Digital Tools with Utilitarian Ethics

As I read “The Story Digital Tools Tell” by Tarleton Gillespie, my first impression was that Gillespie’s main argument was that technologies are neutral, that they have no agendas. However, as I continued reading it became apparent that he was opposed to this naïve perception of technology. Once he referenced Langdon Winner I made the connection that, although technology is neutral in the sense that it can be used as a tool for both extremes, there is an underlying agenda formulated not by technology, but by the human user. Further, on the issue of intentionality, I don’t see how intent is ever universally read. Almost every piece of literature I’ve had to discuss in my classes has had at least two rational perceptions on implied meaning, or perhaps the intent was accidental. Why should technology be any different?

Gillespie is touching on the topic of technological determinism. Up until today, I was unfamiliar with the term. However, after reading this and another article for my ENGH 319, Cell Phone Cultures class, the term kept coming up. I’ve come to understand it as a basis for society’s social norms and practices deriving from technological advances; as Gillespie states in laments terms “the sense that technology actively intervenes in the world” (111). I concluded from his explanation of this theory that technology is also a utilitarian tool. If technology can be used to regulate ways of life, the mastermind behind the regulation is hoping to gain something out of it; as Gillespie states, “no innovation… would make any difference whatsoever if they did not help to muster, align, and win over new and unexpected allies” (111). Utilitarianism acts in favor of one’s self-interest and how he or she will benefit in a scenario. This ethical theory is made prominent with technologies if we use Gillespie’s advice in reading into “the stories digital tools tell.” For example, take the tool the classic iPod. A story I read into for the iPod is that music should be easily accessible and, therefore, easy to change. The iPod changed how music is played, from a composed selection (album or playlist) to a database (shuffle). This bridges the gap between platform and intent.