As the world in which we live becomes increasingly transformed by technology, it becomes increasingly important for us to try and identify and then preserve that which is essentially human in us. But this can only happen if we truly value our human essence. One might say that, of course, we value our human essence, and that, in truth, our technological civilization is simply a tribute to the powers of our human essence to transcend above nature and to conquer nature so that we can preserve our imprints and carry on the flow of the human essence over many, many generations. This answer ignores the loss of organic surfaces for making imprints, the effects of sensory distortion from technology and technological products and the increasing influence of robotization from the use of computers and robots as mirrors and models for our human existence. In fact, our human essence is threatened, and this is due, in part, to the manner in which we value ourselves now as well as to our technology.
First, I would like to distinguish two fundamental categories of value that appear in value theory. Intrinsic value is the value that occurs in something as an end in itself. In other words, something is valuable because of its irreducible synthesis of elements. Instrumental value is the value that something has for protecting and enhancing intrinsic value. In other words, instrumental value leads to intrinsic value. The tools we use like hammers and knives have instrumental value, because they enhance the lives of the workers who use them. And this protects the intrinsic value of these humans. Because humans can do more through the instrumental value of tools, their own intrinsic value is augmented. In addition, the products and services created by tools enhance the lives of the humans who receive these products and services.
I want to tie these ideas in with theories I have previously discussed. Humans are organic figures with strong components of grounding that allow them to make, preserve, and receive organic imprints. Tools and machines are pure figures. As the technology of tools has evolved into the development of machines, these machines are able to do more and more without the careful guided imprints of the workers who operate them. Machine operators in modern factories perform increasingly repetitive tasks. It is almost as if the human workers enhance the instrumental value of the machines, rather than the machines enhancing the intrinsic value of the worker in his identity as a worker. To the extent that this happens, the real intrinsic value increasingly gets transferred to the machine. To the extent this happens, the machine is increasingly perceived mentally as the grounding in which the worker as pure figure is rooted, even though the machine is not capable of providing real grounding.
Because of the transfer of intrinsic value, keeping the machine operating effectively with minimum human participation becomes an end in itself. However the products and services created by the machine are still there to enhance and protect the intrinsic value of human life among the general population in modern technological society. So for people who don’t use these machines, these machines are still seen in terms of their instrumental value. For these non-users, their attitude still remains that the complex machines are appended to their grounded lives, and not vice versa.
But we have gotten to the point where increasing numbers of workers aren’t needed, and more and more people will be thrown into a vocational vacuum. What is going on here? Increasingly, intrinsic value resides in this modern technology, and more and more humans don’t even have the instrumental value of servicing the machine processes of which they have little or no understanding. To the extent that the technology is ostensively still there to enhance and protect humans as the consumers of technological benefits, the technology still has the instrumental value that is there to serve the intrinsic value of our human essence.
But as machines, computers and robots increasingly displace humans in the work force, more and more humans will be unable to pay for the benefits created by modern technology. So they will no longer be the intrinsic value entities receiving the services and products generated by complex modern technology. And yet the technology will continue to operate no matter what. Computers and robots will create computers and robots. These preserved imprints of humans will be able to reproduce themselves with minimal human involvement. Eventually there will come a time when this technology could be totally self-sustaining. And the intrinsic value will reside in the machines, the computers and the robots.
Is this what we humans want? Is this what we have had in mind as we have increasingly developed this technology? I don’t think so. But this technological change is happening so very, very quickly. And it represents a real threat to the survival of the human race. We have got to start putting intrinsic value back where it belongs. Back with humans and our human essence.
In traditional societies, people with great instrumental skills are certainly valued. But, in most cases, these people are always reminded of the fact that they are human beings rather than human doings as a result of their strong organic bonds to their family, their clan, their tribe, their community, their village, their town. These bonds remind these skilled workers of their strong mammalian human essence and remind them that their instrumental skills are there to serve and enhance the intrinsic value of the people with whom they are bonded. And strong bonds between people exist in traditional societies with or without special skills.
In modern societies, people are appreciated according to the quality of their instrumental skills and are abandoned by companies and even by loved ones when these skills diminish or never develop well to begin with. What is going to happen to the valuation of people when robots take over their jobs and there is no longer any meaningful way to ascribe instrumental value to them?
We have got to start thinking both within governments and private organizations about technoethics. No longer can we allow technological innovation to be in total control of the modern marketplace. We have to start thinking not just in terms of short-term benefits, but also in terms of long-term consequences.
And, in particular, we need the participation of people who don’t have a vested interest in the development of technology for their livelihood. We need people in the humanities. Science and technology are important for the functioning of modern society, but we need the more nuanced blendable continual thinking skills of people in the humanities to start making meaningful ethical judgments about what technologies should be introduced into the larger society, and what technologies should not be introduced. And there should be thinking about how technologies can be introduced in forms modified so as not to displace humans.
Technology was meant to provide instrumental value for humans. It was never meant to be a source of intrinsic value that would displace humans.
(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow