The Ethics of Ethical Tools

In a passage I’m rather fond of, T.S. Eliot wrote of “the endless cycle of idea and action, Endless invention, endless experiment.” How one reads those few words might reveal a good bit about that person’s posture toward technology. If you read it triumphantly, then odds are you are on the whole at peace with the world wrought by modern technology. Eliot, naturally, intended them a bit more gloomily. Endless invention and endless experiment partake in our growing ignorance that brings us nearer to death and no nearer to God. It prompts his well-known series of questions,

“Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Whatever you make of the relative merits of endless invention and endless experiment, the former at least is built into the technological project. Melvin Kranzberg captured this reality in the second of his six laws of technology. Reversing the cliché, Kranzberg’s second law reads, “Invention is the mother of necessity.” “Every technical innovation,” he explains, “seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective.”

And that is a relatively cheery way of putting it. We might simply say that technology creates as many problems as it solves. Naturally, we then turn to additional technologies to solve those problems. Endless invention, endless experiment – for better and for worse. All of this said, consider Blokket.

Blokket is a stylish pouch woven of nylon and silver thread designed to block cell phone signals. (That its name happens to sound as if it were a profane Nordic expression of exasperation is a felicitous coincidence as far as I can tell.)  As one write-up puts it, “once you slip your smartphone in, there will be no calls, texts, or notifications to alert you to activities happening outside arm’s reach.” In the same article, Chelsea Briganti, one of the lead designers, explains Blokket’s usefulness: “Blokket helps people engage in the present moment by providing interludes of relief from technology.”

I don’t know about you, but my initial response to this was decidedly … mixed. As I’ve written before, I’m very much on the side of those who urge us to give our attention, so far as we are able, to those fellow human beings in our immediate presence. Moreover, that attention can be as delicate and tenuous as it is precious.

There are, of course, perfectly reasonable extenuating circumstances. If, for example, your dear friend, who has been out of touch for weeks, is calling from Burkina Faso where she is an aid worker, then, please, by all means take the call. If, while we are talking baseball over beers, your ailing grandmother, wherever she might be, wants to hear the sound of your voice, please do oblige. If, while we are hiking the Appalachian Trail, I am bit by a rattlesnake, then, yes, I release you to check your smartphone for the appropriate first aid protocol. All of that should go without saying.

But otherwise, I’m of the party that finds the recent Facebook Home ad campaign … what is the word … grotesque. Or, as Evan Selinger more eloquently put it, “Social media — including self-indulgent interfaces like Home — only gets in the way of us being genuinely responsive to and responsible for others if we let it undermine ethical effort in maintaining meaningful connections. It only diminishes our characters and true social networks if we treat Selfish Girl as a role model rather than a tragically misguided soul.”

Attention is a precious resource these days, and we need to be better at directing it ethically rather than self-servingly or even efficiently. Incidentally, making that point is a perfectly good excuse to include a short film rendering a relevant portion of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College address (see below).

So I am naturally inclined to appreciate a product that markets itself as an aid to the humane deployment of attention. Good for them. Of course, another response soon arises from the more cynical recesses of my consciousness. Do we really need to buy what amounts to a fashion accessory in order to behave like minimally decent human beings? Are we so pathetic that we have to enlist the help of ethical props in order achieve the mere baseline of civilized action? Isn’t this merely the aestheticization and commodification of decency?

Well, maybe. As my cynicism subsides, I consider the fact that we are rarely as good as we want to be. Many seem not to want to be good at all, but that is a separate problem. I know, from my own experience, that when the moment comes to act on the principles I embrace, I don’t always follow through. I know what is right in the abstract, but when it comes time to act concretely, I appear to forget. Of course, I am not really forgetting. I am simply heeding other motives and desires, which at that moment override my desire to act generously or selflessly.

Our wills are divided. Certain philosophers have talked about this reality in terms of desires and second order desires. Second order desires are understood to be desires about our desires. Applied to the present case, we may find ourselves desiring to momentarily ignore the person we are with in order to check our smartphone for no good reason. But our better self wishes that we didn’t feel that desire. Our better self knows better and it rues that urge to do otherwise. That better self expresses the second order desire that we would not desire to fiddle with our smartphone at all. But alas we do, and our better self does not always win the battle of our divided wills.

This is not a new problem. St. Paul complains in one of his letters, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

The most famous illustration is typically drawn from Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus both knows that he should not heed the Siren’s song and that, when the moment comes, he most likely will. So he takes precautions: he plugs the ears of his crew, and then he has them tie him to the mast of his ship. In other words, while his better, wiser self is in charge he makes provisions to bind his weaker self.

A more recent illustration was supplied offhandedly by tech critic Evgeny Morozov in an interview. Here is how he describes the lengths to which he must go in order to moderate his use of the Internet:

“I have bought myself a type of laptop from which it was very easy to remove the Wi-Fi card – so when I go to a coffee shop or the library I have no way to get online. However, at home I have cable connection. So I bought a safe with a timed combination lock. It is basically the most useful artefact in my life. I lock my phone and my router cable in my safe so I’m completely free from any interruption and I can spend the entire day, weekend or week reading and writing. … To circumvent my safe I have to open a panel with a screwdriver, so I have to hide all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. So I would have to leave home to buy a screwdriver – the time and cost of doing this is what stops me.”

Morozov’s safe is another instance of Odysseus’ mast. Other examples could be easily supplied. Perhaps you have a few of your own. We wish that we had the strength of will to simply act how we know we ought to act, but alas we do not (and this for a whole host of reasons). The whole notion of a sense of duty, now rather regrettably out of fashion, was premised on the honest recognition that, apart from a sense of duty, we would not always spontaneously act in the most morally appropriate fashion.

Without digressing too much further, though, it would seem that if the choice is between, on the one hand, acting decently with the help of some extension of our will or ethical prosthetic, or, on the other, not acting decently at all, then let us embrace the extension of our will. Buy yourself a Blokket and slip your phone inside straightaway.

Yet … I can’t quite still that little voice inside of me that says, “Wouldn’t it be better still if you would just become the sort of person that didn’t need such extensions of the will?”

I think the answer to that question is, probably, yes. The question arises from that nagging sense that extensions of the will, well-intentioned and effective though they may be, feel as if they are a waving of the white-flag of moral surrender. But it need not be that at all, and this is where the write-up I cited earlier registers an important point. It appears that when the design company field tested Blokket, they found that, in the article’s words, “using the pouch actually helped to create new habits; users found themselves comfortably making the decision to keep interactions face to face and in the flesh.”

This warms my Aristotelian heart.

Simplistically stated, Aristotle’s theory of virtue is premised on the cultivation of habits that then become inner dispositions. In other words, if you know what the right thing to do is, but you don’t always act on that knowledge, then figure out a way of making that action habitual – by an extension of the will for example – and when that habit is internalized, you will then act on it instinctively as a matter of character.

Within this framework then, extensions of the will are not so much white flags of moral surrender as they are training wheels that will eventually be discarded.

That is all very neat and tidy. In the trenches of our moral lives, it is admittedly quite a bit messier than that. But all in all, it is not a bad way (even if it is incomplete) to think about our moral formation. If nothing else, something like Blokket is a step in the direction of mindfulness. That silly little pouch will at least make us conscious of the stakes. It is a token to remind us of what we know is the better way to be with others. We may not always choose that way – how hard is it to slip the phone out of the pouch anyway – but at the very least we will have a small obstacle to arrest the automatic and unthinking selfishness that is, for many of us, our habitual default.

[UPDATE: The video I refer to above has apparently been taken due to copyright issues. Here is a link to the audio of commencement address on which the video was based.]

13 thoughts on “The Ethics of Ethical Tools

  1. I found your essay edifying because you write so well and the thoughts and ideas are worth writing about. But it is still difficult for me to accept that people cannot or will not simply put down their self-satisfying (are they really?) tech distractions and “be here now.” I believe it is a sad day that has arrived when we have to buy a “shield” (which is produced to fulfill someone else’s desire for money this provides) to protect us from our toys and, ultimately. from ourselves. People have already forgotten how to truly look at one another and see the gift of this shared moment–really? Let’s rally and fight to regain our freedom of choice as portrayed in the wonderful video.

    1. Cynthia,

      I certainly understand where you’re coming from, and, to be honest, it’s usually where I’m coming from also. But thoughtless, automatic actions, as DFW suggests, are a part of the problem, and something like this product, in the most generous reading, at least makes us conscious of the problem and maybe even helps some folks do the right thing more often than not.

      1. I am appalled, and increasingly horrified at what is happening. Have we become such slaves to things that we need to buy yet another device? Can we not just turn the smartphone phone off instead ? Am I missing something?

        1. You’ll note above that this is, in part, my reaction as well. What you have here is my attempt to think about some larger issues – extended will, attention, persons, ethical responsibility – by hitching it to a discussion of this one product. So I don’t necessarily want the nature of this particular product to obscure the larger issues. That said, I think (I have no data on this) that we who are older and remember a time before the ubiquitous Internet, social media, mobile computing, etc. – we have certain assumptions and expectations we take for granted that those who can’t remember a day without a mobile phone do not. So we’re dealing with habitual, largely unthinking actions. In my admittedly generous reading, I see this sort of product as a step in the right direction, given the current state of affairs, in that is makes people mindful of the dynamic and encourages better habits.

          1. Well Michael, I guess in a really generous interpretation, it is a step in the right direction; but in a sort of pathetic way. My discomfort is due to the marketing of yet another product (which appears to me to be totally not needed) and which some people will buy rather that just pressing the power off button on their phone. Isn’t this also symbolic of a larger issue? What am I missing that I don’t see this product as a step in the right direction, but rather another step toward helpless enslavement by products rather than by mindful control?

  2. My words from the post:

    “Do we really need to buy what amounts to a fashion accessory in order to behave like minimally decent human beings? Are we so pathetic that we have to enlist the help of ethical props in order achieve the mere baseline of civilized action? Isn’t this merely the aestheticization and commodification of decency?”

    In other words, I get it. I see where you’re coming from. I understand your frustration.

    My point is simply this: This may be for some a tool of mindful control rather than one of enslavement. It imposes the sorts of limits that maximize freedom of action. Could they just choose to leave the phone at home? Sure. Could they just turn it off? Of course. Might there be some who have reason I can’t think of for preferring this option? Maybe. And if they find it useful. More power to them.

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