John Dewey and Responsible Technology

From John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology by Larry A. Hickman

“What, in Dewey’s view, constitutes responsible technology? This book is an attempt to suggest some answers to that question. By way of review and conclusion, it may be said that Dewey rejected what I have called “straight-line instrumentalism,” or the view that neutral tools are brought to bear on ends that are valued for reasons external to the situations within which those tools have been developed. Drawing on the metaphors that accompanied Darwinian evolutionary theory, Dewey argued that human beings are organisms within nature and that their tool use is one of the developmental edges of natural activity. Tools and artifacts are no more neutral that are plants, nonhuman animals, or human beings themselves: they are interactive within situations that teem with values.

Responsible technology involves for Dewey the choice, the implementation, and the testing of goals that arise from those situations. There is no need of divine intervention to point the way, and the quest for absolute truth constitutes an impediment. Values arise out of inquiry, and once they are refined by inquiry they are brought back to the situations from which they originated in order to ascertain whether they are appropriate. Tools that are utilized in choosing, implement, and testing enter into the articulation of ends, or things to be done, modifying those ends as the need arises. Evolving ends demand the modification of existing tools. Responsible technology thus remains flexible because it must accommodate changing situations. In addition to being resilient, responsible technology is redundant: it does not allow undue risk, and it backs itself up, both in terms of parallel development and in terms of the establishment of plateaus as possible fallback positions. Responsible technology is not so much radical as regenerative.” (202)