Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Suddenness, Commodification, and Technology

I just want to quickly back up Lyria's post on the definitional issues here by noting the importance of "suddenness" and commodification to a theory of law and technology. One of the primary rhetorical tropes of opponents of regulation is to put all manner of social change on a continuum and say "See, we've been doing X for years, this new technology just lets us do it more quickly." For example,

Genetic engineering is framed as just a faster version of selective breeding (in the agricultural context) or assortative mating (in the human context).

Cognitive enhancement is viewed as a more efficient version of education. (As Bostrom & Sandberg put it (echoing Balkin), "Much of what we learn in school is 'mental software' for managing various cognitive domains: mathematics, categories of concepts, language, and problem solving in particular subjects.").

Along these lines, I've sometimes heard that the equality-eroding effects of technologies I've focused on are trivial in comparison with social sources of inequality. I like to think of this line of thought as "complacent continuumism" (CC). On the CC view, technology is just one more way of accomplishing ends that would once have been attained via "clunkier" cultural or social methods.

I think the CC view is wrong because technology is often far more sudden, more effective, and more commodifiable than social or cultural methods of accomplishing ends. In the case of cognitive enhancement, many educational institutions have made a point of assuring some kind of equality of access. Have we any guarantees that "smart pills" would come with similar assurances? Moreover, educational gains in ability come very slowly in comparison with potential chemical interventions. There are more opportunities to regulate, more "pressure points," more cultural traditions of access, in the case of educational institutions, than in the case of their potential chemical/genetic supplanters.


Blogger Lyria Bennett Moses said...

Here is another difference - technology is more contingent. To prevent people educating their children as they see fit (eg mandating public education) is a restraint on liberty. Also - would require intrusive monitoring (imagine a law that said it was illegal to read to your child more than X books per day so that everyone started from the same base). I don't think people perceive intervening in technological options in the same way (a few academic commentators apart). The possibility of technology entails choice - in the stem cell debate, for example, people might argue why various activities should be legal or banned, but few suggest that we should not make a decision. A debate about, for example, whether we should limit the number of books parents read to their children would be considered ludicrous.

It could be said this is all just a matter of perception. Perhaps we should regulate culture to the same extent we regulate technology (or should not regulate technology). Even if that is right, and it is all just perception, perception is itself important. In fact, it is perception that gives rise to very different senses of regulation in Australia and the US. Culturally, there is less suspicion of regulation as such in Australia. Similarly, culturally, there is less suspicion of regulation of technologies as compared to regulation of less technical cultural activities.

12/06/2006 2:47 PM  

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