Technology and Responsibility
As our technological prowess continues to mold our lifestyles in unprecedented ways, and as our knowledge about human and planetary life increases, former ways of understanding things become increasingly outdated. And just our development as individuals requires us to periodically realign our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in keeping with our changing circumstances, we need to do the same collectively, which today, like it or not, implies a global context.
Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” to depict our media-interconnected world in two prescient books in the 1960’s: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). Today, this term is more relevant than ever, given the worldwide impact of modern technologies on personal, societal, and planetary life, and the alarmingly devastating nature of certain aspects of this impact. For instance, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, observed in a recent article in “The Guardian” (Dec. 2, 2020), that humanity is “waging war on nature,” and that “making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be top, top priority for everyone.” Guterres drew particular attention to the moral intensity of our current situation by noting the inseparability of personal and planetary concerns. “Ultimately,” he reminded us, “this is a moral test. . . (and) Inequality is at the heart of the problem.”
Guterres remarks suggest that, in our quest to achieve, or justify our assumed superior status, humanity is currently failing to sufficiently recognize our fundamental interdependence and the social responsibility it implies. In his insightful book For Common Things (Vintage Books, 1999), Jedediah Purdy reminds us that advances in technology often tempt us “to deny responsibility” (p. 176) in terms of responding to the moral implications of significant social issues and concerns. He is joined by many other social commentators who observe that a significant factor contributing to the relative paucity of concern for morally challenging issues today is the adulatory attitudes towards science and technology that permeate most contemporary social environments. All too often these attitudes carry with them the idea that it is the responsibility of “others” to deal with the weightiest moral issues of our time; as if to say, “leave the big moral concerns to the specialists, the professionals, who understand what’s going on better than I.” And undoubtedly, the many creature comforts and distractions that current technology affords us reinforce this lackadaisical mindset.
However, it is hard to deny that we live at a time when it is literally suicidal, both individually and collectively, to deny responsibility” for what is happening around us. Fortunately, there are many among us attempting to keep us focused and informed on the many complex dilemmas we face today, including experts in many fields of study, social commentators, media presenters, and concerned individuals. And although the situations they present us with might seem too large and complex for each of us as individuals to address, nothing is further from the truth. Because our individual and collective well-being are inseparable, nothing will truly change for the better until each of us changes in ways that direct our minds and hearts towards the issues and concerns we all hold in common.
Over the years, many spiritual/philosophical teachers and enlightened political leaders (like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and others) have reminded us of the ageless wisdom: we must be the change we desire in our world. Jedediah Purdy echoes this wisdom when he suggests that each of us is “the sole site of responsibility,” and reminds us that “responsibility begins in attentiveness, because only that can help us to discern the condition of hope.” (For Common Things, p.160).
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness