Political Economy or Ethics of Technology?

Tweeting from the Future Fest 2018 conference in the UK, one reporter summed up Evgeny Morozov’s closing comments this way:  “we have been diverted into debate over moral and ethical dimensions of AI when we should instead be focusing on the political economy.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment, and, frankly, I hardly understand it. It strikes me as a false and untenable dichotomy, and obviously so.

I think I know where it is coming from, however. I suspect it is, in part, a reaction to a certain kind of popular tech discourse epitomized by sophomoric trolley car-style think pieces about autonomous vehicles. I suppose that if this is all that one believes a debate over the moral and ethical dimensions of AI amounts to, then one might be forgiven for thinking it is at best a diversion. It’s not unlike confounding the whole scholastic enterprise with the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (except that, in this case, at least the think pieces have actually been written).

Along similar lines, it seems to me that Morozov’s framing shares a family resemblance to recent criticisms leveled at the Center for Humane Technology—that, for example, they reduce the problem with contemporary technology to a matter of ill-informed consumers, who can simply be taught to make better individual choices (this is a mischaracterization of the center in my view, although I have my own reservations). The assumption, not altogether wrong, is that individual choices ultimately do not matter.

More importantly, it is also the case that an impoverished understanding of what constitutes moral and ethical matters is in play. Fundamentally, it seems to me that when you take up the issue of political economy, you are unavoidably treading on moral and ethical ground. Why should we embrace any policy that is not ultimately right, good, or just? It is a symptom of the root-deep problems we face in a technocratic society that it is plausible for us to conceive of politics and economics as sciences that arrive at their conclusions in a moral and ethical void.

Again, ethics talk is frowned upon presumably because it is thought to entail proscriptions on individual behavior that are taken to be ultimately ineffective because they ignore collective action. But at the same time we should consider whether or not the allergy to ethics talk does not also reveal a commitment to the liberal subject that must be given free reign, who must be constrained by nothing beyond its own will. We are, as Eliot wrote, “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

Of course, this is exactly the mythos within which contemporary technology sprawls out of control, one that hitches unfettered technological advance to the empowerment of the unfettered individual will.

The naive critic may assume that technology advances in a political and economic vacuum. The smart critic knows that technology is a social reality with political and economic dimensions. I say the political/economic critique will never get very far unless it is grounded in a compelling moral vision.

Lastly, I will simply note, wryly, that political economy emerged as a sub-discipline of moral philosophy.


5 thoughts on “Political Economy or Ethics of Technology?

  1. “The assumption, not altogether wrong, is that individual choices ultimately do not matter.” Is not this the invisible hand, and precisely why they do matter. The sum of all those individual choices will dictate the future, not the technologists’ hubris (or, without wishing to be rude, your pessimism).

  2. I appreciate the condensed set of objections to this attitude. Personally, I hesitate to wade too deeply into economics, that not being my strong suit, but I want to agree with your thought that the objections seem obvious.

    Isn’t this a bit of a curveball for the readers (and villains) of Morozov’s previous books? As I recall it, “Click Here…” was a patchwork of thorough (if occasionally self-indulgent) indictments of SV’s infractions, and most involved an ethical component.

    As interesting as he often is, I’ve been a little disappointed to watch Morozov drift further toward economic determinism in recent years, especially after his cutting attacks on technological determinism. Plenty of Marxist critiques resonate with me, but sooner or later I always get a bit itchy. More things in heaven and earth…

    This relates back to your arguments on Cyborg-ism, doesn’t it? In all sincerity, if we’re to withhold all value judgments about human nature or life ways, I don’t understand how the economy is left with any valence at all. Maybe that argument is coming in his next book. I hope it’s shorter.

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