Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

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What Technology Values

As part of their reporting on recent events in the Middle East last week, NPR ran a story called Internet Freedom and the US State Department. The story is an interview with Alec Ross, co-founder of nonprofit technology provider One Economy and now Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While dodging hard questions about US companies selling restrictive or invasive technologies to repressive regimes, Mr. Ross made a statement that jumped out at me from my car stereo:

“[T]echnology itself is value-neutral. It depends on how a government chooses to use these technologies.”

I believe this is an unproductive, misguided, and all too common way of thinking about technology.

What Technology Is

The word “technology” can refer to many things:

  • The process of human beings inventing tools that improve our quality of life.
  • A particular tool from the above category.
  • An industry or amalgamation of industries producing said tools.
  • The future.
  • Change.
  • Dehumanization.
  • Progress.

And so on.

Because technology is such a malleable concept, it’s frequently repurposed for political rhetoric. Want to celebrate human achievement? Technology. Want to bemoan how we’re frittering our lives away on silly gadgets? Technology. Guns? Technology. Advances in treating gunshot wounds? That’s technology too. Like alcohol, technology seems to be the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.

Having found it to be a near-empty rhetorical vessel, it would seem that we’re able to side with Mr. Ross in declaring technology “value-neutral”. We could stop here, save one important factor that changes it all.

Technology is Made of People

Technology is not an abstract entity. Technology, like art or literature or music or mathematics, is a human endeavor. It is made by people and, as such, is imbued with their values, hopes, foibles, and passions.

All too often our mental concept of technology is that of a creeping and cold alien force, forever replicating and destroying everything in its path. When we think of the evils of technology, we think of The Borg or Agent Smith: something hostile and increasingly pervasive whose origin is unclear but whose intent is clearly malice towards all things human.

It’s important to remind ourselves that technology is not such a villainous force. It’s not a force at all. No technology – good or evil, exceptional or mundane – is built in a vacuum. No technology is built without human intervention.

Even the most bureaucratic of technologies can’t be claimed to be un-opinionated or free from our values. The lowly SQL database, workhorse of dismal trades like accounting and business analytics, is theoretically “value-neutral” to the data it stores. Yet, in structuring data into rows and columns of particular standard types, a set of values emerges that dictates what information is and how it should be stored and queried. Dig in to the history behind SQL and you’ll find values and opinions aplenty.

If technology was indeed “value-neutral”, why would the drama of competing technologies and the personas behind them have dominated headlines for decades? Whether Mac versus PC or MySpace versus Facebook, it’s clear that the values inherent in particular technologies aid in forming social clusters around those technologies. This doesn’t even begin to touch on biomedical technologies, some of which threaten our values so deeply that we regulate and ban them.

Technology Values What People Value

Saying that “technology itself is value-neutral” shows a misunderstanding of the basic nature of an essential component of human society. To further wave off a political and moral responsibility to regulate technology and ensure that it’s deployed in the interest of human rights is, to say the least, puzzling coming from someone with a track record of using technology in positive ways.

Our idea of technology appears to have supplanted the reality of technology, at least in the minds of our officials. Technology is not an invisible force; it is not still air waiting to be blown hither or thither. No, technology is the work of people, and insofar as technology “values” anything, it reflects the values of its creators and users. Technology is born with intent. We ignore that intent at our peril.

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