S&T Ethics 8

5.2 Definitions and relations of Technology

In order to be clear about what exactly we target in the field of Technology Ethics, we need to shed light onto the various forms and manifestations of technology. In this chapter, we will first define what we mean with technology. Then, we will see what drives technological development and progress and who is involved in it. We will discuss relations to other fields of human activity and its embedment in human life. Finally, we will compare technological determinism and social constructivism and take these considerations as the starting point for current technology assessment approaches which ethics is a fundamental part of.

5.2.1 What is Technology?

The first thing that comes to our mind are technical artefacts – machines, tools, devices and instruments. Artefacts are things that do not exist as such in nature but are in any way modified or produced by humans for a particular purpose. A stone attached with ropes (woven from grass) to a stick so that it can be used to crack coconuts is an artefact and, thus, technology. Many people associate technical artefacts with electronic devices – anything that needs a power plug or battery. This definition would be too narrow for our purposes. Instead, we call all those artefacts “technical” that are designed and applied as means for a practical purpose (in contrast, for example, to artworks that are artefacts for their own ends without any means character).

To focus solely on artefacts (particular things) would yet be too narrow. Technology as a system or sphere includes the way we use and apply these artefacts – techniques, procedures, methods. Here, we may distinguish the production of technology and usage of technology. This extension of the definition from things to actions illustrates the ethical dimension of technology: Whether things themselves have any ethical implications is debatable, but everyone would agree that actions have, especially those that affect others.

Furthermore, the term technology itself implies a third dimension of it: The Greek word techne means ability, skill or craftship, the ending –ology means knowledge of or understanding of. Technology, therefore, includes the knowledge of artefacts and their application in the form of know-how, know-that and special expertise that is acquired in special schools and (technical) universities. Here, we may distinguish (theoretical) knowledge of procedures and techniques on the one hand, and abilities and skill of craftship (practical knowledge) on the other hand.


It is, now, clear that technology is best understood as a system of things, actions and knowledge that is embedded into complex social, cultural, political and historical contexts. Technology ethics is not so much concerned about particular artefacts (for example, the ethics of cars), but about implications of technological development that affects the individual and social life of people and the environment. Let’s have a closer look at the elements of technological development so that we get an idea of how complex it is:


The arrow indicates that technological development proceeds in steps with starting conditions or initial phases, and with an output. This must not be understood in the temporal but in a conceptual sense. There are elements that play an important role in the early phase of development while others are concerned about later stages. However, all elements are impacting the development at all times, not only at the beginning, the middle or the end.

On the input side, the most evident element of technology is knowledge (know-how, technical expertise). Without that, no artefact can be invented. This knowledge can be scientific, but not necessarily. Early artefacts up to the invention of the steam engine were invented by “non-scientists”, but creative minds with practical goals. This might rather be categorised as engineering knowledge. Besides, thinking of technology as a societally embedded system, also sociological (and related) knowledge might be of importance for the success of failure of technological progress. The second element that is a crucial basis for technological development are the employed materials, including (natural) resources and energy. For this, manpower and the environment are needed.

On the other end, the output end, we have the factors that motivate the development: either a specific demand (understood as “pulling” the development) or a market (as “pushing” the development). The difference I want to depict here is that either a development can be the response to specific articulated interests and desires (the demand for a technological solution for something), or  the possibility-driven equipment of market niches that exist without prior awareness among customers and users. We will come back to this distinction frequently in our later reflections.

The development itself can be characterised by its conditions, its goals and purposes, and its implications and impacts. As seen above, artefacts and techniques are developed and applied as means to achieve certain ends. Manifold conditions (society, culture, politics, etc.) determine what kind of ends are regarded as desirable or urgent, and also set the conditions for what type of means can be realised. Moreover, besides the successful or failed fulfillment of these goals, technology may also have various unintended side-effects and impacts. Generally, technology’s effects on social and environmental stakeholders are either goods – then we speak of benefits – or evils – then we speak of risks or harms. This outcome of technology is predominantly determined by the way the development proceeds, the middle section of the arrow. It contains of design (planning and conceptualising technology), production (the assemblage, construction or replication of items), management (distribution, sale, marketing), and disposal or recycling (the treatment of technology after its usage). In all stages the conditions, implications, and purposes of technology play an important role on the performance and role expectations of designers, producers, managers and disposers. In order to minimise risks and maximise benefits, the most important considerations in each phase are related to safety aspects, the possibilities of misuse or dual use (applying technology for undesirable ends besides the desirable intended ends), and terms of sustainability.

Let’s get more concrete by switching from elements and instances to people that are involved in technological development:


Knowledge is provided by those who produce it – generally labelled, here, as scientists – and those who learned how to apply it as know-how – here called engineers. These are the developers of technology. The resources and materials are provided by the natural environment, strictly speaking including the human workforce as part of nature. Stakeholder, then, is the eco-system since this is the entity for which something is “at stake”. It is important to note that the natural environment is affected by technological progress in two roles: as supplier and as affected “third party” (the “recipient” of technology effects). Industry and our economic system are the spheres in which technology is designed, produced and distributed. Designers are often the engineers involved in the development process. Managers and CEOs often carry the responsibility for the production- and distribution-related aspects, while workers engaged in the production process are directly (by the produced items and their processes themselves) and indirectly (by the technology-dependent economic system and its jobs) affected by technology. Furthermore, the biggest group of stakeholders is the “society”: consumers, users, appliers, and everyone who is getting in touch with technology, but also all those who are affected indirectly by technological progress without even using it intentionally (here called third party). When we talk about responsibility later, this distinction will become very important! Moreover, in recent years another group of stakeholders became more and more important and involved: those who don’t “do” (produce, apply) technology but “talk about it”. Evaluators and technology assessors analyse and study technological progress in order to understand its mechanisms and effects. Among them are social scientists and – for the evaluative part – ethicists. Their insights feed the decision-making processes by regulators and policy-makers, mostly politicians and legislators.

All stakeholders, from scientists to designers, workers, consumers, ethicists, regulators, and environment, have one collective interest: keeping the risks low and increasing the benefits. What exactly is understood by risk or benefit is subject of endless debate and conflict. That’s why we need technology ethics. The complexity of this task can be visualised by technology’s relation to other spheres of human activity:


The relation between technology and each of those other spheres are all dialectical, that means they mutually influence each other. Science feeds technology with knowledge while technology motivates certain research programs and scientific inquiries. Engineering is mostly concerned about technological items and technology challenges engineering and forces it to develop. Economy identifies market potentials and offers distributive pathways of technological goods, while technological progress is believed to fuel the economic competitiveness and strength of a country, thus enabling wealth and growth. Much more complex relations exist between technology and the actual condition and state of the society (the public and its various forms of organisation and interaction). We will have a closer look at this particular relation separately in the next sub-chapter. Technology is also impacting culture while being shaped by cultural practices and manifestations. In particular, we could look at cultural elements like language and art, as well as religious convictions and practices. Since this would take us too far from our topic ‘ethics’, I will skip that here. More important for us is the connection between technology and politics: Politics has an interest in technological progress as guarantor of economic growth and, therefore, attempts to support it. Technology has the power to influence political practices and systems by providing mass media technology to inform the people, or by providing technical solutions for conflicts with political impact (for example environmental sustainability, or new medical treatments that influence the health care system). Last but not least, technology depends as seen on natural resources and environmental conditions while it itself can support or threaten the eco-system.

Please note also that these relations are dynamic over time! The connection between technology and politics is a rather recent one whereas the impact on religion was much stronger in the 19th century than it is now in secular societies. Here, the “tree of knowledge” is insightful again:


Technology has an impact on all parts of it: on the roots that represent the sources and manifestations of all our experiences, the trunk that provides ways and strategies to construct meaning from those experiences, and the branches that are the manifestations of our believes and convictions in our social life. First of all, technology provides completely new sources of insight (that means, new sources for experiences): It extends our limited senses and lets us see what was hidden before we had these technical options. When Galileo invented the binocular telescope and explored space with it, his new insights had the power to change a fundamental worldview (that Earth is not flat and the center of the universe, but just another planet among many). At the same time, technological thinking, shaped by the technology-dominated “Zeitgeist” (時代​精神), impacts the ways we apply to make sense of what we encounter every day. We seek for technical solutions for various types of problems, rather than spiritual or political ones. Sometimes we even treat non-technical phenomena like love or ethics in a technical way, for example by finding “the perfect partner” according to checklist-like questionnaires on the internet, or by applying argumentation “techniques” in order to succeed in a discourse. Especially politics but also economic enactors are strongly influenced today by feasibility thinking and a can-do mindset that believes that with technical solutions everything can be fixed (the predominant paradigm of positivism). Then, technology not only manifests itself in the technology branch, but also indirectly in the other branches. This can go so far that entire socio-political or socio-cultural systems can be characterised as technocratic – dominated by technologists and their way of thinking and problem-solving. Later we will see that Taiwan, actually, is a highly technocratic country.

5.2.2 Technological Determinism vs. Social Constructivism

Let’s have a closer look at the connection between society and technology. Basically, there have been two major viewpoints in the history of technology sociology: Technology shapes society, and society shapes technology. The former is termed technological determinism and holds that technological progress is inevitable, unstoppable and somehow happening to us. In contrast, the latter is called social constructivism, believing that technologies are embedded in a network of social demands, technical possibilities, cultural identifications and various forms of social practices. Both positions find examples to substantiate their viewpoint. Determinists refer to historical examples like the hand mill that brought about the feudal system of the medieval ages with its lords and peasants and the steam mill that changed the society into the industrial one with bosses and workers. Constructivists show pathways of technological development that prove the dependence of technology on the knowledge of the time, the social acceptance and the economic mechanisms of demand and market potentials. The two viewpoints may be illustrated in this way: Determinism takes the technological progress as a given constant continuous process and the social development as stepwise according to significant technological inventions. For example, the after the invention of book printing the society was a different one, the invention of the steam engine changed it again, the automobile did, and most recently the internet. In contrast, constructivism takes the social development as a more or less constant and smooth process, but the technologies come and go dependent on the stage and level of society.

Determinism was the predominant view until the late 1960s. Influential philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and cybernetics scientists at that time popularised and elaborated constructivism which gained much more influence. Today, it is hard to find any serious determinist. Constructivism is by far the most accepted conceptual framework for technological development and its study.


I’d like to give you one example that shows that technological determinism is not tenable. In the Companion to the Philosophy of Technology (edited by J.K. Berg Olsen, S.A. Pedersen and V.F. Hendricks in 2009), in chapter 3 (“Western Technology”) by Keld Nielsen, I stumbled across this statement:

One [technological invention] was Johannes Gutenberg’s development around 1450 of printing with movable type. A somewhat similar technique had much earlier been used in Korea but apparently without the significant impact on cultural and technical development that can be traced in Europe.

If technological progress was deterministic we would indeed have to expect that in Korea the social change and the consecutive technological progress would be somehow similar to that of the same invention in Europe. Apparently, that was not the case. Obviously, the development of both technology and society depend strongly on the cultural context. While Europe was still drenched in mud, disease, crime and primitivity, Korea’s society in the Goryeo dynasty (고려국, 高麗國) that arose from the later Silla (신라, 新羅) period was well advanced in terms of education, technology, social order and balance, hygiene, life comfort, etc. Shilla’s capital Gyeongju (경주, 慶州), still prosperous in the 12th century BC, with then estimated 1 million inhabitants was the fourth largest city in the world (after Constantinople (now Istanbul), Baghdad and Chang’An), indicating a progressive well-organised urban society. During these centuries, Buddhist worldview and Confucian social ideals entered Korea as the translated texts became available and spread widely. Certainly, the invention of metal movable type printing had a large impact on the culture of Korea.

Historically, it needs to be noted that Goryeo fell to the Mongols after decades of invasions and destruction, followed by years of Japanese pillages. Technological progress appears quite difficult under these circumstances. But I also see another important point. I believe it would be wrong to judge the advancement of a culture by its technological progress alone. Same as in the European realm Gutenberg’s press supported the access of the Bible to everybody which led to a spread of Luther’s new Protestantism, Korea’s population gained access to Buddhist scriptures, Confucian ideology and other ancient Asian texts. But while – according to Max Weber, amongst others – the European Protestantism ultimately led to Capitalism with all its pathological symptoms (environmental destruction, greed, psychological illnesses, social coldness, etc.), the influence of Asian schools of thought, most notably Buddhism, probably led to an understanding of harmony and balance, both individually (the inner sphere) and on the social level, that facilitated and supported a lifestyle that was much more oriented towards sustainability, integrity, well-being (rather than “having”, speaking with Erich Fromm) and propriety. The point I am trying to make is that “culture” and its level of development is much more complex than the suggested factors (technology) indicate. In this respect, technologies arise (or fail to be established) in the complex socio-cultural relations of a time. With other words: They are socially constructed.

This has significant consequences! The change from deterministic to constructivistic technology models initiated a postmodern (後現代主義) and post-positivistic (後實證主義) understanding of technology. Most importantly this implies that technological progress is regarded as assessable, controllable, debatable and designable. It doesn’t simply happen to us, but we make it happen and are in control of it. Moreover, technology is not value-neutral, but its effects are matters of responsibility, justice and fairness. Here we see a first connection to the sustainability framework of 5.1. Only on this basis (controllability, debatability) can technology become a political endeavour. Especially, it becomes a subject of ethical discourse in the form of risk assessment, technology foresight and technology assessment (TA). Additionally, it is believed that technological progress is in any case more sustainable when the public is participating in its discourse, and not only various “experts”. Under the constructivist paradigm we see the “larger picture” of technology:


This overview marks a development in several respects: First, it describes levels of complexity concerning the activities of different enactors (risk researchers, STS researchers, TA researchers) and there concepts of “sustainable development”. Second, it also describes advancements in the development of S&T-accompanying studies over the past 2-3 decades. The “easiest” (and oldest) form of risk analysis is the empirical risk assessment that identifies hazards (e.g. toxicity of substances), studies the exposure (how much? for who? where? when?) and characterises the risk on the basis of these findings. This risk is communicated and managed as best as possible. This approach responds to the risk perception and awareness of public or other stakeholders of a technological development. It turned out that this is not sufficient. In order to gain public acceptance – a basis for the “success” of a new technology – clear definitions of standards concerning environmental, health and safety issues (EHS) are necessary. Many companies defined these standards for their internal safety and quality measures, both for worker protection and for appearing trustworthy to the public. In science and research, an increasing awareness for the importance of reflecting “ethical, legal and social implication” (ELSI) of scientific activity could be observed. Especially national or EU-funded research programs implemented work packages on “ELSI”. Some even talked about this trend as “elsification of science”: There was no more value-free science! Whereas these approaches still somehow separated the institutions technology and public – “here the technology enactors that work on progress, there the public that has to accept it” – latest approaches aim at societal embedding of S&T progress. Technology Foresight as a sociological method wants to guide the development by proper methodologies like scenario analysis, modeling, assessments, etc. Technology Assessment (TA, 技術評估) goes one step further and aims at enriching developments in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary discourse on S&T and institutionalising the ELSI reflection as a governance tool. With that, we have a platform or arena for performing technology ethics, or more generally: ethical assessment of technological progress.

5.2.3 Technology Assessment

What is Technology Assessment (TA)? Historically, it developed from a rather technological or economic tool (e.g. analysing the components of a technological artefact concerning their probability to malfunction and risking a loss of the object or harm for someone or something) into a political and sociological tool that aims at taking the “larger picture” of technological development into account. It was highly promoted and extended by the academic field of “Science, Technology and Society” (STS), a sociological discipline. An important precondition, as seen, is the acceptance of social constructivism as predominant driver of development, instead of technological determinism. The social constructivist approach allows to intervene any development process and guide it into the “right” direction. If progress was deterministic it would be a meaningless endeavour.

In the “Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics” we find this definition:

Technology assessment (TA) is a scientific, interactive, and communicative process that aims to contribute to the formation of public and political opinion on societal aspects of science and technology.

Let me explain it a little more detailed. The “object” that TA is working on is “science and technology”. This includes all parts of the development chain, from design and planning via research, fabrication, product development, marketing and sales to consumption, application, and finally disposal and/or recycling. TA understands itself as “accompanying research on societal aspects” of S&T, which include ethical and also legal aspects (all summarized as “ELSI”). Furthermore, it is important to point out that it is an academic discipline that is devoted to scientific methodologies and procedures. Institutional TA can be found at Universities or in independent research facilities as well as in the form of “offices” that perform professional TA for governments (e.g. the Office for Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag, Büro für Technikfolgenbewertung beim Deutschen Bundestag) or corporations as a kind of science consulting. Bringing together expertise from various fields such as science, industry, politics, social sciences, Philosophy and jurisprudence, its nature is highly interdisciplinary. It is often highlighted that TA is “communicative” because the generation of orientational knowledge necessarily needs exchange of information among experts, a solution-oriented debate and the communication of conclusions, strategies and/or recommendations to the relevant stakeholders, decision-makers and – in some cases – the general public. The public is both a stakeholder and a target group: Representatives of public interest groups participate in TA processes and debates (e.g. patient groups in medical topics or environmental activists in projects with potential environmental impact); and at the same time the whole effort is undertaken in order to facilitate a socially sound and healthy development. The ultimate goal is the contribution to a sustainable development of society and its environment by creating a knowledge and insight base for efficient governance and policy-making.


I would like to make this a little clearer by using the Daoist Yin&Yang symbol that illustrates the basic Philosophy of Laozi: All being arises from the formation of poles around the “point of total harmony” (the “Dao”), for example “good and evil”, “alive and dead” or “being and non-being”. Goal of all human activity should be to get as close as possible to the Dao.


I’d just like to point out the following: If we were at the point of total harmony, we wouldn’t need to perform TA and not even Ethics or Philosophy. But clearly we are not and we will never reach that point. One extreme viewpoint would be that TA blocks innovation by influencing the decision-making with doubtful concerns and conservative fear-mongering. The other extreme would then be to take TA as an acceptance creator: Convincing the public and politicians that a new technology (e.g. Genetics or Nanotechnology) has great potential benefits, and creating a positive image of this technology in order to unleash its full potential. Both viewpoints can be found and are experienced by me in the past: A politician literally said “Don’t expect my support! I won’t allow your ethics to destroy another promising field of technology!”. A scientist, on the contrary, complained about a draft of the report on ethical aspects of Nanomedicine and asked us to “write more positively about Nanomedicine in order to show the public that it is good!”. Certainly, TA is neither of this. From a more balanced point of view, TA aims at serving as an “early warning” against possible side-effects and risks of S&T development on the one hand, and at recognizing potentials and benefits of new technologies and exploring strategies to optimally harvest chances on the other hand. It provides actual channels for ethical discourses to find their way into technology policy and constructive technology design and development.

5.2.4 Practice questions

  • When you drive a car or scooter, who is involved in making this possible?
    • Try to list as many enactors as possible. Where does it end?
  • Do we use smartphones because they were invented, or were smartphones invented because we want to use them?
    • Try to illustrate the complexity of technological innovation pathways.
    • A part of the question is: Do we build smartphones because we (technically) can (first: ability; then: application)? Or do we make it possible to build them because we want/need them (first: vision, then: research à ability)?
  • How did the internet impact our culture? Give examples!



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