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ATPM 10.02
February 2004




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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

Technology & Values

Valuing is more important than values.

This column comes from a discussion in my Philosophy of Technology class. Many of the ideas here are not my own, but came out of that conversation. This is my reframing of it.

We read a piece by Emmanuel Mesthene, in which he says the way we value things shifts as we make technological advances. Our actual values don’t change, as we want truth and justice and things like that regardless of the way we frame those things. What does happen is that we reconfigure our wants, our preferences, and our behaviors. Our actual tastes change, in the sense that at first we appreciate the speed of the microwave dinner because it allows us to spend more time reading Shakespeare. Over time, it sometimes happens that we come to prefer the taste of the microwave dinner over whatever personally-cooked dinner we used to eat. This doesn’t mean our values have changed in some way that makes us ashamed; we still appreciate a meal that is nourishing and tastes good. It just has come to pass that our understanding of what tastes good has shifted. Since this happens all the time in other contexts (We learn to tolerate the taste of beer, or we come to appreciate a foreign cuisine.), there is no need to attribute horrible techno-anxiety to it.

Mesthene’s commentary said technology means change. He reminds us of Heraclitus’s idea that we cannot step twice into the same river. The idea there is that when we try to step into the river a second time, it has changed, and so have we. We are changed by the passage of time, and by the experience of having stepped into the river before. When we apply his idea to computer technology in particular, I can think of a couple of changes from the past several years that are useful, helpful, and good in some way. There are lots more, of course.

Mesthene says technology introduces new possibilities. This raises questions and issues that were formerly irrelevant. For example, if 10 people are in need of a kidney transplant, and one kidney is available, who receives the kidney? There are many similar questions within the fields of medicine and biology. Plenty of technological tools are available and we choose not to use them, perhaps because they are too expensive, or we are content with what we have. Their mere availability, however, changes our options.

Mesthene’s third point is that “technology alters the mix of choices.” First off, we have some new way available of doing something. We have to decide if it’s worth the trouble to learn the new way, if it’s worth the cost, whatever. Second, and this is very important, once lots of people start to use the new method, the old one will become clunky or less attractive. People will stop gathering around the radio at the country store to listen to the baseball game. We won’t purchase vinyl albums anymore, despite the loss of the attractive covers.

Mesthene’s conclusion was that we need to be less concerned with specific values and how they shift, as we need to be concerned with the actual process of assigning value. The ways in which we think about what is important to us may change slightly over time and with newer glasses to frame them, but the actual things we think are important will still be important when the day is done.

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Reader Comments (3)

Paul Barker, London, ON · February 3, 2004 - 10:38 EST #1
with anything new, be it technology or otherwise, there will always be doubting thomases and nay-sayers. it is up to us all to decide what technology is worthwhile and embrace change, otherwise the world will become stagnant.
Charles Starrett, Lexington, MA · February 3, 2004 - 15:54 EST #2
I especially appreciated the second bullet-point. As an educator in ethnomusicology, I've been looking at ways that the Internet can give students a window into another culture which is both more contemporary and more personal than the often-dusty printed media and texts.

I'd love to read the Mesthene piece for myself. Would you mind giving the citation? Is it in any generally-available collection?
Ellyn Ritterskamp · February 3, 2004 - 20:54 EST #3
How Technology Will Shape the Future, Emmanuel G. Mesthene, from Science, CLXI (July 12, 1968), and Environment and Change, ed. W.R. Ewald, Jr., copyright Indiana University Press.

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