Thursday, February 12, 2009

Does technology make "an offer you cannot refuse"? Some thoughts on human autonomy and technology.

Autonomy is the state of freedom from external control and constraint on one’s decisions and actions. We are constrained by many things such as, for example, the earth’s gravity. Interestingly, many of our technologies increase our autonomy in the face of some of these constraints. For example, our experience of the constraining effect of gravity is greatly altered when we are on one of the thousands of airplanes circling the earth every day.

However, despite the range of decisions and actions that technologies open to us, there is a way in which we come to feel forced to adopt and use technologies, whether we like it or not. In some cases, this is because the technology becomes an indispensable part of the material or cultural infrastructure of a society and we must use it in order to participate in that society. For example, the widespread use of the automobile has led to styles of life and urban layouts that presuppose mechanical transportation.

In addition to the ways in which some of our technologies cause us to restructure society in a way that presupposes their use, the issues of human competition and equality are perhaps also at the heart of why we feel forced to adopt technologies.

In asking about the interaction of equality and technology, I am adopting the following understanding of human equality: I am interested here in the equality of resources, understood broadly to include not just external resources (e.g. wealth, natural environment, social and cultural resources), but also internal or personal resources (e.g. personality, physical and mental abilities). This is a provisional (“half-baked”) definition, and I am launching into this discussion with some trepidation. However, since this blog is a great opportunity to ventilate and develop ideas – here goes.

Technologies can be used to alter one’s endowment of both internal and external resources. Where there is a pre-existing inequality or disadvantage with regard to some resource (e.g. physical strength), a party may seek a technology to neutralize this disadvantage. Note, for example, that the 19th century nickname for the Colt handgun was “the Equalizer.”

Others may seek to go further with technologies and to create a positive advantage over others, whether they started from a position of pre-existing disadvantage or not. Frank discusses the competitive pursuit of technological enhancement in a fascinating post dealing with “positional competition.” It may be that the social pressure to neutralize disadvantages or to seize advantages is one reason why people feel obliged to adopt technologies.

Another reason why people may feel obliged to adopt technologies arises from a problem at the heart of using technological fixes for socially-constructed disadvantages. By “socially-constructed disadvantages” I mean human characteristics that do not entail any actual harm to an individual other than the negative social valuation of those characteristics. Paradoxically, attempts to neutralize socially-constructed disadvantages through technology merely strengthen that social construction. This has the effect of reinforcing the pressure on the disadvantaged group to “fix” itself to conform to the social expectation.

Several examples could be cited here. As Clare Chambers discusses, the availability of “virginity-restoring” surgery for women may enable them to elude the effects of a double standard applicable to men and women with respect to sexual freedom. At the same time, it strengthens the double standard that forces women in some places to resort to the surgery. In other words, the technological response and the discriminatory norm are in a mutually-reinforcing feedback loop.

In The Case Against Perfection, Michael Sandel discusses the government-approved use of human growth hormone as a height-increasing drug for healthy children whose adult height is projected to be in the bottom first percentile. This allows a few to gain in stature, leaving the rest to seem even more unusually short due to their decreased numbers. It does nothing to disrupt the socially-constructed disadvantage of being short.

In other cases, a technology offers an escape from what appears to be a real rather than a socially-constructed disadvantage. For example, the discovery of insulin and methods to produce it cheaply and efficiently have proven to be helpful in promoting equality at least with respect to pancreatic functioning and health. Interestingly, insulin is an excellent example of a technology that cannot fuel a technological enhancement arms race. As far as I know, insulin is of no use to non-diabetics. As a result, it can only close an inequality, without offering the possibility of seizing an advantage through supra-normal amounts of insulin.

All of this suggests to me that technology has a peculiar effect on human autonomy. The technologies offer us opportunities which, at first glance, would seem to promote autonomy. They expand the range of options open to the individual, and leave it to each person to adopt them or not.

However, there are various reasons that technologies become “offers you cannot refuse.” Society restructures itself to presuppose the use of certain technologies so that it becomes hard to exist in society without them. In addition, human competition for advantage maintains a continuous pressure to adopt technological enhancement. Finally, technologies offer the opportunity to people to neutralize socially-constructed disadvantages. This is most insidious from the perspective of human autonomy since the social expectations that fuel the demand for the technologies are reinforced by those very technologies.


Blogger Pasquale said...

That's a fascinating perspective, Jennifer. I think that the Clare Chambers article is particularly illuminating in terms of the "freedom" body alteration is supposed to offer. It's also a chilling example of premodern norms being reinforced by postmodern technologies....and those strange bedfellows highlight the hidden rationality of Raz's modern ideal of autonomy that focuses on the range of worthy choices we are offered. (I think this line of thought is compellingly concretized in the Nussbaum/Sen capabilities approach in the "currencies of egalitarian justice" debate.)

G.A. Cohen's analysis, in "Where the Action Is," of feminist critiques of Rawls is also on target here. Cohen emphasizes the interdependence of choice--so that, for example, if one woman decides to, say, stay home full time instead of work, that is in many ways creating pressures for her compatriots to do the same. (The same might also happen in reverse.) There is no neutrality--rather, we have to systematically take into account how one individual's choices affect others.

2/12/2009 7:38 PM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

This was indeed an illuminating take on the topic.

Please permit me to point out one thing, which obviously is not central to the post itself but I think is worth mentioning regardless. The working definition of autonomy here is a common one (e.g., apart from its role in neo-classical economics, it is prominent in bioethics and medical ethics generally) but it's a conception that places an emphasis on "negative liberty" (one implication that sometimes follow, however, which is construed in 'positive' terms, is that autonomy has to do with egocentric or even narcissistic self-expression), while the tenor of your post and in particular the discussion of equality would seem to call for a definition that highlights "positive" liberty or freedom as well.

As Onora O'Neill reminds us, there's a far richer conception of autonomy going back to Kant and J.S. Mill that places the stress on the idea of taking responsibility (in a developmental sense that admits of degrees) for one's psychological and moral development or growth in self-awareness through identifying with "these" desires rather than "those" desires, with cultivating certain virtue-ethical feelings, impulses or dispositions (e.g., sympathy, empathy, care, etc.), rather than others, with developing the capacity to realize objective value(s) in the world. For example, for Kant, autonomy is a matter of acting on principles of moral obligation (on this conception, autonomy has to do with a positive valuation of constraints, for instance, the constraint on principles of action having to do with universalizability...of principles that are fit to be 'laws' for others). There are other "traditions" of autonomy along these lines as well going back, for example, to the Stoics, and can be seen in our time in psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology.

2/12/2009 8:39 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Chandler said...

Thank you so much Pasquale and Patrick for your comments! You both refer to richer conceptions of autonomy than I have used here, and I will pursue these helpful leads! The idea of the interdependence of choice makes me think of a problem in the Canadian constitutional definition of the "reasonable expectation of privacy." The courts say that our constitutional right to privacy is limited to that to which we have a reasonable expectation. This makes for a very unstable right, subject not just to technological innovation that is privacy-invasive (if there's a new tech that can read your mind, for e.g., then you clearly cannot have a reasonable expectation to the privacy of your thoughts), but also to the choices of others to tolerate those invasive technologies (e.g. in exchange for some gimmicky reward a la Facebook).

Many thanks again to both!

2/12/2009 9:36 PM  

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