By Topi Heikkerö
When I was in primary school, we discussed the four-stroke engine with my dad. He explained to me how intake, compression, power and exhaust strokes are made possible by the action of the cam and valves. This knowledge made me feel at home in the world: I understood what kind of principles enabled our holiday trips by car. The computer with which I work daily, however, doesn’t reveal itself to me in a similar manner. The device, operating system, programs and network connections are mostly mysteries to me. I have little experience from programming, only superficial knowledge concerning semiconductors and binary numbers. For the most part computer presents itself to me as a convenient, readily available interface—when it’s functioning well.
Due to living abroad our family has to fly over the Atlantic at least once a year. It’s baffling to think about all the technical arrangements that make an intercontinental flight possible. I don’t believe there is one single person who knew all the information that underlies an international flight.
With nature the situation is almost the opposite. For early humans many natural phenomena were mysteries. Thunder and lightning, human fertilization, fire and burning, the motions of the moon and planets, heaviness that takes things down, as well as blood circulation and respiration have challenged human understanding for millennia. Thunder might first have been the most terrifying and fascinating natural phenomenon, since many mythologies perceive it as the work of the highest god. Still in Aeschylus’s Oresteia Athena gets the Furies under control by threatening them with his father’s thunderbolts.
Step by step countless phenomena have been taken out of the unruly divine fate and brought within the realm of rational explanations. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and droughts still terrify us, but mostly because of the human suffering and uncertainty that are involved—not because we wouldn’t understand natural laws related to them. After the last two disastrous tsunamis newspapers have immediately offered knowledgeable accounts of the physics involved.
In a sense, nature and human-made technology have changed places: wonders of nature have become prosaic, technology has become miraculous. For the most part we are happy users of the miracle but many of us also go to work inside the miracle: to take care of a part of an international flight or programming a new operating system.
This somewhat paradoxical situation makes one wonder how best to orient oneself in this human-made world. How to be an informed citizen in a society that relies on complex structures on all its levels? How to conceive a good life, or excellence, in this situation? Answering these questions seems to require understanding both the contemporary situation and thinking in ethics and politics. But to what extent are traditional moral philosophical stances applicable amongst intensive expert knowledge and life-enhancing devices? And what exactly are the criteria for good, right, and reasonable necessarily involved in these questions?
Topi Heikkerö is tutor at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico and author of the newly released title, Ethics in Technolgy: A Philosophical Study.