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Most of us know the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Originating as a series of poems written in the thirteenth century, the legends of King Arthur grew in popularity during medieval years when theatrical productions of the tales traveled from city to city. Alfred Tennyson re-popularized the tales in the nineteenth century as Arthur again became a cultural hero and ideal leader who fought for justice, equality, and fair play. His Camelot kingdom was a type of earthly heaven – a vision of a perfected world where the forces of good not only battle evil but prevail.
Tennyson elaborated on Camelot by also describing a mysterious place called the island of Avalon where forces of magic operate for the betterment of humanity. After he is seriously wounded in battle, Tennyson’s King Arthur travels to Avalon to be the healed. Avalon is the place where his powerful and mystical sword Excalibur was manufactured and forged. The magic of Avalon heals Arthur as he basks in its regulated climate that prevents storms, wind, cold and hail – a place that is a part of the natural world but also mystical in its powers.
Many contemporary commentators believe humanity has created its own Avalon with the development of life changing technology. We inhabit a world in which we can fly thousands of miles in a few hours, appear in pictures and video transmitted instantly around the world, heal our bodies of disease by manipulating cells and their genetic structures, and consult with machines that are smarter and intellectually superior to even the most intelligent human. Compared to life only a century ago, we now inhabit a world where technological magic has transformed the earth into one that is vastly better, in many respects, than ever before.
But much like the mythical Camelot and Avalon, our very real technological earth is not perfect. It is infected and brought low not by machines themselves, but by their misuse, by the frailties, imperfections and flaws of their human users. The Atomic bomb was created as a machine of mass death which also paradoxically saved millions of lives. But it is now a doomsday machine device – a form of technology that could end much of human life in a matter of minutes. The computer was developed as a machine of efficiency – something that can calculate and analyze vast amounts of data in milliseconds. It has become, in the hands of humans, something addictive, something often trivial, something that has already replaced millions of human workers and caused a crisis inunemployment. The ability to decode cells and genes has led to disease curing as much as it has also spawned the frightening human potential to play god by controlling, manipulating and even creating life.
Confronted with massive and rapid technological change, humans have responded in different ways. Many critics reject modern technology by seeing the changes it brings as evil and destructive. Technology causes humans to disconnect not only from nature but from each other, they say. Technology dehumanizes, destroys empathy, encourages isolation, fosters materialism, imperils the natural world and often leads to unintended but quite evil applications.
My parents are examples of people who are viscerally afraid of and dislike the internet, smartphones, Facebook, and most computers. These are the toys of irresponsible young people who text and drive, or waste hours of time doing trivial things like playing games and informing others of their everyday activities. Even with her dementia, my mom still shakes her head disapprovingly when she sees me using a computer, believing I should be doing something useful. She refuses to believe it is a tool for my work – as essential to what I do today as a pen and paper were to Pastors a century ago.
My parents proudly announce how they are smarter and better than those who waste time and money on modern computing devices. While their observations about usage of the internet, Facebook and smartphones are partially true, my parents have become modern day “flat-earthers” – the same as those who in the past denounced as useless and evil such historic technological advances like the railroad or the telephone.
Using almost the identical arguments of those who have criticized the internet, computers and social media, early opponents of the telephone said it would be used by criminals, reduce privacy, spell the end of writing, and ultimately be nothing but a toy. President Rutherford Hayes said of the telephone, “It is an amazing invention but who would ever want to use one of them?”
When Alexander Graham Bell offered to sell his telephone patent to Western Union, a corporate committee set up to consider the purchase announced, “Why would any person want to use this ungainly and impractical device when he can send a messenger to the telegraph office and have a clear written message sent to any large city in the United States? The device is hardly more than a toy. It is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.”
My goal in the message series this month, “A Matter of Ethics” is toprovoke thought, discussion and consideration of ethical questions. Ultimately, for any person who considers spiritual matters, ethics are central principles which ought to be the focus for consideration. When Jesus taught and practiced ideals of non-violence and humility, he was promoting ethical standards. The same with Buddha when he encouraged letting go of material attachments as a way to find peace. Even as they could not have imagined many of the issues facing modern society, universal ethics can be drawn from what they and other historic prophets taught. For our topic today, how do universal ethics operate in a world seemingly taken over by indifferent and amoral technology?
To set a foundation for a discussion of ethics, it’s important to review the four primary ways people approach ethical issues. The utilitarian approach, originally defined in the eighteenth century by Jeremy Bentham,considers the outcome or consequences of any action. Does somethingcreate maximum happiness for the greatest number of people – no matter the ways it is achieved? Duty ethics, as elaborated by Immanuel Kant, considers the rightness of actions and behaviors, no matter the outcome. Virtue ethics looks at the overall quality of a person’s total character. Finally, relationship ethics focuses on human communication and interactions. Something is ethical if it encourages greater understanding between people.
Our difficulty lies in which ethical approach to apply? The Atomic bomb, as used by the U.S., killed perhaps 150,000 people: a horrific death toll. But it ended the war. It prevented an invasion of Japan that likely would have laid waste to much of that nation while killing potentially hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers. From a utilitarian perspective, it produced happiness for a maximum number of people. But from Kant’s perspective, any machine that kills so many people must by itself be unethical even if it ultimately saved even more lives.
Technoethics is an emerging field of thought that is being strongly encouraged in engineering and other scientific fields. Scientists, inventors and others responsible for developing new forms of technology are tasked with examining inventions from an ethical perspective not just for the present but also for the future. They are encouraged to think as creatively as possible by imagining possible future unintended uses or consequences.
Ethicists and scientists have tentatively arrived at a very loose set of standards that ought to be applied to any technology before it is widely introduced. Interestingly, they combine the four ethical approaches that I just discussed. At the corporate headquarters for Google, located in Silicon Valley and at a place where thousands of its employees walk by every day, a large and permanent sign is prominently displayed. “Do No Evil” it reads. Such a maxim is Google’s universal ethic as its employees work on an array of life changing forms of technology from wearable computers like Google glasses to robotic, self driving cars.
Ethical considerations for technology that most experts agree on are: Does a certain technology add value to human life? Does it not onlyadvance knowledge but also advance human efficiency, health, well-being, or happiness? Can the new technology be understood, at a very basic level, by the average person? Will the new technology be cost effective and thus affordable to many people? Will it be equally available to most people and thus help promote human equality and fairness? Will its uses do more good than bad for the greatest number of people? Has it been studied as much as possible to determine any negative unintended uses or consequences?
A twentieth century french philosopher, Michel Henry, wrote against technology and its influence. Henry believed that technology separates humanity from the natural world. Indeed, he believed technology is a materialistic pursuit that reduces the world into commodities and things to be exploited. By detaching themselves from nature, humanity allowstechnology to alienate people from ethics of collaboration, harmony, gentleness and peace. The hell-bent pursuit of innovation harms humans instead of helping them. Implicitly, an ethical approach to most forms of technology is to avoid it.
Henry was reacting to a more famous contemporary of his, the German philosopher and theologian Martin Heidegger who wrote extensively on technology and its ethical applications. His approach to technology was not to see it as something detached from the natural world but as a fundamental part of it. Technology, he believed, revealed nature. Any form of science or innovation reveals truth and natural laws. He drew an analogy with the Rhine river – a thing of beauty and power. Harnessing its energy to produce hydroelectricity simply reveals something that was already inherent in the river. Something mysterious and powerful ispartially revealed which does not negate or take away the beauty of the river. Indeed, he believed hydroelectric power reveals one facet of the river’s beauty.
In this way, Heidegger believed, technology has a spiritual component. Instead of being something to avoid or sharply limit, the pursuit and use of science and technological innovation is a spiritual exercise that peels away layers of mystery. And that only leads to more layers of mystery yet to be revealed. The essence of computers andFacebook and atom bombs and gene splicing have all been inherent in nature – in the protons and electrons and cellular structures that have existed over eons. To understand them and put them to use is to reveal aspects of the divine. While Heidegger does not explicitly use these words, his argument is clear: God is seen in any form of technology. It is a piece of nature as worthy of respect and admiration as is a sunset or a line of towering mountains. Humans have not, in a philosophical sense, made the computer – they have simply revealed it.
New technology is, according to Heidegger, not a matter of fate but it is discovered in a purposeful linear direction toward truth. Technology is a form of revelation that is and will forever be ongoing. It is directed on a progressive path – things that reveal hidden truths.
All of this is a highly philosophical consideration of technology that can help us find an ethical response to it. Michel Henry touched on the negative uses of technology. Humans can use it to destroy the natural world of which they are also a part. But Henry was only partially correct. The truth is not that evil is inherent in technology but rather evil is found in misguided human application of it. Texting on cell phones, for example, is not a bad technology by itself. It is a useful innovation that helps people. Used unethically – by texting while driving, texting in the middle of a meeting or during church – that is what is bad. Ethics therefore cannot apply to the technological thing – only to how it is used or misused.
Of great importance to us, therefore, is to understand technology andhow it works. We must then be aware of its good or bad uses and thereby apply ethical standards for its use. Ethically, we must learn about a technology’s functions even if we choose not to use it. We cannot be ignorant of it. As Heidegger points out, technology and science must be seen in their existential context. Along with the natural world, technology s
imply is. It is nature and nature is it. Within this framework, all forms of technology have always existed and, because of that, they are as intrinsically good as any other part of the universe.
Who cannot marvel in awe at the wonders of today’s technology? It is said that the hundreds of computers used to guide the Apollo spacecraft to the moon and back were, in their totality, far simpler and less powerful than any single one of the smartphones present in this room. Such power is staggering in light of human history. What has been technologically achieved in the last century surpasses all the rest of technological achievement over previous centuries all put together. And this onward rapid innovation will only increase. In many of our lifetimes, robots will do more and more work without ever growing tired or bored. Nano technology will soon be here with computers the size of pinheads that can be, for instance, injected into our bodies to monitor our health and robotically search out and destroy disease. Google has already developed and is widely testing thousands of self driving cars on public streets in California. Within ten years I predict many of us will get into a car, tell it where we want to go and then sit back, read our iPads and drink coffee while it safely takes us there. We are not on the cusp of a science fiction world – we have already moved into it and innovations will keep coming faster and faster.
So what should we do? Fear it? Ignore it? Condemn it because we are not used to such things? While I don’t demean my parents or others who don’t use various forms of technology, my plea is for any person to understand it and respect it. We cannot become like the zealots of the past who refused to recognize that the earth revolved around the sun or that all matter is composed of unseen building blocks called atoms. That attitude may seem silly to us today but those who decry computers, social media or other technologies will be similarly laughed at in the future.
Whether or not I choose to use Facebook, for instance, is not a pertinent ethical question. We all have freedom of choice. To be ethical about it and technology in general, however, I must not deride it, sneer at it, or fail to learn about it and understand it. As just one example of contemporary technology, Facebook has applications and uses that are revolutionizing human communication – for good and bad. But it’s good uses have helped spread democracy, improve the condition of women, and reveal evil when it rears its ugly head in the form of bigotry, greed and hate. It is a worldwide communication tool from which none of us can hide.
As spiritual progressives, we understand the need for progress in order to improve human life. Refusing to remain stuck in the past, progressives see life, ethics, technology, morals, politics and spirituality as things to be continually questioned, studied, and revealed. Absolutists who believe we already have found all truth fail to see the dynamism ofexistence, knowledge and spirituality. To assume we already know all truth is to make ourselves like God. Instead, truth will continue to be revealed in the form of technology – things of tremendous power, utility and beauty. We do not fear them or run from them. We instead embrace them with the awareness that the thing itself cannot be evil or bad, only how some humans use it.
And that truth requires we apply the ethics I previously elaborated – or as Google constantly reminds its employees – “Do no evil.” Indeed, the use of any form of technology falls back on the one eternal and universal ethic which I often speak – the Golden Rule: the ethic of acting, speaking and treating others in the same manner which one hopes to be spoken to and treated by others.
Ultimately, as Martin Heidegger believed, any form of technology is a beautiful and amazing picture of the natural world – a way to see, understand and benefit from nature and the divine. Our ethical approach to technology, therefore, must be to accept it and respect it while understanding that it is we humans who will use it for good or evil. Consistent with our purpose in life, may we enthusiastically use alltechnology to build, here on earth, a Camelot, an Avalon, a Garden of Eden for each and every person.
I wish you all much peace and joy.
For our talkback time this morning, we invite any and all briefcomments or thoughts.