Onlife Governance

The blurring of the boundaries between humanity and technology that new ICTs are bringing about has serious implications for our ethical and political reflection. Implicit in many ethical approaches to technology, and especially regarding invasive technologies like ICTs, after all, is the model of a struggle between humans and technologies (see also Verbeek 2013). While some technological developments can be beneficial, this view holds, others compose a threat to humanity, and therefore the role of ethicists is to assess if technologies are morally acceptable or not.

In ethical and political discussions regarding ICTs, the theme of the 'Panopticon' often plays an important role. Inspired by Michel Foucault's analysis of Jeremy Bentham's prison design—a dome with a central watchtower from which all prisoners can be observed without them knowing if they are being watched or not – some people fear that ICTs are creating a panoptic society in which privacy becomes ever more problematic, and in which asymmetrical power relations can flourish. (Foucault 1975)

However important it is to develop and maintain a critical attitude toward new information and communication technologies, this model of a 'struggle' between technology and society is still based on the dualist metaphysics of subject versus object, that ICTs themselves have outdated by reconfiguring the boundaries between subjects and objects, as described above. When human beings cannot be understood in isolation from technology, and vice versa, approaching their relation in terms of struggle and threat, therefore, is like giving a moral evaluation of gravity, or language. It does not make much sense to be 'against' them, because they form the basis of our existence. Technologies have always helped to shape what it means to be human. Rather than opposing them, and putting all our efforts in resistance and protest, we should develop a productive interaction with them.

But how can such an interaction still be critical, when the boundaries between humans and technologies disappear? If human practices and experiences are always technologically mediated, there does not seem to be an 'outside' position anymore with respect to technology. And if there is no outside anymore, from where could we criticize technology?

To be sure, a hybrid understanding of humans and technologies does not imply that all roles of technology in human existence are equally desirable, and that human beings should redefine themselves as powerless victims of the power of technology. It does imply, though, that the 'opposition model' of humanity and technology might not be the most productive model if one wants to change undesirable configurations of humans and technologies. Ethics should not focus on determining which technologies should be allowed and which should not. Technological development will continue, and human existence will change with it. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis: the times are changing, and we change in them. The main focus of ethics, should not be on technology assessment but on technology accompaniment. Rather than keeping humanity and technology apart, we should critically accompany their intertwinement.

In order to articulate such an alternative model for ethics, it is helpful to connect to the later work of Foucault (see also Verbeek 2013). In his lecture 'What is Enlightenment?' (Foucault 1997), Foucault develops an alternative account of the phenomenon of 'critique'. Foucault is looking for an answer to what he calls 'the blackmail of the Enlightenment'. This blackmail consists in the pressure that is exerted upon those who want to criticize the Enlightenment, because all their attempts are typically explained as being 'against' the Enlightenment. Anyone who dares to do open this discussion immediately raises the suspicion of being against rationality, democracy, and scientific inquiry. Foucault, however, explores if an alternative understanding of Enlightenment would be possible. And this exploration is of utmost importance in the context of the ethics of technology as well. Blurring the boundaries between humans and technologies, after all, can easily be explained as giving up on ethics: because there is no clear boundary to be defended anymore, it might seem that 'anything goes'. Therefore, an alternative model for ethics needs to be developed.

Foucault's answer, however trivial it may seem, is to reinterpret Enlightenment as an attitude, rather than the beginning of a new era. For Kant, as Foucault explains, Enlightenment was primarily a way out of “immaturity”: using “reason” rather than accepting “someone else's authority to lead us in areas where the use of reason is called for” (Foucault 1997, p. 305). This requires critique: only critique can tell us under which conditions “the use of reason is legitimate in order to determine what can be known, what must be done, and what may be hoped” (Foucault 1997a, p. 308). But for Foucault, critique must not be understood as an attempt to transcend the world—as Kant did—but as an attitude of always looking for the limits of what seems to be given and self-evident.

Foucault, in short, reinterprets critique—the 'enlightened' activity par excellence—as a form of practical self-inquiry. Critique means: investigating what has made us the beings that we are, what conditions our existence and what has shaped our current way of living. And, most importantly, it does not require an 'outside' position, but can only happing on the basis of positioning ourselves 'at the limit'. The human subject, after all, is always situated within the world to which it has a relation, and therefore critique can never come from outside. We can never step out of the networks of relations that help to shape our existence, to phrase it in a Latourian way, but this does not imply that we have to give up on critical reflection and self-reflection.

Foucault's alternative Enlightenment offers an interesting escape from the specific shape that the blackmail of the Enlightenment has taken on in the ethics of technology. The fundamental intertwinement of human beings and information technologies implies that the frameworks from which we criticize these technologies are always mediated by these technologies themselves. We can never step out of the mediations in which we are involved. The farthest we can get is: at the limits of the situation we are in. Standing at the borders, recognizing the technologically mediated character of our existence, our interpretations and judgments, our practices and preferences, we can investigate the nature and the quality of these mediations: where do they come from, what do they do, could they be different?

Rather than letting our selves be blackmailed by the Enlightenment—fearing that the boundary-blurring between technology and society would make it impossible to have a reasonable and normative discussion about technology—there is an alternative possibility for the ethics of technology. Not the assessment of technological developments 'from outside' is the central goal of ethical reflection then, but rather its accompaniment 'from within', using a concept from the Belgian philosopher Gilbert Hottois (Hottois 1996) and the recent work of Paul Rabinow (Rabinow 2011). The crucial question in such a form of 'ethical technology accompaniment' is not how we could impose 'limits' to technological developments, but rather how we can deal in responsible ways with the ongoing intertwinement of humans and technologies. The limit-attitude leads to an ethical approach that is not preoccupied with the question of whether a given technology is morally acceptable or not, but that is directed at improving the quality of our lives, as lived with technology. Standing at the limits of what mediates our existence, we can evaluate the quality of these mediations 'from within', and actively engage in reshaping these mediations and our own relations toward them.

It needs to be emphasized that this does not imply that all mediations are equally desirable, and that there can never be grounds to reject technologies. Rather, it implies that ethical reflection needs to engage more deeply with actual technological artifacts and practices. Giving up on an external position does not require us to give up all critical distance; it only prevents us from overestimating the distance we can take. An ethics of 'technology accompaniment' rather than 'technology assessment' should in fact be seen as a form of 'governing' the impact technology can have on one's existence and on society. It replaces the modernist ambition to 'steer' technology and to 'protect' humanity against technological invasions with a more modest ambition to 'govern' technological developments by engaging actively with their social and existential implications.

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