Proceed with caution: Why technology should undergo in-depth analysis

Rocci Luppicini

“We must have a sobering outlook on technology. That way we can capitalize on the opportunities that technologies provide and reverse their potentially negative consequences.”

– Rocci Luppicini

Technology surrounds us. When we text, surf, download apps or upload files, we are constantly interacting with technology. But before buying the latest gadget we should ponder its impact, says Rocci Luppicini.

An associate professor in the Department of Communication, Luppicini examines various facets of technology, including social networking, virtual communities, the relationship between identity and technology, and the influence of technological advances on education and work. He is also interested in technoethics, which focuses on the ethical aspects of technology in life and society. 

In fact, Luppicini is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Technoethics, and editor of the upcoming Handbook of Research on Technoself: Identity in a Technological Society. A self-described “technology enthusiast,” he has a big-picture perspective of high-tech innovations. And there are countless ultra-modern devices and capa¬bilities to consider—from bionic exoskeleton suits to embryo screening, and everything in between. 

“We must have a sobering outlook on technology,” Luppicini says. “That way we can capitalize on the oppor¬tunities that technologies provide, and counteract their potentially negative consequences.” 

Consider, for example, the widespread use of the Internet and smartphones. They keep us accessible to friends and family, but the trade-off is that it’s now possible to work around the clock. This loss of leisure time (the “good life,” according to Luppicini) blurs the boundary between the professional and personal spheres—which can lead to workplace burnout. As well, our continually evolving relationship with technology has contributed to the development of humans as “technoselves.” 

“The close connectedness of technology within human life and society is a complex state of affairs,” Luppicini says. “Originally, we used technology to build our homes and plough the fields. Now technology is part of the human condition. It’s transforming how we live, and even altering our human makeup.” 

That last aspect is one Luppicini is particularly concerned about. Examples include laser eye surgery, cosmetic procedures, reproductive technologies, and implanted microchips that monitor brain activity. And while these advancements offer benefits—enabling infertile couples to have children, and leading to new drugs for neurodegenerative diseases—Luppicini says the “inward turn of technology” also raises tough questions. Where do we draw the line? Who is morally responsible when technologies go awry? 

As science progresses, for example, a number of helpful biomedical devices already exist, such as artificial hearts, prosthetic limbs, and cochlear implants. In future, perhaps cyborgs will become increasingly commonplace. But Luppicini wonders what would happen if someone with a neural implant committed a crime. Where would the blame lie: on the individual who physically performed the act, or on the biomedical engineers who created the implant? 

These queries, and others like them, form the basis of the interdisciplinary field of technoethics, which considers the responsible use of technology. It also helps to guide ethical problem-solving related to the development of new technologies. For instance, thanks to technoethics, it’s now widely accepted that engineers and designers are partly responsible for the impact of their inventions. 

But that doesn’t mean forethought is happening in every area of technological innovation, says Luppicini. “We’re fascinated with bells and whistles, and in our consumer culture, new technologies are viewed as status symbols,” he points out. “For that reason, no one wants to ask questions. You risk being seen as outdated or standing in the way of progress.” 

As a result, society delays discussions about the misuse or abuse of technology—often until after disaster strikes. Luppicini points to the recent nuclear crisis in Japan, deaths related to police use of Tasers, and issues of cyber¬bullying and online identity theft. 

So what can the public do to prevent problems in the future? “Teach media literacy to children so they can spot, for example, Internet luring techniques. Also, ask more questions—of yourself, corporations, the government and the military,” Luppicini says. “Ask if a new technology is worth it. And if so, what are the drawbacks?” 

Of course, he acknowledges, this process isn’t easy, given the breakneck speed of technology development. But without critical assessment from a social and ethical standpoint, Luppicini says, we risk losing the most important thing of all: the human race. 

“We’re now at a critical mass where technology could be used to destroy the planet and ourselves,” he warns. “We need to step back to step forward.” 

 

by Dana Yates

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