Value and Technology: A Case For Ethical Design Practice
The value-neutrality thesis concerning technology is a widely held and extremely influential view within the general public. This thesis claims that technological artefacts do not have value in and of themselves. Instead, they have instrumental value, that is; technological artefacts obtain their value in the ways we use them. A popular example of this is the slogan of the NRA that states “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. The motto in effect claims that guns are not bad or good in themselves; instead, they only gain such value once a person uses them in a particular manner.
The value-neutrality thesis is essential to understand since whether it is true or not will have an effect on the responsibilities producers of technology have with regards to their products. If guns are value-neutral, gun manufacturers do not have responsibilities toward the broader public; people will have individual responsibility for how they use said guns. In what follows, I hope to convince you that this “strong” version of the thesis is philosophically unsound. In opposition to this, I will introduce the “weak” value-neutrality thesis, which states that technologies can, at the very least, influence our moral judgements of a person. Because of this, technology can be embued with value due to its design and its relationship with us.
Consider what it means for something to have value; to be valuable is to have worth in some sense. There are many different kinds of value, such as moral value, monetary value, social value, and epistemic value. The question here is, can technological artefacts have value? To answer this question, we need to understand the distinction between intrinsic final value and extrinsic final value as used by Van de Poel and Kroes (2014). They explain for something to have “final value” the artefact in question needs to be valuable in itself, that is, valuable as it exists rather than gaining this value by the way it is used, which they call instrumental value (ibid: 107 – 108). The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value is how the object comes to gain said value. For the value to be intrinsic, the artefact must derive its value from its constituent parts, such as the material the object consists of. For the value to be extrinsic, the artefact must derive its value from some kind of relationship. As an example, consider the difference between the intrinsic final value and the extrinsic final value that a mass-produced vase might have versus a vase that is the last one of a certain period. One might consider that the vase which is the last of its kind has more value than a regular vase, not because it consists of something different, but exactly because it is the only one left. Both would have the same intrinsic final value; they are both made of the same materials and are the same type of object. But the historic vase has more value because of the relationship it has with the past and other objects – it has extrinsic final value.
To see how the above relates to technology, and more specifically design, note how technological artefacts have a dual nature. Technological artefacts can be understood as physical objects with a practical function; they have both physical and functional features (ibid: 112). The physical features of an object are the intrinsic parts that it is made of. The functional features of an object are also related to its physical makeup; however, the functional features are also related (in most cases) to human intentions and actions. The physical makeup and design of a technological artefact relate to the user and their intended uses. Without these considerations, the function of a technological artefact is lost. Technological artefacts thus have both intrinsic and extrinsic (i.e. relational) features. As an example, although a chair that stands in the woods long after humans are extinct has no function other than being another piece of wood, when considered as a piece of technology it derives its function both from what it is made of and, importantly, how it is made and designed for people to sit on.
Furthermore, the function of a technological artefact can result from its designed features. This means that technological artefacts can come to embody extrinsic final value because of their features, and these features are both physical and functional. The reason for this is that the function of a technological artefact is most often the result of a deliberate design process by human agents. The design thus stipulates function, and function can embody value. Therefore, technologies can come to embody value through their design, since design can stipulate function.
Van de Poel and Kroes (ibid: 116, 119) provide the following as two types of examples of technologies that can embody extrinsic final value: speed bumps and a safe chemical plant. Speed bumps are placed in the road to slow down vehicles to conduce better traffic safety. It is not just that they are used for traffic safety; rather; they are purposefully designed for traffic safety. Speed bumps embody the extrinsic final value of traffic safety as derived from their function. Chemical plants have instrumental value derived from what they can help us produce. But consider a chemical plant that is designed to be used in the safest manner by people. Such a plant might always require multiple human safety checks before being able to commence with production, or all the equipment might always monitor plant conditions and have automatic corrective measures in case of emergencies. Such a plant is not just designed to be used by people, but to work together with them to ensure the safest environment. The chemical plant, by design, would embody the extrinsic final value of worker safety. As is the case with both examples, it is not just about how they are used, but specifically about how their features are designed to be used.
The above is meant to convince you that technological artefacts can come to embody value by means of their design. It is important to note that this is not a complete denial of the value-neutrality thesis, only of its strong version. Technological artefacts are still not able to derive final value from their physical constitution alone. But the weak version of the thesis does seem plausible, namely that technological artefacts can embody extrinsic final value by means of their design features.
To give an example that makes this discussion’s relevance to the modern tech industry clear, let’s turn to a recent article that attempts to convince users that YouTube, as a company, might be at least partially culpable for the murder of a person: YouTube: Designed to Seduce? The article tells the story of a young man, Buckey Wolf, who stabbed his brother, killing him, and then called the police on himself. The reason for this murder, according to Bucky, was that he believed his brother was turning into a shape-shifting reptile who, along with others, controls world events. The reason why this is important is that it would seem Bucky might have been steered towards this dangerous idea because of YouTube’s recommender system. How would this work? The article continues to discuss a paper by Alfano et al. that attempted to study whether YouTube’s system might be responsible for what they call “epistemically retrograde ideation”, that is; responsible for introducing and encouraging users to consume questionable and problematic content. I encourage you to read the original article as it discusses the methodology and specific findings of the study. Here, it is only relevant to note the study found that YouTube’s AutoPlay feature (which is automatically on), along with the algorithm that selects the content to promote, is recommending content that actively aims to misrepresent available evidence and is promoting conspiratorial ideas.
To be clear, the author of the article is not saying that Bucky is not personally responsible for his actions. Only that YouTube might be partially responsible for designing a system that promotes epistemically problematic content. YouTube, as a system, is by design problematic given its function and its target users. As the author of the article puts it: “it seems obvious that YouTube ought to have increased oversight on the kind of content it recommends. The recommender system, designed for profit, seemingly lacks an adequate epistemic component.” YouTube as a piece of technology, therefore, for the moment at least, embodies the negative value of poor epistemological practices. This is YouTube’s current extrinsic final value, or at least one of them.
Many other modern examples demonstrate how technologies can embody values derived from their design. Consider AI war drones. They are machines designed to kill in the most effective manner without any of the usual human interaction. They embody a quick and cold form of war which treats people like mere pieces in an algorithm. Is this the direction we want to move into? Or consider social media, Facebook in particular. The site is plagued by misinformation and ideological echo chambers. The site could, for example, make it easier for users to spot problematic content or perhaps have relevant experts rate content. None of this would need to impeach on users rights. It would simply mean that Facebook as a piece of software is ethically responsible and thus embodies good values, and it could do so by design.
If all of the above is true, it would indicate that producers of technology need to be cognizant of their designs and the users that will employ them. Leaders in the tech industry must be aware of the effects they and their technology can have on the wider population. Not just because of how we use it, but because of how it is designed to be used and what the technologies allow us to do. Corporate foresight and responsibility are, now more than ever, essential for ethical business practice. We need designers with moral minds.
Van de Poel, I. and Kroes, P. 2014. ‘Can Technology Embody Values?’, in Kroes, P. and Verbeek, P. P. (eds) The Moral Status of Technical Artefacts. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
This essay was inspired by the blog post of Fabio Tollon, find it here: https://ftollon.wordpress.com/2020/07/30/value-embedding-in-technology/ (thank you for allowing me to use your work).
Link to my personal blog where the essay will be reposted – https://ivanbock.wordpress.com