Why write about the future? I’ve never seriously tried to predict the future, a fool’s game if there ever was one. Most science fiction writers are perfectly aware of the contingent nature of the future, and prefer to think about how new technology, and the new abilities it affords us, might alter our lives and habits and culture and institutions.
Today, 24/7 technology reporting offers us constant, hazy glimpses of possible futures. In one, we might downvote an obnoxious stranger at a glance with augmented reality glasses. In another, we can live, work, and sleep in an autonomous pod on wheels. The details don’t matter, like whether the pod is made by Google or VW or Ford – what matters is whether this vision provokes desire or distaste in us. And by ‘us’, I don’t mean humanity as a whole, but individuals, all of whom have some degree of choice about how they approach that future.
Some degree. One of the depressing realities of the 21st century is how we’ve become ensnared by global capitalism such that if you want to live, work, and socialise with your friends and family, you don’t have any choice about the technology you use. Sure, you can choose between Apple and Google, and Instagram and Snapchat, and Gmail and Outlook, but if you want a job, if you want to stay in touch with your friends and family, if you want to get invitations to birthday parties and weddings, you will use a smartphone, an instant messaging app, an email provider, all of which are made by the same three or four corporations.
Our seeming powerlessness runs head-on into the abuses of power by those very same corporations. Even if you are concerned about Facebook’s policies, what difference would it make if you deleted your account? Should you stop using Uber and use Lyft? Or not use ridesharing at all? Just how bad are we meant to feel about joining Amazon Prime and exploiting warehouse workers? If have no choice over what technologies we adopt, and if those technologies exert more and more power over our lives, how can we hope our lives will be better tomorrow than they are today, other than hoping that corporations won’t “be evil”?
I don’t know why Prof. Shannon Vallor’s book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, attracted so little notice when it was published in 2016. Perhaps it’s because she counsels a middle path between starry-eyed Silicon Valley techno-utopianism and deeply conservative techno-pessimism. Perhaps her formidable academic credentials are seen by journalists as inferior to working at Google as a design ethicist for a few years. I really couldn’t say.
Regardless, Technology and the Virtues is the most useful, thorough, realistic, and hopeful book I’ve read that explains how we as individuals, and as a global species, should evaluate how we should use and choose technology today and in the future. Vallor, a philosopher of technology at Santa Clara University, claims that today’s technologies are so powerful and pervasive that our decisions about how to live well in the 21st century are not simply moral choices, but that:
they are technomoral choices, for they depend on the evolving affordances [abilities] of the technological systems that we rely upon to support and mediate our lives in ways and to degrees never before witnessed.
a theory of what counts as a good life for human beings must include an explicit conception of how to live well with technologies, especially those which are still emerging and have yet to become settled, seamlessly embedded feature sof the human environment. Robotics and artificial intelligence, new social media and communications technologies, digital surveillance, and biomedical enhancement technologies are among those emerging innovations that will radically change the kinds of lives from which humans are able to choose in the 21st century and beyond. How can we choose wisely from the apparently endless options that emerging technologies offer? The choices we make will shape the future for our children, our societies, our species, and others who share our planet, in ways never before possible. Are we prepared to choose well?
This question involves the future, but what it really asks about is our readiness to make choices in the present.
Upon which principles should we make those choices?