Computers are immoral

by | Feb 15, 2017 | Uncategorized | 19 comments


  1. Bill M

    Very well said. My first computer experience was making analog computers from a Popular Electronics article when I was about 12 or so. Soon after that I got a real computer, an analog computer kit from Heathkit or Knightkit. Only difference between that and the home made one was more dials. In college we had a mainframe on which to learn COBOL and FORTRAN. Then came the PC. Oh, a comment on this would mostly repeat your post in the comment. What excited me were the first calculators, especially the HP-35!

  2. Joe V

    Your thoughts mirror my own, in the way that manual typewriters are "merely" physical and lack that facade of software mediation and fakery. I look forward to where these thoughts take you further.

  3. Linus Kafka

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Unknown

    Hmmm. I guess I'll be the voice of dissent on the attribution of morality to objects.

    As an example, most typewriter collectors seem to agree that a typewriter that has Nazi SS runes is not in and of itself evil. The typewriter is not capable of choice. Any object cannot be imbued with the ability to distinguish immorality or morality, it can only be used for one or the other. A former Nazi typewriter is a curio, a relic of a past evil. It may be distasteful, it may represent the evil of the Nazis, it may embody for some all the human horror and immoral potentials of war, but by itself, it is no more capable of hurting your feelings than it is of taking responsibility for how it has been used; past, present or future.

    Morality is a concept, ultimately a choice. Sentient creatures who have the ability to distinguish right (moral) from wrong (immoral) can choose to use any object, thoughts, words or deeds to embody morality or immorality in their choices, but a computer …. it can only be or do what its programmer or operator decides that it will do.

    I will then posit that computers present a choice to us – just like a typewriter. How will you *use* it? How will you allow this object to enrich or manipulate your perception of reality? How will you react to that? How will you *choose* to use this power – the power to distinguish moral from immoral, and what choice will you make?

    I believe Diogenes, for instance, would agree that the THING has no power over good or evil – but how you *choose* to use it defines who you are.

    Very thought provoking, Richard. :)

  5. Richard P

    Thanks, Brian. Your reply is eminently reasonable, and I may end up agreeing.

    But just to continue the discussion: there are some objects that, if they are used at all, are used for immoral purposes. For instance, an implement of torture. (I know that some argue that torture can be justified, but imagine the worst possible such device and substitute the weaker expression "morally compromised purposes" if you like.) So it's possible for objects to have moral aspects, though they themselves aren't morally responsible. With some objects, the only moral use is no use at all.

    Therefore, the morality of computers is a legitimate topic of discussion. What if there is a subtle but inevitable aspect of these devices that makes every use of them a form of deception and laziness? What if their very nature is to allow us to shirk hard work and forthright relationships, and create illusions? It's an idea I am exploring.

  6. Unknown

    Okay, so if an implement of torture sits on a table in a room, by itself, is it moral or immoral? Let's say that implement is a screw driver, or a car battery.

    In one context (defined by the operator of said device), it is used to moral ends, it is helpful – it could even be used to save lives.

    In another context (defined by the operator of said device), it is used to immoral ends, and is used to torture or take life.

    Is the object immoral, or is its use and therefore its operator immoral?

  7. Richard P

    A screwdriver and a battery aren't inherently torture devices. Think of a thumbscrew or an iron maiden.

  8. Unknown

    I do understand where you're going…. what if you said the Computer is the gateway to immorality? For instance, what is a computer's key, inherent weakness? Much like a thumbscrew or iron maiden … external power. A computer cannot function without external power. A thumbscrew, a torture device, is powerless without the operator (external power).

    So is it that the device is the gateway to evil or immorality?

  9. Richard P

    Friendly amendment accepted!

  10. Unknown

    This is a tremendously complex subject you've thrust us into, Richard. It is really hurting my brain. :)

    In the spirit of fleshing this out for myself, I am kind of thinking aloud here. I never thought I'd be able to compare a computer to a torture device, but you have me on that path. Please forgive me if this is too over the top. I am tickling this dragon's tail that you laid before me. :)

    I think that in light of the apparent necessity to classify an object based on its designed intent, for instance a torture object Vs a non-torture object, would we then have to say that a former Nazi SS typewriter ceased to be a creative, potentially-moral device at the moment that it was designated an SS machine. If a torture device is by its existence immoral, than you would have to argue that a former SS typewriter is too immoral by its very existence – regardless of how it was used, whether it is "new, old stock" or it was actually used by Hitler himself, the power that is attributed to the symbology of the object itself, if we take this to its logical ends, defines the morality of the object. No? So if a computer has the ability to be used in a moral way, can it be wholly classified as immoral? What if the computer's purpose is basic mathematic computation, and has nothing to do with simulation or altering reality? You could also argue that that is wholly a construct of the program running on a computer. Surely a computer that is capable of basic mathematics is likely capable of running simulations too? So is the only safe computer one that is turned off, or is that edging too close to the gateway of immorality, that they should be deconstructed into a non-functioning state to remove the threat of immorality? Can you see where this is leading? Is this not the argument for book burning?

    To me, intellectually and philosophically, a device, any device or object, whether a steak knife or an iron maiden extends the will of its user. That *will* is moral or immoral. The object, which for the sake of argument could be a piece of artwork, is incapable of thought, it is incapable of dictating how it is used or perceived. Its power to be used morally or immorally is left completely with the operator at any given moment in time.

    The construction of any device or object, its very presence is due to the mindful conception of the inventor, so perhaps you could say that an iron maiden by its conception is immoral, and therefore any manifestation of it in physical form is inherently immoral, regardless of if or when or how it may or may not be used?

    Now, we can get into something of an emotional trap – we can look at a former Nazi SS typewriter or iron maiden and be personally, physically moved to sickness at the sight of it … but that is 100% our reaction. I argue that that reaction is 100% a humanistic projection of perception of morality, history, potential *onto* that device, it is not the device itself. It is what we perceive as its *potential* or known history that moves us to be physically affected by it – even if we never touch it. Just knowing that it exists is enough to evoke a strong emotional response.

    Said another way, if I ate a steak with a steak knife that was used to kill 100 people, would that make me immoral? What if I had no idea of the history of the steak knife? On the other hand, if I *knew* the knife's history and *chose* to eat with it – wow – yeah, super-creepy, maybe evil, or … what if the wielder of the object neither imparted nor projected any of the objects past onto the present? What if the wielder of the object refused to give the object power beyond its static state of inanimate amorality? Or is this person maybe a little psychopathic? If so, does that make the collector of an SS typewriter a psychopath, because they choose to see the object as an object and do not project all its *potential* baggage onto it?

  11. Richard P

    Hey, hurting brains is my job! Seriously, thanks for contributing these extensive thoughts. You are helping me work through this topic.

    I agree with many philosophers of technology who have rejected the idea that technology is purely a neutral means, to be used for various ends which are good or bad depending on the user's intentions. All technology lays out a characteristic range of possibilities that have ethical and political dimensions. The range of possibilities is not just our subjective projection, but is an inherent aspect of the technology. For instance, if you build nuclear power plants, you promote centralized political power, since by their very nature they have to be under tight government control. Langdon Winner uses this example, among others, in his 1986 book The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. He also has a prescient chapter on computers. He's not against them in general, but is skeptical of the naive predictions at the time that they would turn everyone into an informed, empowered citizen and lead to greater freedom.

    Some devices, like an iron maiden or a baby carriage, create a narrow range of possibilities with strong ethical and political characteristics. Others, like a hammer, are far more open-ended, but I still think that their range of possibilities involves some vague ethical implications. I am interested in certain devices in between these extremes, such as typewriters and computers, that are very open-ended—in fact, they open up infinite possibilities—but nevertheless tend to enable and encourage certain kinds of behavior.

    If a "typewriter insurgency" against overcomputerization is a good idea, as I think it is, then it isn't only a matter of changing our attitudes and goals; the actual technology with which we interact is also an important part of the situation.

    On the fraught question of SS typewriters, I personally don't want such an unpleasant memento in my collection, but I understand there are good reasons for others to collect them. The collector is then using the machine in a way contrary to its purpose (i.e. aiding Nazi bureaucracy and ideology), which is well and good. This is not a device that can only be used in one way—but to use it for good purposes, you need to swim against the current, as it were. This supports my point that technology brings with it a range of possibilities that have ethical significance.

  12. Robin Heilschild ????

    You are totally, thoroughly right. xD

    1988! I wasn't born yet! W o W
    I wish I were born in the early 70's instead of 1991. xD

    My first computer lasted just 15 years only. It got old along with me, since I was 10 years old (2001) until being about to turn 24 (2015). I saw how those luxirious, huge devices got small and slim, and how they were converted in a sort of impossible-to-leave devices through the Internet, the e-mails, the chat programs and the social networks. I also saw how my first computer's pieces and hardware's components got obsolete and impossible to replace, and even more expensive as time went forward. In that way, I got disappointed of computeering. :(

    As time went forward, I got fed up of computers as I discovered they weren't what media (literature, news, movies, cartoons, etc.) promised me. Sometimes, even I get pissed off when I have to turn on the computer in order to check up the e-mails, social networks' profiles and such. Sometimes, I attempt to avoid them… And sometimes I remember those days when I used to be addict to them (2004-2013). :(

  13. Doug Freeman

    We're also asking here what is fake and what is lazy? And how do our attitudes and goals evolve with any labor saving technology?

    Our front page "news" incessantly reminds us of digital technology's capacity for fostering the fake. Social media aids and abets propagation of information—whether fake or real, and who knows which?—at a rate we can scarcely keep up with. All digital photography and video can be manipulated in any way its advocates desire. What is real or fake is increasingly difficult to know. Maybe even approaching impossible?

    A 12 year-old student, wihout even a conception of libraries, card catalogs, and microfiche, might believe it's a lot of work to search Google for the information she needs for her history report. (I've witnessed this with my own children.) Talk about lazy! Only we old schoolers know the difference. This dynamic applies across our entire culture, of course, and notions of "good old days" and "the new generation is going to the dogs" inevitably arise.

    As the 2nd Amendment enthusiasts like to remind us: guns don't kill, people do. That was my first thought as I started reading this excellent post, Richard. Thanks for the conversation.

  14. Anonymous

    I think Brian touched upon some important aspect of this discussion. Our ancient ancestors used rocks to hit other people, but the Egyptians and Romans used them to build grand structures representing intangible ideals. I think one could make the argument that digital technology has acquainted us with how some modern people think. There is no filter to our thoughts as long as they stay inside of our head. Most letters are written after the author has had time to collect their beliefs and choose the right words. One also has to acknowledge that American society no longer encourages moderation in anything, hence the enabling device is pushed by an enabling culture.

    My first computer experience was in grade school, circa 1994. We used the old Apples to do lessons and I never in my wildest dreams imagined they would become what they are now. We didn't one for our own family for many more years, and the internet was more trouble that it was worth.

    Richard, I'm sure you could do a whole paper on how even in the poorest neighborhoods with crumbling infrastructure everyone's got a cell phone. I see it as a desperate attempt to create an alternate reality for ourselves.

  15. Mark

    It would be no danger for me to have an iron maiden in my home. I have no interest at all in torturing people. But leave a stack of Playboys in my home and that could lead to immorality… but that would be because of me and biases and tendencies which are already present, not because of the magazines.

  16. Mark

    Ugh, I had a whole thing typed out and it wasn't posting and I thought I had copied all of it… above is just my conclusion. The premise was that morality stems from consciousness, and an object's tendency to lead one toward or away from morality has to do with predilections and personal biases. Someone who is interested, perhaps too interested, in Nazism could become more like a Nazi through ownership of an SS typewriter. But to think someone with no interest in Nazism could be influenced by such an object seems a little absurd.
    An objects capacity to lead to immorality is a function of what the machine represents, added to the tendencies of that individual personality.

  17. Richard P

    If I understand you rightly, Mark, the morality (or maybe "ethical dimension" is a more flexible term) of technology is a combination of its own possibilities and the user's proclivities. That certainly sounds right to me—keeping in mind that the two aspects can transform each other. If I use a thing, my desires and habits may change. In turn, users' desires and habits may lead to new designs for objects.

    The statement "computers are immoral" is too simplistic. However, it's possible that, in the wide and complex realm of human-computer interactions, the technology primarily encourages us to develop tendencies that are less than honest. That makes for a more boring headline, but it might be true.

  18. Richard P

    Thanks for your thoughts, Doug.

    It's true that in the era of practically infinite information, our old (somewhat naive) trust in information is evaporating. So much of it may be misinformation or disinformation. Unfortunately, we then tend to turn to our narrow social groups or some charismatic leader.

  19. Richard P

    Nice points, Taylor. No, we're not moderate in anything anymore …

    I wouldn't want to deny the poor their cell phones, as they do address some pretty basic needs.


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