Three Ways of Being With Technology

Scenario 1: You’re a faculty member at GSU and your insurance company has just offered to knock $100 per month off the price of your Health Insurance. There’s a catch, though: In order to get this discount you must register with and log 3 workouts per week in an app that has partnered with the insurance company. These results will be shared with GSU’s Human Resources department. How do you feel about this situation?

Scenario 2: You’re a Teaching Assistant at GSU and you’ve just learned that one of your students has been recording your lectures all semester without your permission. How did you learn this fact? The student – really, one of the best you’ve ever had – texted you the unlisted Youtube playlist that she created. She added: “I thought that you might like a copy of this. Maybe you could post it on Brightspace for everyone else? You’re an awesome teacher!”. How do you feel about this situation?

We run into these types of a scenarios working and learning in higher education every day. Like the truism “Technology will change things for the good/bad/unknown/fill in the blank”, these technological crises haunt the philosophical and practical work of human life. Author Carl Mitcham takes a broad view of living with technology in his article Three Ways of Being With Technology. In this work the author proposes a classification system to summarize the major epochs of human thought about technology. These epochs include three broad categories: Ancient Skepticism, Enlightenment Optimism, and Romantic Uneasiness. In other words Mitcham postulates that individuals and societies have moved from technological suspicion to promotion to ambiguity. A concise summary of his system can be found below.

Table 1: Historicophilosophical Epochs

Conceptual Elements

Ancient Skepticism

(suspicious of technology)

Enlightenment Optimism

(promotion of technology)

Romantic Uneasiness

(ambivalent about technology)

Volition

(transcendence)

Will to technology involves tendency to turn away from God or the gods Will to technology is ordained by God or by nature Will to technology is an aspect of creativity which tends to crowd out other aspects

Activity

(ethics)

Personal: Technical affluence undermines individual virtue

Societal: Technical change weakens political stability

Personal: Technical activities socialize individuals

Societal: Technology creates public wealth

Personal: Technology engenders freedom but alienates from affective strength to exercise it

Societal: Technology weakens social bonds of affection

Knowledge

(epistemology)

Technical information is not true wisdom Technical engagement with the world yields true knowledge (pragmatism) Imagination and vision are more crucial than technical knowledge

Objects

(metaphysics)

Artifacts are less real than natural objects and thus require external guidance Nature and artifice operate by the same mechanical principles

Note: Adapted from Scharff, R. C., Dusek, V., & ebrary, I. (2013). Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: An Anthology (2nd ed.). Hoboken: Wiley.

Although Mitcham’s work doesn’t specifically reference higher education, I think that his organizational scheme is helpful in thinking through our own ways of being with technology at GSU both in class and in our broader experiences as students and employees. To read the full paper check out the fantastic anthology Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition available via eBook from GSU library. I’ve also included some questions below that might spark some critical reflection on Mitcham’s classification system.

Questions For Further Reflection

  • How stable are Mitcham’s categories? Could these bleed into each other?
  • Could Mitcham’s categories be context-specific or pragmatic rather than historical?
  • What other ways of being-with-technology are possible beyond Mitcham’s typology?
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