way, technology is itself a formation system that shapes our habits and practices, our virtues and vices. When we think of technology simply or exclusively as tools, we overlook the way in which technologies, and the intentional (and unintentional) design of those technologies, inculcate habits, attitudes, and worldviews.   

Thesis 2: The moral vision of the technocratic paradigm represents the joining of a basic consequentialism with the myth of permanent progress

The technocratic paradigm’s instrumental view of creation, including both human and non-human creation, is consistent with a fundamentally utilitarian approach to ethics. This moral vision evaluates the rightness or wrongness of acts solely on the question of outcomes: did an act generate more good than harm, or did it generate the most good possible. The principle was classically formulated by Jeremy Bentham as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”[6] Such a moral vision does not consider there to be a moral quality to an act in and of itself; its moral value is solely based on the proportion of the consequences.

This has two chief effects with respect to the technocratic paradigm. First, all those persons who are inconvenient for the technocratic vision (e.g. the ill, the elderly, the poor, the unborn) can be dispensed with in pursuit of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of (convenient) people. In practice, this often goes further, as it maximizes happiness not for the greatest number, but for the most powerful.

Second, by focusing only on outcomes, the technocratic paradigm discourages any evaluation of technologies themselves. What we mean by technology, or even by “modern” technology, is remarkably diverse and ambiguous. The moral evaluation we make of nuclear technology is different from our moral evaluation of Twitter. Yet these differences can easily be obscured in service of promoting the overall good that is “technology.”

Indeed the idea that technology is unquestionably a good end in itself is a form of the myth of progress. Pope Francis highlights this issue with respect to ecology, writing about those who think “that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change” (LS §60). And it is true that humans have made tremendous technological progress: for example, the massive computing power needed to send human beings to the moon in 1969 is now dwarfed by the computing power of the smartphone one might carry in one’s pocket. Yet we must be cautious (1) not to assume that such technological progress is a given and (2), more importantly, not to conflate technological progress with moral progress. This conflation, though, seems essential to a technocratic paradigm that focuses on ends over means to the point that these technological means become the ends themselves. Put another way, in the technocratic paradigm, technological progress is itself the end that humanity works toward, and thus technological progress is moral progress.

Thesis 3: Critical reflection on modern technology can enable a deeper recovery of virtue and the teleological character of the moral life

It is one of the curious challenges of the technocratic paradigm that while it emphasizes a utilitarian view of the world, the way that it forms people in this view is more akin to a teleological moral vision. The idea of a telos, or an ultimate goal, fits well with the design ethos of so much modern technology. It is evident that technologies like mobile phones and social networks are intentionally designed to form habits in their users and consumers. Technology companies commit tremendous resources to design questions, ranging from size and color to ergonomics to the sounds used for alerts. Even as such design is advertised in terms of improving user experience, the reality underlying that is the desire to increase the amount of time users are actively engaging the product.

If taken seriously, this insight provides excellent grounds for people living in the technocratic paradigm to reflect critically on the habitual character of their technological and moral lives. In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II describes the “essential ‘teleological’ character” of the moral life, writing that it “consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man” (Veritatis Splendor §73). Technological interventions may help the user in pursuing both the natural and supernatural ends of the human person, but even this framing helps to reorient the moral question around technology into one of virtues and vices rather than one of measurable, short-term outcomes.

The formation of virtue thus becomes a driving moral question amid the technocratic paradigm. Such formation is difficult but necessary precisely because the technocratic paradigm is itself a formation system; it is not a neutral context exercising no influence on the habits, beliefs, and worldviews one forms. Inculcating virtues like prudence and temperance amid this context requires intentional and consistent attention and effort. Yet the realization that various technologies are designed to shape one’s intentions and habits serves to reveal the importance of habit in human living. Moreover, that realization highlights the importance of forming habits that orient us towards human flourishing rather than towards a sort of technocratic utility.

Francis highlights the need for changing ways of life rather than creating new technical solutions, writing that the present ecological and social crises require “a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm” (LS §111). If the response is merely new technologies or more recycling programs, we sustain the same worldview that the technocratic paradigm has formed within us. Authentic human development instead requires “another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (LS §112).

Thesis 4: The virtue of solidarity is an essential virtue for responding to the technocratic paradigm

The virtue perhaps best oriented to promoting such authentic human development is solidarity. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II describes solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis §38). This determination is rooted in the recognition of human interdependence, that we are all in relationship with one another, and that these relationships bear a moral dimension that builds upon and goes beyond shared “economic, cultural, political, and religious elements” (SRS §38).

It is perhaps instructive that the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church references communications technologies in its first full paragraph on solidarity. It begins with cautious optimism, noting that “the very rapid expansion in ways and means of communication” means that “it is now possible—at least technically—to establish relationships between people who are separated by great distances and are unknown to each other.”[7] Technology makes it possible to build and sustain relationships despite great distances, to become knowledgeable about the challenges our fellow humans face with great speed and detail, and to render assistance in a variety of ways efficiently. The possibilities of enacting one’s commitment to the common good could be amplified by such technologies.

As an example, recall the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” Those who were challenged were supposed either to record themselves dumping a bucket of ice water dumped on their head or to donate money to ALS research. In fact, many did both while also challenging their friends, thus encouraging the campaign’s viral spread. By the metrics of money raised (more than $100 million in the US alone) or website hits (a hundredfold increase for the Motor Neuron Disease Association), the challenge was an immense success. And these successes are credited with real milestones in the study of the disease itself.

There remains an open question, though, about the degree to which this challenge, or other online campaigns, promote solidarity. The selection of the ice-cold water in this case is meant to give some indication of the sensations that people with ALS have as a result of the condition. This can promote some degree of empathy for others, which can encourage an attitude of solidarity. Yet does this feeling persist? Does it form into some sense of responsibility for others? Does it lead to the virtue of solidarity, that “firm and persevering determination” that John Paul II called for? Or does it lead instead to a “vague compassion or shallow distress” (SRS §38) that John Paul II warned against?

It is not clear to what degree greater connectivity has promoted solidarity. Marcus Mescher writes that the sheer volume and speed of digital content can be overwhelming, making it difficult for any particular cause or concern to overcome the “globalization of indifference” that Francis warns about.[8] He notes the concern many critics have about “slacktivism,” in which one might perceive their “liking” or “retweeting” as a meaningful act of solidarity while going no further.[9] There is, again, often no persevering commitment, but rather a brief, low stakes nod of the head towards a given issue.

Mescher’s attention to the problem of “slacktivism” helpfully points us back to the Compendium. Even as that text highlights the possibilities of new technologies for promoting solidarity, it nonetheless pairs that optimism with the injunction that “The acceleration of interdependence between persons and peoples needs to be accompanied by equally intense efforts on the ethical-social plane, in order to avoid the dangerous consequences of perpetrating injustice on a global scale.”[10] The interdependence in question cannot simply be a technical, economic, or political interdependence; it must have that underlying moral dimension.

Conclusion

It seems that the Compendium was prophetic in drawing such a clear line between technology and solidarity. It was published in 2004, the same year that Facebook launched and a mere three years before the introduction of the iPhone. Many technologies that have helped to strengthen the technocratic paradigm came after the Compendium, but they also demonstrate the need for greater attention to the virtues, especially the virtue of solidarity.

The persistent and remaining challenge from here is that there is no straightforward solution to the problems of the technocratic paradigm and the need for solidarity. To search for some set of technical fixes or “life hacks” serves to simply reinscribe the very technocratic paradigm one seeks to avoid. When Francis calls people to an “ecological conversion” in which “the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them,” he highlights that this is an ongoing and difficult change in how each person lives (LS §217).

Not only must Christians work to develop in themselves the virtue of solidarity, but they must work together to shift the culture towards one that recognizes, values, and works in accord with the fundamental interdependence of creation. Ultimately, resistance to, or even transformation of, the technocratic paradigm means building and embodying an alternative formation system.


[1] An earlier version of this was presented to the USCCB Committee on Doctrine at their meeting of the theological societies on March 11, 2021

[2] See Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014), 5-9 for a description of this view.

[3] See Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993), 4, for his discussion of King Thamus on the technology of writing from Plato’s Phaedrus.

[4] Postman, Technopoly, 18

[5] Postman, Technopoly, 18

[6] Jeremy Bentham, Bentham: A Fragment on Government, ed. Ross Harrison (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 1988), 3.

[7] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, D.C: USCCB, 2005), 192.

[8] Marcus Mescher, “Beyond Slacktivism: A Culture of Encounter and Ecological Conversion through a Screen?,” Journal of Catholic Social Thought 13, no. 2 (June 21, 2016): 338.

[9] Mescher, “Beyond Slacktivism,” 336

[10] Compendium, 192

Featured Image: Photo of Anthony Quintano taken by his wife Kim Quintano. See her photography here; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

Author

Stephen Okey

Stephen Okey as an Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Leo University. He is the author of A Theology of Conversation: An Introduction to David Tracy and is currently working on a book on public theology in a digital age.

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