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What is the Point of Tech?

Milton Friedman famously argued that the point of business was to increase shareholder value. He claimed "social responsibility" as a business project was a waste of time or just window dressing because executives were only employed to increase the value of their companies.

An important rebuttal to Friedman, such as that of Edward Freedman (no relation), champion of stakeholder theory, is that the problem with this idea is that businesses themselves are not just supposed to make money. They have to make money to survive, but in all honesty, businesses carry out some important function. A grocery store provides food. A construction company builds buildings. A law firm litigates. Even companies that have bad reputations should be doing something right if they're making money. What this means is the point of business is not to make money, but something else. Given why human beings need markets, it's reasonable to say that the point of business is to facilitate the necessary commutations that keep society functioning. To put the point more bluntly, it cannot be the sole responsibility of executives to maximize shareholder value because the point of business is not to make money.

A similar question should be asked about the point of technology. Is it just to have the newest and most efficient gadget? Is it just to see what we can do? Is it to become lords of the universe, subjecting the very fabric of being to our will (that might sound a little extreme, but there are proponents of that)? If the point of business is not just to make money, it's probably true that the point of technology is not just to make more and better tech.

The question of what technology is meant to do and why we produce it are questions broadly suited to philosophy of technology. In the early days of philosophy of technology, going back to the earlier half of the twentieth century, technology was seen as primarily an extension of capitalism. Martin Heidegger, arguably the biggest philosopher of technology, saw modern technology as having the character of reducing everything to use-end. In other words, it was all about efficiency and maximization of power or money. This idea is echoed in various ways in the writings of philosophers like Jacques Ellul, Gabriel Marcel and others.

It may be true that efficiency and capital are often important drivers for technological development, but it isn't the point of technology. After all, this would be a pretty useless goal. The next generation of smartphones would only be better than the last because we call it better. And we just develop faster and more efficient technology until....? Until we reach the maximum threshold?

Hans Jonas at one point noted that technology seems to have as its aim meeting basic human needs, including protections against scarcity and common threats. So our technologies improve our access to food, clean water and shelter. And protect us from wild animals, the extremities and other humans. They allow us to better connect to people, a basic need for human beings. They allow us to travel to better locales, for work, family or enjoyment. And yes, they do allow us to better exploit resources and increase our capital, important for securing our own well-being.

But, Jonas, asks, is that it? Assuming we can achieve a world without scarcity and with all necessary protections, do we stop producing new technologies? Is that the end? Maybe it is. If that's the case, we have to figure out what is the point of human life afterward. Jonas suggests philosophy is for this purpose, to give human life direction and purpose. And, of course, that is entirely a philosophical (or religious) question. So the important question has to be what are we aiming for? What is it we want to become or be? Where is it we hope to go with our lives? And, most importantly perhaps, what is it we hope for our children and grandchildren?

These questions should be at the heart of all tech development. As new projects are greenlit or drafted, it is crucial to ask what the tech is hoping to accomplish. Will it lead us to the future we hope for? Or, as many new techs seem to be designed, is it only to increase market control and remain competitive over other firms?

Edward Freedman notes that businesses need to make money to survive, though it's not their aim. Likewise, tech firms may need to roll out new products to remain competitive, but they should not lose sight that this isn't their end game. "Eyes on the prize," so the saying goes; keep the real goal in sight.

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