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Moral Mediation: How can we moralise technology?

Verbeek explains how we can moralise technology; anticipating, assessing and designing
So now that we’ve seen that technologies are moral mediators, what can we do with that knowledge as a designer? Well, in fact, there are three things that you could do– three things that are increasingly invasive, you could say. You could simply anticipate the mediations that are involved when you design a new technology, just to make sure that nothing might happen that you would not want to happen. You could systematically assess the mediations by going through all the potential mediating effects, and do an ethical assessment of them. And thirdly, the most invasive option– you could actually really try to design mediations into a technology.
So anticipation is the least-invasive thing to do, simply to check what mediating effects technology could have on people’s behavior and people’s experiences. A more profound step would be to assess all those mediations, to use an ethical theory and ethical framework to go through all the potential implications of the technologies in a practice of use, and to see which mediations are desirable and which are not, in order to make a well-informed decision when designing a technology.
But this already comes close to the most active, the most invasive option, which would then be the explicit design of mediations into a technology– to design technologies with the explicit goal to organize the relations between people and their environment, to influence people’s behavior, people’s perceptions and experiences. First of all, it needs to be said that this is a complicated thing. Technologies do not always do what designers thought that they would do.
A well-known example are all the safety measures in cars, where actually, the effect occurs that the more safe people feel in the car, the more risk they tend to take on the road, because of which, actually making cars more safe doesn’t lead to a reduction in casualties in traffic. But, in fact, sometimes people feel that it might be necessary to design mediations in technology, to design an influence of technology on people’s behavior. Hans Auchterhuis, a Dutch philosopher, is a good example of people who have this idea. At some point in the 1990s already, there was a major car accident on a Dutch highway. In thick fog, many cars had a big accident.
And after this accident, Hans said, why should we actually accept this? If we know all that it’s not a good idea to drive so fast when there is fog on the road, but we do not have the stamina to follow this rule we actually want to follow, why not delegate the responsibility for this to a technology? Why not design technologies in such a way that they actually impose a form of morality on us that we do want ourselves? Why moralize each other when we could also moralize technology? Put morality into technology. Obviously this is a contested thing to claim, because we do not want all effects to be there.
And maybe we also do not want the engineers to take power over how we behave and what we do in our daily lives. So it’s an important option to explore. And further in this week, we will also explore the ethical implications of this moralization of technology itself.
In this video we explain how one could start moralising things. I aimed to emphasise that we are fundamentally mediated beings; technologies always mediate us. The theory of mediation – and the examples from the previous step – shows that any design, whether you want it or not, does have an impact on human behaviour. There is no way to get around an impact.
In the next three steps we will have a closer look at what designers can do to go about this.
  • First, performing a mediation analysis can help them to anticipate (see STEP 3.5 – How can we anticipate the moral dimensions of technology-in-design?) the moral dimensions of the technology-in-design, for instance in order to avoid undesirable mediating effects.
  • Second, mediation analysis can be the basis for assessing (see STEP 3.6 – How can we assess the quality of mediations in design?) the quality of expected mediations. Making such assessments, to be sure, does not imply a shift back from ‘accompanying’ to ‘assessing’ technology; it rather should be seen a fully-fledged part of ‘technology accompaniment’.
  • Third, mediations can be explicitly designed (see STEP 3.7 – How can you design moral technology?) into a technology. In this case, we can speak of an explicit ‘moralisation’ of technology.
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Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

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