How Philosophy Makes Technology Better
Yes it is possible
The last essay on the philosophy of technology discussed how technology blurs the distinction between theory and practice, and how philosophy needs to reconnect them. You could call it the theory of why a philosophy of technology is so crucial.
This essay will describe how philosophy benefits technology in practical ways. You could call this the practice of using philosophy to make a positive difference in the real world of technology.
You might be someone that thinks this is all obvious—of course philosophy can benefit technology. Or you might be a skeptical engineer. If the latter, please consider the following as a provocation that technology might be more philosophical than you think.
Let’s explore some concrete examples of practical benefits that philosophy can bring to technology.
Clarify our concepts
Language is hard. It’s even harder if we capture our technological reality mainly by using words that are intimately tied to our human reality.
For example, does anyone think that the AI discourse is benefiting from our current definitions of “intelligence”, “consciousness”, or even “creativity”? These are concepts that are more intuitive than precise. We understand them directly, by experiencing them in ourselves and recognizing them in others.
This is why applying them to anything outside of our direct experience can be problematic. Driven by our intuitions, we can map artificial phenomena too closely to their human equivalent. This leads to a lot of confused reactions, like rejecting any form of intelligence that doesn’t feel perfectly human-like, or wanting to assign personhood to chatbots.
The sheer variety of intelligence and behavior that we can expect from machines will stretch these definitions beyond their breaking points. What we need instead are new vocabularies rich and granular enough to describe the multifaceted nature of AI.
Philosophy can help clarify our concepts so we have the language we need to foster a dialogue that is as diverse and nuanced as the technology itself.
Help our inner philosophers
An under-appreciated aspect of our technological life is just how much personal virtue is required to protect and nurture the things we care about.
Every new technological innovation comes with the potential to redefine not only how we live, but who we are. Without the right practices, we’re susceptible to accepting whatever modes of behavior each technology wants to optimize. Consider the following examples where specific practices are necessary to maintain the virtues that we want to optimize.
The first is attention. Every app is designed to maximize one thing: how long you use it. The more of your attention an app can capture, the more of you it can monetize. This is the definition of the “attention economy”. To take back your attention requires a constant discipline, one that is facing off against armies of engineers getting paid obscene salaries to lure you into spending more and more time in their app. They have the latest in behavioral science and troves of your data at their disposal. What do you have?
The second is relationships. Dating is gamified to give you endless options. Every aspect of a relationship is quantified until romance becomes one more option to select from a menu. Relationships initiated by an algorithm can feel easier to dismiss at the first sign of hardship. Why have a hard conversation when you can just ghost someone? Meanwhile, social media fabricates perfection while pornography turns sex into a hyper-stimulated spectacle. No wonder we are having fewer relationships, less romance, and practically zero sex. It takes a real commitment to cultivate lasting relationships with so many factors against you.
The third is truth. Gone are the days when trusted institutions delivered reliable versions of the news. Now you have misinformation, “experts” as partisans in disguise, and filter bubbles that radicalize opinions. You need to ruthlessly curate your own information diet to have any sense of epistemic integrity. The truth is out there, it just takes a full-time job to find it.
In other words, it can feel like we need the willpower of Gandhi and a PhD in philosophy if we want any chance of getting through this technological world with our sanity intact. For almost everyone, this is asking too much.
The perfect user manual for digital life hasn’t been written yet. Until it is, philosophers can help us figure out the right rules and guidelines for maintaining some kind of healthy relationship with our technology.
Provide a map for the unknown
Today’s innovations are not just iterations on existing technologies, they are entirely new inventions that force us to consider entirely new ways of being.
For example, what happens when our technological creations are not just tools, but agents, with artificial minds of their own? What happens when we gain the capacity to alter our very genomes? What happens when meaning is decoupled from our jobs?
History has given us very little preparation for questions like these.
At its best, philosophy is thinking in advance. The ability to predict where technology is going is more possible than it might seem. While predicting the specific path of any given innovation is impossible, it is quite possible to predict broader trends. And the real power of prediction isn’t about technology; it’s about the human response to technology.
An effective philosophy should provide insight into these futures before they happen. This helps our governance keep pace with technology. Democratic deliberation is the best process we have for collective decision-making. Yet democracy is slow, reactive, and often leads to compromise. By the time any consensus is reached, the next disruption is already upon us.
Philosophy can help democracy take the advice of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: "Skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been."
Elevate the discourse
Discourse around future technologies can become fixated on extremes: either obvious ethical issues that have social currency, or sci-fi scenarios that border on fantasy. In between these extremes is a huge gap where vital topics get lost.
For example, consider the notion of AI alignment. This is the challenge of ensuring that AIs will align with our ethics and keep our interests at heart, even as they become much smarter than us. Conversations about alignment follow this split perfectly.
At one extreme are discussions around “legible ethics”. These are topics that political and academic attention have made more salient, so it becomes easier for society to discuss them. An example is bias and representation in the data that AI models are trained on. It doesn’t make these topics any less important, but it can make it seem that they are the only ethical concerns worthy of our attention.
At the other extreme are the science fiction scenarios. Doomers see AI leading to the extinction of the human race, while techno-optimists see AI solving all of our biggest problems. These conversations can sound religious: on one hand, AI will usher in the apocalypse; on the other, AI will be our savior.
Both conversations ignore critical issues from the middle of the spectrum. This includes how AI is impacting the real world of today, and how it will both subtly and dramatically alter our conception of what it means to be human: to interact with each other, to be “intelligent”, and to navigate purpose and meaning.
Part of the reason for this split is that extremes are easier to consider. It is much harder to reason about a middle ground that is less defined. Philosophers excel at exploring the logical implications of nuanced scenarios, and we need more of them adding depth to the conversation.
Bring back theology
AI represents unique challenges to religion and spirituality. Not in the apocalyptic sense of how the world might end, but in the sense that it will finally force us to confront the void that religion once filled.
When our modern society lost the common ground of a shared religion, we also lost a collective consensus about what is sacred. Western religious concepts like being “made in the image of God”, having a soul, or being endowed with a consciousness are no longer capable of defining the essence of being a human in ways that we can agree on.
The Enlightenment offered new sets of values in an attempt to fill the void left by “the death of God”, but these are the very values that AI will further disrupt. Maybe we aren’t the only rational beings. Maybe we aren’t alone in our ability to master symbolic language. Maybe we aren’t the only sovereign agents capable of shaping history.
The result is that AI is resurrecting age-old questions about our identity, our values, and our very being. Relative to the machine, what is special about the human? Is there anything sacred?
No one has contemplated questions like these more deeply than the theologians from all of our great religions. Philosophy can help channel the best of this rich legacy back into the technical discourse.
Cultivate technological wisdom
Our need for technological wisdom is best portrayed by this classic quote from E.O. Wilson: “The problem with humanity is that we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology”.
Yet where to begin? To merely prescribe more "wisdom" or more "thoughtfulness" is the vague advice that engineers find unhelpful at best and sanctimonious at worst. Philosophy can help understand the deep principles behind technology, but it must also help to translate those into the practices our entrepreneurs, engineers, and governments need.
We first need to understand our technological past. The law of unintended consequences means that history is filled with case studies where the societal result of some innovation is one that no entrepreneur ever intended. Technologies get introduced into society based on assumptions that are almost always wrong. The path to integration is one of constant evolution, and the outcome rarely matches the original vision. The latest lessons come from engineers who regret their role in creating the popup ad and social networks.
Understanding history can also help us realize when our future is moving beyond what our past can teach us. For example, AI is introducing an entirely new ontology of technology: not a tool, nor a machine, but an agent—one increasingly capable of acting autonomously. We have no historical precedent for this. To suggest that we will “figure out AI” just like we’ve figured out every other technology is not a wise approach.
To integrate technology wisely, we need to understand why some integration goes well and why others go poorly. Technologies can take a lot of trial-and-error for innovation to find the right fit. But technologies like AI may break the trial-and-error model. How do you safely perform a trial when the consequences of any error would be beyond acceptable? We need to understand the deeper principles behind trial-and-error and update our practices accordingly.
We also need to understand how the motivating factors behind innovation can affect the impact of the technologies they inspire. The market and the state are primarily motivated by greed and fear, which can discount downstream effects. Long-term sustainability is sacrificed for short-term rewards. Costs are externalized to nature and each other. In the race to be the first to wield technology’s power, ethical concerns can be compromised. Second-order effects must be included in any wise accounting of technology.
Philosophy can explore the deeper principles that must inform the practices necessary to deploy technology with wisdom.
Bring technologists and philosophers together
The reality is that technologists and philosophers need each other. Many engineers are admirably wading into philosophical waters to fill the gap in the AI discourse, but they are often doing so without the depth that comes with a lifetime of thoughtful engagement. Or worse, they seek to fill the void by creating new philosophies from scratch.
And most philosophers are too intimidated by the technological requirements to enter the conversation at all. Or worse, they will lean on the same pet theories that worked in academia but don’t transfer as neatly to the world of technology.
Plenty of practices exist to bridge this gap. It starts with interdisciplinary educational programs and continues with sanctioned outlets for career collaboration. We need to accelerate all of them. A formal philosophy of technology can offer shared norms and organizational cohesion to help catalyze these efforts.
Unveil the true face of technology
There is no simple view of technology—no universal perspective from which it is merely “good” or “bad”, nor a future so straightforward that it can be considered with pure “optimism” or “pessimism”. Philosophy can help us acknowledge and embrace the full complexity of technology, including its inherent paradoxes and dilemmas.
We both love and hate technology. We are its prideful parents that marvel at its wonders. Yet we are also repulsed by the environmental devastation it causes. We use technology to push the boundaries of human capability while wondering how much of the human remains. We love the power technology affords us, yet resent being reduced to “button pushers” to wield it.
We relish the freedom that technology provides, yet resent how little choice we have to exercise those freedoms. After all, we all use the same phones, the same Internet, the same social media. To engage with society at all is to do so through the affordances that technology makes available to us.
We also think that humans are ultimately in control. After all, we can always unplug the machines. However, our creations take on a life of their own, forming an autonomy that can contest our own agency. For example, could we turn off the Internet even if we wanted to? I doubt it—so many vital services now depend on the Internet that it would require a complete restructuring of our society to remove it. What if, in a few years, we want to shut off AI?
Technology is an extension of humanity and thus embedded in every aspect of what humans do. We think this means that technology depends on us. But we also depend on technology. Very few of us could survive for more than a few months without technology. We live in a techno-human symbiotic world.
Philosophy can help unveil the true face of technology, in all of its subtle and not-so-subtle complexity.
This list is far from exhaustive. My belief is that philosophy and technology are inherently entangled. As we intensify this relationship, new and unexpected practices will emerge that can push both philosophy and technology forward.
The point of this relationship isn’t merely to understand the technological landscape of today. The point is to understand the technology of tomorrow. From that perspective, deepening the relationship between philosophy and technology isn't just beneficial—it's imperative.
Philosophy can help shape a future with technology that is more conscious, ethical, and profoundly human.
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This is the second in a series exploring the philosophy of technology. In the next installment, we’ll review some current and historical philosophies and what they say about the role of philosophy in today’s real world of technology.