David W. Agler

Philosophy of Technology

Technologies are ubiquitous and play a pervasive role in our culture, in the decisions we make, in our social relationships, in our health, in our safety, in conflict resolution, in the careers we pursue, in the way we work, play, and live. Given their omnipresence and the pervasive role that they play in our lives, part of what it means to be human is to be a user of technology. Gaining a clearer and more articulated understanding of the metaphysical, moral, and social-political implications of technologies thus allows for a more considered view of our place in the world and progress of human civilization (scientifically, ethically, and socially).

This course is divided into three units. Unit I investigates the meaning, social understanding of, and various ethical implications of technology in the 20th and 21st century. To this end, we will start with several questions about technology: (1) What is technology? Can we define it? (2) Is technology autonomous? Does it control us? (3) Do we control technology? Or, are the consequences, to some degree, out of our control? (4) How do we understand the development of technology? (5) Do technologies make our lives easier by allowing us to work more efficiently or are we simply asked to do more work as they allow us to do more work? (6) Who (if anyone) should select which technologies disseminate through society?

Unit II turns to the phenomena of unintended consequences or accidents. Oftentimes when technologies are developed, their use results in accidents that we could not predict (or chose to ignore). How do we anticipate the unanticipated? What sorts of ethical responsibilities do technological innovators have for the technologies they designed? What types of risks are there? How do we minimize risk in a world with dangerous technologies, e.g. nuclear weapons?

Finally, Unit III turns to the issue of technologies that allow for human enhancement. Emerging biomedical technologies allow not only for the possibility of repairing degraded body parts or replacing those that have been lost, but also to make humans stronger, faster, smarter, and more durable. What does it mean to enhance a human being? Is there a way to distinguish between enhancement and rehabilitation / repair / neutral modification? What are the ethical and social challenges that these sorts of technologies pose? Is there any way to control the development and uptake of these technologies or is there some technological push (or internal drive) that makes the use of these technologies inevitable? What does all of this say about what it means to be human?


Spring 2014


H0: Getting to Know You Exercise

Unit 1: Basic Questions about Technology

H1: What is Technology?
H2: Does Technology Control Us?
H3: Can We Predict Technology?
H4: How Do Historians Understand Technology?
H5: Does Technology Make Us Similar or Different?
H6: Future Abundance or Impending Environmental Disaster?
H7: Do Technologies Make Work Easier or Harder?
H8: Who Decides What Technologies Should be Used & Developed?
H9: Does Technology Make Us More or Less Safe?
H9.5: A Variation on the MAD Game*
H10: Does Technology Diminish or Enhance our Experience?
H11: Does Technology Make Us More Connected or Alone?
H13: Do Technologies Have Politics?

Unit 2: Unintended Consequences, Failures, Accidents, & Risk

H1: Introduction to Accidents, Redundancy, & System Errors
H2: Three Mile Island
H3: Future Three Mile Islands?
H4: Complexity and Catastrophe
H5: Petrochemical Plants

Unit 3: Enhancement Technologies

H1: Therapy vs. Enhancement
H2: Enhancement in Sport I
H2s: Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs): Kinds, Methods, & Bodies
H3: Enhancement in Sport II
H3s: The 100m Dash Game (the Handout)
H3s: The 100m Dash Game (the Student-Runners Guide)
H3s: The 100m Dash Game (Instructional Handout*)
H4: Sandel on Bionic Athletes
H5: Arguments Against Enhancement: The Landscape of the Enhancement Debate
H6: Enhancement and Human Development
H7: Conservativism About Enhancement
H8: Enhancement & Character
H9: Enhancement & Unintended Consequences

*email me for these