Can Technology Undermine Character?

by Fabio Tollon

What is “character”? In general, we might say that the character of something is what distinguishes it from other things. Sedimentary rocks have a certain “character” that distinguishes them from igneous rocks, for example. Rocks, however, do not have personality (so far as I can tell). Human beings have personality, and it is thought that there is some connection between personality and character, but my interest does not lie in how exactly this relation works, as here I will be concerned with character specifically. To that end, we might specify that character is a collection of properties that distinguishes one individual person from another. When we say “she is wise” we are saying something about her personality, but we are also judging her character: we are, in effect, claiming that we admire her, due to some feature of her character. There could be myriad reasons for this. Perhaps she takes a keen interest in the world around her, has well-formed beliefs, reads many books, etc. In the case where she indeed displays the virtues associated with being wise, we would say that our assessment of her character is fitting, that is, such an assessment correctly identifies the kinds of things she stands for and values. The question I want to consider is whether the value laden nature of technology undermines our ability to make such character assessments.

When evaluating the character of someone we might list certain virtues that they possess: They could be honest, brave, or wise, for example. These virtues can roughly be grouped as the things that they stand for or care about. The things we care about or stand for might be thought of as being the result of the kinds of experiences we have had – our education, parents, and community, and the way these factors interact with our natural endowments. For character, however, it seems to matter that the things we stand for are the result of a deliberate and intentional choice we have made. They cannot just be “up to nature” as then they would not be appropriately attributable to us. Character, therefore, concerns those underlying attitudes and beliefs that guide our decisions, where there is a close connection between those values and our actions. For an action to be properly attributable to my character it should be the case that this action followed from the things that I value or care for. There are of course cases where we might say that certain actions are not attributable to us and are thus out of character. For example, if your partner is usually very caring and considerate, but has recently come under a lot of stress at work leading them to snap and raise their voice at you, you would not disdain them. Their outburst would be out of character, and thus would not be reflective of the values that they really stand for. Now that we have a rough handle on character, let us turn towards technology.

Well, technology has been argued to be capable of having values embedded into it, and thus standing for certain values. These values may be intentionally designed and successfully embedded (for example, a speed bump embodying the value of safety), but they may also be intentionally designed for but unsuccessfully embedded (for example, “safe cigarettes” meant to embody the value of “health”, ended up causing adverse health outcomes). The point here is not to figure out how to successfully embed values in technology, but rather to note that technology can come to embody values that are distinct from those they were designed to embody.

Thus there is the possibility that technology can come to influence or reflect our values in ways that are beyond our control. For example, wearable technologies (such as fitness trackers or smart watches) provide us with a stream of biometric information. This information changes the way in which we experience ourselves and the world around us. Bombarded with this information, we might use such technology to peer pressure ourselves into exercising (Apple allows you to get updates, beamed directly to your watch, of when your friends exercise), or we might use it to stay up to date with the latest news (by enabling smart notifications). In either case, the point is that these technologies reflect or stand for certain values, and we make use of them so that we might improve ourselves. We use wearable fitness trackers to keep healthy, we use social media applications to fill the void, and we use notifications to remind us of Liana’s birthday. We sometimes use technology to make us appear like better people than we might have been without the technology. However, is there a case to be made that in such cases we are not actually “standing for” these values, and that the technology (in virtue of it being value-laden) has undermined the ability for these actions to be properly attributable to us?

This could occur in cases where we rely technological systems to influence our behaviour, thus potentially making our decisions not “up to us” and complicating the reasonableness of these decisions as flowing from our character. When we stick to our training regime because our watch will literally not shut up until we do, can we really be proud of ourselves for having done so? Has the technology not, in some sense, coerced us into behaving in a certain way by providing a negative stimulus (in the form of a loud noise, or by us knowing that if we don’t exercise this omission will also become public knowledge by a lack of an activity upload for that day).

I do not think that this fully captures what is going on. Our feelings of disdain or admiration, while perhaps mediated and influenced by technology, do not depend on technology. Even when we make use of AI or more simplistic technological systems to encourage this or that behaviour, such actions are still attributable to us if the behaviours they promote are in line with our second-order desires. That is, they are things that we want to want. For example, I might want to lose weight, but struggle to do so, and so I enlist the services of a personal trainer to help me exercise and get me on a proper diet. Having this person my life, and following their instructions, does not make these actions any less my own. This is because I want to be the kind of person who is healthy, and this is a means for me to achieve this goal. While technology might provoke such changes in our character over time, it does not cause these changes. Additionally, what we value and the things we stand for (being healthy, caring for others, etc.) are what drive us to use technology in the first place. Thus, these values and commitments remain ours, even if technology makes it easier or more convenient for us to act upon them. Ultimately, the buck starts and stops with us.