The New Technology and Human Values

Values, personal, national and international are at the core of human societies. They are complex and as individuals we get them from multiple sources: parents, culture, experience and beliefs about what is a good life and what gives life meaning.

When we make a choice, we use our values to come to a decision. And we like to think that we have the freedom to make choices based on our values in every area of our lives. However, this is not quite how it is, and new technology plays a role in determining our values, that then affects our decisions, whether we admit it or not.

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Choices, power and status

In reality our choices are limited and our values change over time in significant ways that are often unpredictable. I was reading an interesting article by Brad Allenby at Slate, who said in relation to new technology and change: “Values that may lead one society to reject a technology are seldom universal, meaning that the technology is simply developed and deployed elsewhere.” The upshot of this is that in a world that overall values technology very highly, those countries which adopt a new technology are seen as having power and status, whereas those that reject it are perceived to be significantly inferior.

We never have the full picture

We would also like to make our choices based on having complete information, but we never get this.  This is true for you and me as individuals as well as for corporate entities and governments. For example, if I made investments based on having the full picture, I’d be very wealthy in a short time. But, like other investors, the whole picture is kept from us. All we have is “the best available information” and we have learnt to make decisions based on ‘best available” because otherwise we wouldn’t take any action.

Change and stability

And, we are used to a rate of change in society that allows us to shift our values and choices in a way that maintains stability. In other words, change is rarely so radical that our values and choices struggle to keep up. Yes, there have been times in history and in specific parts of the world where there have been dramatic shifts that have left people feeling as if the world was collapsing from under them, and we are in a period of rapid change right now, due to new technology, that gives us a feeling of losing balance.

The key areas of technology responsible are: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics and applied cognitive science. As Brad says: “The cycle time of technology innovations and the rapidity with which they ripple through society have become far faster than the institutions and mechanisms that we’ve traditionally relied on to inform and enforce our choices and values.”

Moving into future values

Right now we are scrambling and trying to keep up with the advance of technology. We haven’t yet grasped how to make meaningful choices, not have we scoped out responsible values regarding the application of all these technologies. Currently, we are trying to use ‘old world’ ideas that are “naïve and superficial” and making choices that don’t quite fit the technology, or at least don’t maximise its potential uses.

I believe we will get there, because history shows us that we have always been able to move our values and choices forward, even if it takes us a little time to catch up with the technology.


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