Each post this week serves a dual purpose: an exploration of the topic at hand as well as a re-introduction to big ideas this blog will be grappling with.
Whether or not I should buy an Apple Watch doesn’t seem to be a question of ethics, right? It’s a question about a little computer I strap to my wrist so I don’t have to take my phone out every time it buzzes.
Now, that seems like a minor benefit, but the fear of phones taking over our lives is a common theme among the tech anxious. We spend hours looking at our phones, checking them upwards of a hundred or more times per day, and perceive them vibrating even when they are not. Glowing screens are among the first and last thing we see every day.
Phones interrupt our social lives. Going to the movies, sitting at dinner, chatting with friends, among many others, are activities forever changed by the phone. We disconnect from our immediate social circle to connect with a wider one.
We have also, of course, gained social connections thru these devices. Perhaps an interrupting text is from a mutual friend who cannot attend, or a notification of an event relevant to everyone. More importantly, perhaps it is a communication from a friend who is lost or hurt. Partners and spouses can easily send little updates when the two are apart.
My partner and I use texts and the “Find My Friend” app to make sure the other is ok if one of us is out late with friends. I use FaceTime to see my parents and grandmother between trips and on holidays. I often tweet at and with a fellow ethicist from the other side of the planet.
The worst aspects of my phone are that I check it needlessly and it draws me away from intimate interactions, yet for the rare cases where I needed that notification it dramatically improves my life. If there was a way for me to stay in the moment more easily, and yet be notified of something important that would allow me to be a more engaged friend. I am aware of my bad habits and how they negatively affect those I care about. If there was a device that could help me curb or minimize these behaviors, it might (might) let me be a fractionally better person.
Kant’s “ought implies can” formula is simple: if we are morally obliged or compelled to do something, it is implicit that we can do that thing. Otherwise, it would be pretty unfair to consider it a moral failing for you to not do something that is literally impossible for you.
But what happens to ought when new abilities, new “can”s come along? Do our moral obligations shift with technology? Or is ethics a baseline and its relation to technology merely an extrapolation? Or is the extrapolation to these new cans the actual basis of ethics?
Technology is changing how we behave and, in turn, our ethics. Minor technologies may not modify our lives significantly, but huge society shaping innovations like the light bulb and antibiotics and cellphones and self-driving cars have profound implications.
This blog aims to investigate those implications of everyday things. Are we obliged to keep up with technology as it drives new social norms? What does it mean to reject new modes of interaction and intimacy?
So, should I buy an Apple Watch? And more importantly how does the answer to that question change if smartwatches become as popular as smartphones?