Thursday, May 17, 2007

Technology and Freedom

A tool is anything (external to the body) used by a human being (or other animal) as an aid in performing some task or action. Intuitively, then, technology is related to freedom as something that extends the possibilities of free action, and so it does, though not equally for all.

Technology and Biology

In “Freedom and Restraint: Part II,” I wrote of human biological constants as one constraining factor on human free action. In some ways, technology has acted to extend what it is physically possible for humans to do. This has been true throughout the course of human and hominid evolution, e.g. the advent of stone tools allowed for things liked skinning and butchering meat and an expansion of one particular food resource. More importantly, in more recent human history tools have enabled us to do things we could never perform with our bodies (e.g. lifting tremendous weight, rerouting rivers, etc.) by using tools instead to perform the tasks.

Technology has even affected our biology in some ways. Over the course of hominid evolution, there was a diminution in tooth and jaw size correlated with more extensive use of stone tools, that is, as more food processing was done outside the mouth. In the near future, biotechnology might radically reshape what it is possible to do with our bodies and the very nature of our bodies, though we are not there yet.

Technology and our relation to the Environment

Human and hominid relations to the environment have always been mediated by technology, i.e. we use tools to provide for our basic needs from the physical environment, whether in the form of using a digging stick to uproot a wild tuber or plowing fields with massive tractors. Innovations in technology have also always had a transformative effect on what it is possible to do within a particular environment. The use of fire by Homo erectus was one of several technologies allowing that hominid species to expand into cooler areas previously unoccupied by hominids. Presuming Homo erectus groups used fire to cook plant and animal foods, this same technology would have made for a safer food supply (especially for groups that might have subsisted partly by scavenging carcasses) and enabled their bodies to extract more nutritional value from some plant foods.

The physical conditions of the environment have always shaped and constrained patterns of behavior among human groups adapting to a particular context. Likewise, though, the level of technology readily available has always shaped what is possible within a given environment as well. As I wrote earlier (again in “Freedom and Restraint: Part II”), the North American Great Plains are a great place to farm – if you have steel plow technology capable of sod-busting. Native Americans were only able to farm to any extent right along the major river valleys that cut across the plains where conditions were a bit different. They didn’t have the technology that would have made farming possible out on the plains, and living in that context, they had no means for developing such technology.

Modern technologies have created a context where humans can manipulate nature to an unprecedented degree. As such, technology has greatly expanded the range of actions possible while still meeting basic essential needs. At the same time, this can create an illusion of omnipotence over nature, though recent events, e.g. Hurricane Katrina and concerns about Global Warming, have made somewhat clearer that even with current technology, there is still a relation to nature and environmental constraint on action.

Technology and Social Relations

Technology expands the possible range of actions within social contexts as well. The net result for human freedom in general is ambiguous, though, as the enhanced ability to act includes the enhanced ability to act on the actions of others. Technology heightens the importance of power relations and as often as not enhances the possibilities for some at a cost to others.

It’s probably no coincidence that the historical development of permanent social inequality was correlated not just with the development of craft or job specialization but with armed military specialists, using military technologies to reinforce social power. Widely distributed contemporary media technologies do offer greater ability (unprecedented ability even) for individuals to spread ideas, communicate, and influence others. (Such democratizing effect is not always good [I’d argue that democratization is good, the effects of it not always straightforwardly good] – think for example of webcasts of beheadings by Al Qaedi in Iraq, the inspiration this has apparently given to terrorist cells in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East, even the inspiration this may have given to drug gangs in Mexico and El Salvador, with a recent spate of beheadings in those places as a new form of gang execution and terror message.) At the same time, the same and similar technologies give states new power to survey and control populations, with the potential result of greater restriction on human free action in aggregate.

Especially with regard to social relations, the relationship between technology and freedom is ambiguous. Technology itself, though, is neutral. In itself it is not good or bad. Whether technology enhances or diminishes human freedom depends on who uses it and how.

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