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How Technology Expands the Horizons of Our Humanity

Adam Thierer
Nov 19, 2018 · 6 min read

In my last essay, I defended technological innovation against criticisms leveled by self-declared “humanist” scholars, who claim it is “chauvinist” to believe in the transformative potential of technology. Properly understood, I argued, “‘technology’ and technological innovation are simply extensions of our humanity and represent efforts to continuously improve the human condition. In that sense, humanism and technology are compliments, not opposites.” I noted that:

“Technology” is not some magical force or shiny device that appeared out of thin air. All technology is the product of human design. The most straightforward definition of “technology” is simply the application of knowledge to a task. When critics claim that innovators or their defenders are “chauvinists” who think that technological solutions are “superior to the people-based solution,” they are creating a nonsensical dichotomy because technological solutions are the same thing as “people-based solution.”

In this brief follow-up essay, I want to identify another way in which innovation and humanism are closely related. Namely, technology affects our humanism in a profound way by helping us better understand and address the needs of strangers at a distance. In essence, innovation expands our moral horizons and capabilities in ways that many “humanist” critics often fail to appreciate.

Expanding our “Fellow-Felling” Instincts

In his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, the famed Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith observed that:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

Smith believed that humans were both self-regarding and other-regarding, and that we had an innate moral sensibility and sympathy for others, or what he called a “fellow-felling.” Thanks to this natural sensibility, we would first look to take care of ourselves and those closest to us, but we would then look to help others the best we could.

During Smith’s time, however, that “fellow-felling” for the plight of others was limited by social, economic, and technical realities. Most people were confined to the family farm, or working in a small shop or later in a factory in town. They were also unable to travel far beyond their immediate communities. Communications technologies also did not yet give them the ability to learn much about the world beyond their communities, except perhaps through newspaper accounts or second-hand information that trickled in weeks or months after developments occurred elsewhere.

Changing the Moral Universe in Which We Live

Flash forward two centuries and consider how technology, in the words of American historian Thomas L. Haskell, “change[d] the moral universe in which we live.” In a two-part 1985 essay on the “Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” Haskell observed how “our feeling of responsibility for the stranger’s plight, though nowhere near strong enough to move us to action, is probably stronger today than it would have been before the airplane.”

The growth of ubiquitous, affordable transportation and other technological capabilities — most notably widespread, instantaneous communication and information transmission — have combined to expand our moral universe. Haskell argued:

Technological innovation can perform this startling feat, because it supplies us with new ways of acting at a distance and new ways of influencing future events and thereby imposes on us new occasions for the attribution of responsibility and guilt. In short, new techniques, or ways of intervening in the course of events, can change the conventional limits within which we feel responsible enough to act.

By constantly expanding the horizons of our moral universe in this fashion, technology helps expand our humanitarian sensibility. Innovation enables us to be more worldly, cosmopolitan, and compassionate.

The Humanist Manifesto,” originally published by the American Humanist Association in 1933 and most recently updated in 2003, asserts that humanists, “ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.”

This is a noble vision of life and living, but it should also be clear why innovation is central to the humanist narrative. “Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish,” says Steven Pinker in his latest book, Enlightenment Now. Viewed in this light, innovation is central to human betterment not simply because it betters us, but because it allow us to better our fellow humans. Innovation expands our responsibility for each other and allows us to better act upon our “fellow-felling” by addressing the needs of fellow humans across the globe, many of whom we will never even meet. It’s hard to know what could be more “humanist” than that!

Humanist Hypocrisy

Sadly, many humanist critics pay very little attention to the ways in which modern innovations have expanded their own moral horizons and allowed them or others to address the needs of others. This reminds me of what historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein said in concluding her magisterial history of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. In remarking on the irony inherent in the endless anti-innovation complaints leveled by many humanist scholars, Eisenstein argued that, “one must take strong exception to the views expressed by humanists who carry their hostility to technology so far as to deprecate the very took which is most indispensable to the practice of their own crafts.” The printing press “remains indispensable for humanistic scholarship,” she noted. Yet, ironically, it and its succeeding transformative information and communications technologies are routinely lambasted by many of those same scholars who have benefited from them so mightily.

In much the same way, many of today’s modern tech critics fail to appreciate that ways in which their humanitarian instincts are fundamentally intertwined with the very innovations that they often ridicule. The media, communications, and computing technologies the critics decry are the same ones that allow them to even know someone is suffering in cities, countries, or continents far away — and then to take steps to do something about it. The transportation technologies the critics decry are the same ones that enable us or our assistance to reach them. The financial technologies the critics decry will help us fund those efforts. And so on, and so on.

This is not to say technology can solve all the world’s problems. Moreover, it is absolutely true that new technologies can create unique challenges for society that deserve serious scrutiny. But today’s self-anointed “humanist” technology critics often go so overboard with their critiques, and whip up so many technopanics about important new technologies, that they could be undermining the very innovations that could expand their own moral capacity to better understand and address the needs of their fellow humans.


Additional Reading:

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