Welcome to The Technological Citizen!

This site is a collection of essays I’ve written, as well as essays by other philosophers, ethicists, and writers that I’ve featured, on ethical and philosophical issues in modern technology.  It ran from 2009 to 2010.

The purpose of the site is to promote awareness, dialogue, and reflection about the ways in which technology is reshaping the human experience, and how these changes can be considered through a more meditative, philosophical and ethical framework.  There are currently 22 articles, which you can view either by scrolling down or by clicking here to view the site index page.

Topics on the site include the ethics of cognitive enhancementthe implications of fMRI brain scans on our conceptions of free will, the ways in which the Internet is changing the way we read,  ethical perspectives on Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, and the changing face of ethics as a result of environment-shifting technologies, to name a few.

If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at TheTechnologicalCitizen@gmail.com.  Thanks!

The Technological Citizen and The Dragonfly Effect, Out Now

Hi everyone, please be sure to check out The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, available on Amazon now and in stores.  I contributed to the book as a writer and also helped design, create, and write content for their website, http://www.dragonflyeffect.com/.

The Dragonfly Effect explores ways that people can use social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for social good.  It chronicles the powerful stories of organizations like Kiva.org and Alex’s Lemonade’s Stand and isolates the key features of successful social media campaigns to provide insight into the ways in which we can all use social media to make positive changes in the world. It was written by Professor of Marketing at Stanford Business School Jennifer Aaker and social media consultant Andy Smith.

Check out more resources from the book on the Dragonfly Facebook page here.

Site Index

To see all the articles from the first year of the blog, just scroll down, or check out the Site Index.  Thanks!

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The Technological Citizen, Year One: A Recap

World in handGreetings!

This post marks the end of the first year of The Technological Citizen, and the end of my Hackworth Fellowship at The Markkula Center for Ethics.  And what a year it has been!

Over the course of the past 9 months, I’ve written and featured 22 articles, on topics ranging from biotechnology to neuroscience to social networking to artificial intelligence.  These articles have amassed upwards of 650 thoughtful and interesting comments, and over the course of the year, approximately  150,000 people have visited the blog.

Throughout the year, posts from The Technological Citizen have been incorporated into the curriculum of fifteen courses at Santa Clara University in five different departments, including Social and Ethical Issues in Biotechnology (Biology Department); Science, Technology and Society (Philosophy Department); Technology and Communication (Communications Department); Science, Ethics, and Society (English Department), and Difficult Dialogues in Genetics and Medicine. Hundreds of students have responded to posts as part of their coursework, and students from the philosophy course Science, Technology and Society wrote “guest posts” as their final papers, from which the previous post on electronic recycling was selected.

Over the year, I’ve been able to connect with some amazing people in the fields of technology, ethics and beyond.  Contributing writers to the blog have included Paul Bloom, psychologist from Yale University;  Wendell Wallach, ethicist from Yale University; and Colin Allen, from Indiana University.  I’ve also been honored to feature articles by Dr. Lawrence Nelson, bioethicist from Santa Clara University, and Dr. Sean Hatt, psychologist from Santa Clara University’s Graduate School of Psychology.  I am so grateful, too, to Roger Holzberg from Methuselah Foundation for letting me interview him about the foundation’s work in life extension, and to Dr. Wallach and Dr. Allen for featuring my article on The Singularity on their blog, Moral Machines.


Living in the Silicon Valley has afforded me some excellent opportunities throughout the year as well: I’ve attended lectures by Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; Dr. William Hurlbut from Stanford’s Neuroscience Institute on ethical issues raised by biotechnology; Dr. Hank Greely, Dr. David Magnus, and Dr. Christine Wijman at The Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford on fMRI technology and Vegitative States; and blogger and writer Jonah Lehrer on neuroscience and decision making.

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Ethics and Electronic Waste, Part 1

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Want to play a game, and take little a trip down memory lane? Grab a piece of paper, or start a running tally in your head: we’re going to go through all the electronic devices you’ve owned in your lifetime.  Ready? Here goes:

Take a moment and think all the way back to the first cell phone you ever had –perhaps chuckle as you recall how the clunky device compares to the sleek, multitasking gadget you have now– and go through all the cellular phones you’ve had since then. Count them up — how many have there been in total?  Is it 3? 5? 7?  More? Take note.

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Food For Thought: The Story of Stuff

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Watch The Story of Stuff and The Story of Electronics.

Ethics and Electronic Recycling Part 2

Throwing IpodsIt’s pretty easy to adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about old electronics, especially because we live in an age preoccupied with constant updates and upgrades.  Sleeker, faster models of our favorite electronics emerge each month (an average of 16 new types of cell phones come on the market each month) — and for many, it can be hard to be left in the 20th century dark ages with technological gadgets that don’t perform the newest and slickest tricks. But in a flurry to buy new electronic items, we often forget about what happens to the old ones.  We embrace these new gadgets, say out with the old and in with the new, but in the process we often fail to give proper attention to all the old items we leave behind.

Santa Clara University Recycling Intern Kaelin Holland works at Santa Clara University to promote awareness about this issue — and to encourage people to recycle the items they no longer have use for, including electronics.  In her post below, she discusses the global e-waste epidemic and the moral problems it presents, and then she outlines some ways to make sure we stop it.  She also identifies the best places in Santa Clara and beyond to recycle all of your old electronics.  Make sure to check it out the next time you’re in the market for an upgrade.

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The Power of Social Technology at Stanford Business School

Social NetworkTake a second and consider: out of all the articles, videos, and blog posts you see in a week, which ones do you breeze through and forget, and which ones stick with you?

Which ones do you forward onto your friends, and which ones do you relegate to internet oblivion?

Out of the requests you get on Facebook to support a cause or become a “fan,” to the e-mails you get from Barack Obama to watch a short video about healthcare reform, to a link someone sends you to donate to their charity, how many of them do you take the time to engage with deeply, and how many go, in one eye, so to speak, and out the other?

Most of us are inundated with requests online to take notice of social causes: to “Save Darfur” or to “Campaign for Cancer Awareness”.  And yet many of us glaze over and ignore them; or perhaps we join a group but end up taking no real action towards the cause. Indeed, for anyone who has ever created a YouTube video, written a blog, or tried to get someone to join their cause on Facebook, you likely know that simply sending out a request doesn’t always lead to action.

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Food For Thought: The Power of Social Technology

question mark“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” -Anne Frank

Reading Minds With fMRIs

brain scan“There is a sacred realm of privacy for every man and woman where he makes his choices and decisions–a realm of his own essential rights and liberties into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude.” -Geoffrey Fisher

In the times of social networking, the Internet, and personal information everywhere being made public, there is no question that we are experiencing a loss of privacy left and right.  One might say that the last bastion of privacy – our own thoughts – is all we have to hold onto (although some people, driven by the age of Twitter, have taken to publishing all of those, too).

But a segment on 60 Minutes last year brought to light that even these private thoughts are up for grabs, with brain scanning technologies “making it possible for the first time in human history to peer directly into the brain to read out the physical make up of our thoughts, some would say, to read out minds.”  Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI for short) enables us to scan and see the metabolic activity inside the brain, allowing researchers to begin to identify where thoughts occur, and what they might look like, by measuring changes in blood flow and oxygenation in the brain and linking it with certain mental states.  The implications – for the law, for our notions of privacy, for our conceptions of free will– are profound.  “We all take as a given that we’ll never really know for sure, that the content of our thoughts is our own.  Private, secret, unknowable by anyone else,” Lesley Stahl, 60 Minutes correspondent says.  “Until now, that is.”

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Food For Thought: Reading Minds

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“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.” – Emerson Pugh


The Technological Citizen was featured on the blog Moral Machines:

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Moral Machines is a blog on the theory and development of artificial moral agents and computational ethics, maintained by Wendell Wallach from Yale University’s Center for Bioethics and Colin Allen, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University.  Be sure to check it out!

An Ethical Look At Cognitive Stimulants, Part 1

adderallIS“Every era has its own defining drug.” – Margaret Talbot

With the high availability of so-called “cognitive enhancing drugs” like Ritalin, Adderall, and Provigil on college campuses, students everywhere are facing the choice of whether or not to take non-prescribed medications to help them “perform better” in school. Studies show that anywhere between 20-35% of college students have used one of these medications without a prescription in their college career, but an informal survey would likely reveal an even higher percentage, as the use of these medications is on the rise.  Many claim these drugs help them concentrate, study longer, and juggle more tasks by creating more productive hours in the day.  Others rely on them in a crunch, during midterms, finals, or the night before a big test, when the clock is ticking and assignments are due, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time –or brain power–to get everything that needs to get done, done.

The question of whether to use these “cognitive enhancing drugs” poses many ethical concerns– some rooted in the very immediate and direct impact of these drugs on the developing brains of young people, and some rooted more in what these drugs say philosophically about the direction our society is headed in.  And with the rate of use tripling within the past ten years, along with the fact that dozens of new cognitive stimulants are currently in the pharmaceutical pipeline, it seems an important issue to examine.  Should we embrace the use of these drugs, in hopes of them making us smarter, more efficient, and more productive?  Or should we be wary of using them, concerned with the risks that they pose not only to our brains, but to our own personal and societal values?

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Food For Thought: Cognitive Stimulants

question mark“If we have a tradition it is this: Everything can always be done faster and better.” – Henry Ford

An Ethical Look At Cognitive Stimulants, Part 2, Guest Post by Dr. Sean Hatt

Prescription PillsWho decides what’s right, what is socially appropriate, and what is societally acceptable when it comes to the use of things that alter your brain function?

It’s interesting to consider how we decide what the rules are about which drugs are deemed socially acceptable and which ones are not.  We condone (not only condone, but actively rely on) certain substances like caffeine, guzzling down cups of coffee and cans of Red Bull without a second thought about their “ethical implications.”  We condemn marijuana as illegal but allow a much more dangerous drug – alcohol – to be consumed at will after the age of 21.  We think it’s permissible to use coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes to pull an all nighter to complete work but would gape at someone snorting a line of cocaine for the same reason.  How are these lines we draw–the ones that call a certain brain-altering substance taboo and another one completely embraceable– determined?  Do they involve a careful assessment of their effects on the brain?   A standardized measure of risks?  Do they come from some subjective evaluation grandfathered in by socially determined forces?

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Interview with Methuselah Foundation’s Roger Holzberg

My previous post about radical life extension presented an extreme picture of the future, where humans are able to live longer and longer as a result of melding with machines, eventually even becoming machines themselves.  It’s a fascinating future to consider, but also gets one thinking: are Kurzweil’s visions of immortality even close to being feasible, given the current state and direction of today’s technological advancements?  When it comes, realistically, to life extension technologies, where do we really stand today?



There’s perhaps no group of people to better answer this question than the people of Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by David Gobel, which supports Aubrey De Grey’s SENS research and is dedicated to enabling humans “to live longer, better and wiser, by defeating age-related disease and suffering.” I had the privilege of speaking to Roger Holzberg, the Chief Marketing Officer and Creative Director of Methuselah Foundation, about the core philosophies of the foundation and the promising research they are involved with.  I asked Mr. Holzberg, what are the areas of life extension available now, and in our short-term future? What fundamentally drives the foundation towards seeking these life extension solutions?

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Immortality, Transhumanism, and Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” – Vernor Vinge, Technological Singularity, 1983

TranshumanFuturist and Inventor Ray Kurzweil has a plan: He wants to never die.

In order to achieve this goal, he currently takes over 150 supplements per day, eats a calorie restricted diet (a proven technique to prolong lifespan), drinks ionized water (a type of alkalinized water that supposedly protects against free radicals in the body), and exercises daily, all to promote the healthy functioning of his body; and at 60 years old, he reportedly has the physiology of a man 20 years younger.

But the human body, no matter how well you take care of it, is susceptible to illness, disease, and senescence – the process of cellular change in the body that results in that little thing we all do called “aging.”  (This cellular process is why humans are physiologically unable to live past the age of around 125 years old.)  Kurzweil is well aware of this, but has a solution: he is just trying to live long enough in his human body until technology reaches the point where man can meld with machine, and he can survive as a cyborg with robotically enhanced features; survive, that is, until the day when he can eventually upload his consciousness onto a harddrive, enabling him to “live” forever as bits of information stored indefinitely; immortal, in a sense, as long as he has a copy of himself in case the computer fails.

What happens if these technological abilities don’t come soon enough? Kurzweil has a back-up plan.  If, for some reason, this mind-machine  blend doesn’t occur in his biological lifetime, Kurzweil is signed up at Alcor Life Extension Foundation to be cryonically frozen and kept in Scottsdale, Arizona, amongst approximately 900 other stored bodies (including famous baseball player Ted Williams) who are currently stored.  There at Alcor, he will “wait” until the day when scientists discover the ability to reanimate life back into him– and not too long, as Kurzweil believes this day will be in about 50 years.

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Food For Thought: The Singularity and Transhumanism

question mark“Man…is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.” – William S. Burroughs

“The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. Americans have long honored the “self-made man,” but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what’s about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time. But it’s the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species. And it’s much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.” – Daniel Dennett

“Natural Happiness” By Paul Bloom

There is something primal about our need for nature — for time in the out doors, for sunshine, for fresh air.  Psychologist Paul Bloom writes, “Our hunger for the natural is everywhere…People like to be close to oceans, mountains, and trees.  Even in the most urban environments, it is reflected in real estate prices: if you want a view of the trees of Central Park, it’ll cost you.  Office buildings have atriums and plants; we give flowers to the sick and the beloved and return home to watch Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel…And many of us seek to escape our manufactured environments whenever we can — to hike, camp, canoe, or hunt.”

Yet on the heels of a study that just came out last week saying that teenagers spend up to 7.5 hours per day on digital devices — up an hour from the previous year — one wonders what is happening to our individual relationships to the natural world as a result of technology.  My previous post explored some of the broad ethical relationships between technology, human behavior, and the environment; today, I’m featuring an article which raises an important and related question: Is nature important to our happiness?  And if so, then why do we spend so much time attached to our technologies, and detached from nature?

In his article “Natural Happiness,” for The New York Times Magazine’s Green Issue, Paul Bloom, a psychologist from Yale University, asks us to ask ourselves these questions.  Read Bloom’s article, ahead.

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Food For Thought: Natural Happiness

question mark“How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”

– Jon Freeman

Do We Need New Ethics To Handle Modern Technology?

Black earthModern technology

Owes Ecology

An Apology.

-Alan Eddison

Each year, we lose over 38 million acres of rainforest as a result of deforestation; rainforests used to cover 14% of the earths surface; now, they cover less than 6%, and are depleting more each year. Our 800 million+ cars in the world emit carbon emissions at such a high level that they erode the atmosphere and are contributing to drastic changes in our weather patterns.  The trash we have discarded – including, of course, man-made non-biodegradable plastics– accumulate in landfills throughout the world and leach toxic chemicals into the land and water, greatly affecting the survival of animal and plant life.

And in a pursuit to feed the ever-growing world population, agricultural biotechnologists are altering the genetic make-up of food and plants, splicing the genes from fish into the genes of tomatoes, for example, to increase the amount that we can grow and the “nutrient content” they possess —  a type of species cross-breeding that has heretofor never occurred, and never would occur, naturally in nature.

Thinking about modern technologies of the past 100 years, one can’t help but see how they have radically transformed our planet.  The cars we drive, the massive amounts of waste we discard, the agricultural techniques we employ, among many other examples: each has led environmental aftereffects such as climate change and depletion of natural resources that have altered the biosphere in which we live in very significant ways.

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Food For Thought: Technology, The Environment, and Deep Ecology

New Ethics:question mark

“An object of an entirely new order – no less than the whole biosphere of the planet—has been added to what we must be responsible for because of our power over it.” -Hans Jonas

“It will certainly not be easy to awaken in people a new sense of responsibility for the world, an ability to conduct themselves as if they were to live on this earth forever, and to be held answerable for its condition one day.” -Vaclav Havel

“The Empathic Civilization is emerging. A younger generation is fast extending its empathic embrace beyond religious affiliations and national identification to include the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the Earth. But our rush to universal empathic connectivity is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?” -Jeremy Rifkin

Deep Ecology:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.” –Leopold’s Land Ethic

“The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature, — of sun, and wind, and rain, of summer and winter, — such health, such cheer, they afford for ever!  And such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, and the sun’s brightness fade, and the winds would sigh humanely, and the clouds rains tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve.  Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?  Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” -Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Are You a Techno-Optimist or a Techno-Pessimist?

“Reflections” is a new category of posts aimed to engage discussion about broader issues in technology and ethics.  This first “Reflections” post on Techno-optimism and Techno-pessimism asks you to consider, “What are your general views towards technology, and how did you arrive at those views?”

technology-and-human-communicationMany of us have opinions about technology that can be classified along the spectrum of being a “techno-optimist” or a “techno-pessimist” — categorizations that reflect our general attitude about our technological past, present, and future.

When you think about the way in which technology has impacted our world—from the environment, to our medical achievements, to human relationships — are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about its influence?

Are you a techno-optimist? Do you think technology has consistently improved our lives for the better, and that it will continue to do so into the future?  When you consider problems in society, or even problems with current technology, do you think that the solution to those problems is more technology?

Or would you characterize yourself as a techno-pessimist? Are you generally concerned with the impact that modern technology has had on humanity, believing that it has created just as many problems as solutions?  Do you think that seeking out more technology is likely to bring about new problems, because technology inevitably introduces unforeseen consequences and dangers? Do you think that since technology creates so many of its own problems, the answer to human progress often lies in a reduction of technological dependence, rather than an expansion of it?

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Food For Thought: Techno-Optimists and Pessimists

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“Based on first-hand evidence of your own senses – the improved health and later ages at which acquaintances die nowadays as compared with the past; the material goods that we now possess; the speed at which information, entertainment, and we ourselves move freely throughout the world – it seems to me that a person must be literally deaf and blind not to perceive that humanity is in a much better state than ever before.”
–Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource

“Today’s world is one in which the age-old risks of humankind – the drought, floods, communicable diseases- are less of a problem than ever before.  They have been replaced by the risks of humanity’s own making – the unintended side-effects of beneficial technologies and the intended effects of the technologies of war.  Society must hope that the world’s ability to assess and manage risks will keep pace with its ability to create them.”– J. Clarence Davies, quoted in Conservation Foundation: State of the Environment, An Assessment at Mid-Decade, 1984

“Moral Machines” By Wendell Wallach and Collin Allen

The face of a robot woman.

In the 2004 film I, Robot, Will Smith’s character Detective Spooner harbors a deep grudge for all things technological — and turns out to be justified after a new generation of robots engage in a full out, summer blockbuster-style revolt against their human creators.

Why was Detective Spooner such a Luddite–even before the Robots’ vicious revolt?  Much of his resentment stems from a car accident he endured in which a robot saved his life instead of a little girl’s.  The robot’s decision haunts Smith’s character throughout the movie; he feels the decision lacked emotion, and what one might call ‘humanity’.

I was the logical choice,” he says. “(The robot) calculated that I had a 45% chance of survival.  Sarah only had an 11% chance.”  He continues, dramatically, “But that was somebody’s baby.  11% is more than enough.  A human being would’ve known that.”

But what, exactly, is it that the human being would’ve known?  And how would they have known it?

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Food for Thought: Moral Machines

question mark“Can a machine be a genuine cause of harm? The obvious answer is affirmative. The toaster that flames up and burns down a house is said to be the cause of the fire, and in some weak sense, we might even say that the toaster was responsible for it; but the toaster is broken or defective, not immoral and irresponsible, though possibly the engineer who designed it is. But what about machines that decide things before they act, that determine their own course of action? Somewhere between digital thermostats and the murderous HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey, autonomous machines are quickly gaining in complexity, and most certainly a day is coming when we will want to blame them for genuinely causing harm, even if philosophical issues concerning their moral status have not been fully settled. When will that be?”

-Anthony F. Beavers, Ph.D., in Review of Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong by Wendall Wallach and Colin Allen. Read more here.

Our Cell Phone Culture

cell phonesCan you remember life before cell phones?

A time when if you wanted to get in touch with someone, you had to leave a message, and (gasp!) wait until they returned home to call you back?

A time before digital contact lists, when you memorized your friend’s phone numbers?

A time when if you planned to meet someone at a specific time and they were late, you’d just have to hang around until they got there?

A time when you might have sat for a moment in silence, read a book without interruption, or chatted with someone nearby,  instead of constantly grabbing for your phone to send a text or check e-mail?

It’s hard to imagine, but just give it a try: can you remember life before you had a device with you, at all times, everywhere you go?

Today’s post is about the gadget that has wormed its way into the life of over 80% of American’s lives, and explores what it’s like to live in a world where quiet, un-connected moments are few and far between, increasingly replaced by the twitter of texts and cell phone chatter.  Guest poster SCU student Chris Kelly explores this everpresent issue in his article Smartphones Distract From Reality, writing that cell phones are “changing the way we think about free time.” Chris’s article, ahead.

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Food For Thought: Our Cell Phone Culture

question mark“Christian Licoppe and Jean-Philippe Heurtin have argued that cell phone use must be understood in a broader context; they note that the central feature of the modern experience is the “deinstitutionalization of personal bonds.” Deinstitutionalization spawns anxiety, and as a result we find ourselves working harder to build trust relationships. Cell phone calls “create a web of short, content-poor interactions through which bonds can be built and strengthened in an ongoing process.”

But as trust is being built and bolstered moment by moment between individuals, public trust among strangers in social settings is eroding. We are strengthening and increasing our interactions with the people we already know at the expense of those who we do not. The result, according to Kenneth Gergen, is “the erosion of face-to-face community, a coherent and centered sense of self, moral bearings, depth of relationship, and the uprooting of meaning from material context: such are the dangers of absent presence.”

-Christine Rosen, Our Cell Phones, Ourselves.  Read more here.

Using Technology to Build Greener Homes by Preet Anand

Earth RecycleWhat does it mean to be green?

Just ask Team California, a group of undergraduate students from Santa Clara University and California College of the Arts who were recently awarded 3rd place in The Solar Decathlon competition in Washington D.C. for their tremendous achievements in building a sustainable, solar-powered, energy-efficient home. Today’s post is written by Santa Clara student and Team California member Preet Anand, who has been working on this project along with his team for over 20 months.  In it, Preet describes the technologies utilized in the award-winning Refract House, the experience of competing in The Solar Decathlon, and the message driving Team California’s success: Green living doesn’t have to be a compromise.  Preet’s post, ahead.

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Food For Thought: The Solar Decathlon and Building Greener Homes

question mark“It is now abundantly clear that we have at our fingertips all of the tools we need to solve the climate crisis. The only missing ingredient is collective will.”

-Former Vice President Al Gore.  Read more here.

Genetics, Privacy, and The Web

genomeDid you know that with $399 and a tube of your saliva, you can find out your genetic predispositions for disease, personality traits, and what medications might work best for you?  Or with $149, you can check out your genetic family heritage?  How about that for less than $1,000, you will soon be able to get your entire genome mapped?

And what does this mean to you? It seems fair to say that currently, most people don’t concern themselves with their genetic profiles in their day-to-day lives.  Surely we read about genetics in the media: what genes are linked with what traits, what advancements are being made in the field of medicine with the growing knowledge of genetic information.  But our society certainly doesn’t conduct itself like the science-fiction movie Gattaca, where each person is branded with his or her genetic likelihoods from birth and assigned societal roles accordingly. We are generally oblivious to our own genetic profiles, and pay selective attention to findings about genes mostly when faced with a pressing health problem.  For the most part, we carry on our lives with little knowledge about our own genetic makeup and what that information might tell us about ourselves.

This, however, is changing.

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Food For Thought: Direct-To-Consumer Genetics

question mark“With the genome no less than with the Internet, information wants to be free, and I doubt that paternalistic measures can stifle the industry for long (but then, I have a libertarian temperament). For better or for worse, people will want to know about their genomes. The human mind is prone to essentialism — the intuition that living things house some hidden substance that gives them their form and determines their powers. Over the past century, this essence has become increasingly concrete. Growing out of the early, vague idea that traits are “in the blood,” the essence became identified with the abstractions discovered by Gregor Mendel called genes, and then with the iconic double helix of DNA. But DNA has long been an invisible molecule accessible only to a white-coated priesthood. Today, for the price of a flat-screen TV, people can read their essence as a printout detailing their very own A’s, C’s, T’s and G’s.

A firsthand familiarity with the code of life is bound to confront us with the emotional, moral and political baggage associated with the idea of our essential nature. People have long been familiar with tests for heritable diseases, and the use of genetics to trace ancestry — the new “Roots” — is becoming familiar as well. But we are only beginning to recognize that our genome also contains information about our temperaments and abilities. Affordable genotyping may offer new kinds of answers to the question “Who am I?” — to ruminations about our ancestry, our vulnerabilities, our character and our choices in life.”

-Dr. Steven Pinker, My Genome, My Self.  Read more here.  His genome is available for viewing as part of the Personal Genome Project here.

Jonathan Zittrain’s “Minds For Sale” and Ubiquitous Human Computing

Business man with computer screen for headStrapped for cash (or have some time to kill)?

Here’s a deal for you: If you can figure out how to control the bubble size in carbonated beverages, or can find a novel approach to protecting corn from insect damage, the website Innocentive will broker a deal where your idea could be purchased for $20,000.

Or maybe chemical compounds aren’t your thing? Head over to Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk program, and make $1 for identifying in 100 pictures whether the person in the photo is male or female, or earn 5 cents for every city and country you match with the correct overseas zipcodes.

Still need more work? If you successfully pass the interview process at LiveOps.com (also known as the “contact center in the cloud”), you could soon be a call-center employee taking someone’s drive thru order from the Jack-in-the-Box from across town, simply sitting at home on your couch connected to the drive-thru module via your laptop.

Each of these is an example of Ubiquitous Human Computing, a term coined by Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain used to describe the trend to network and distribute mindpower as a fungible resource on the web.

Last Week, Zittrain came to speak about this topic at Santa Clara University in his lecture entitled “Minds For Sale”, where he dynamically discussed the myriad of issues we are faced by this new wave of the internet.

Out of the many interesting topics Zittrain covered, a few ideas stood out to me:

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Food For Thought: Ubiquitous Human Computing

question mark“Over the next 15 years, some of the most notable advances in computing will be in its relationship to people: distributing human mindpower to solve problems both large and small, and monitoring and ultimately altering people’s bodies and actions in ways previously impossible.  These are not phenomena to be avoided so much as they are to be organized and perhaps regulated so that their ubiquity will enhance rather than debase the human condition.

Shaping them will require an informed and widespread debate with tools drawn from many disciplines.  Philosophers will attempt to construct a utilitarian calculus.  Computing security professionals will ask what information we want to protect, and then seek to construct a security system.  Without being able to foresee every problem ahead, it makes sense to reflect on the values we consider most important, such as autonomy, privacy, and health, and the case studies to place them appropriately in tension, so we can build and refine systems sensitive to them.”

-Jonathan Zittrain, Ubiquitous Human Computing.  Read more here.

Ethical Issues With Prenatal and Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis by Professor Lawrence Nelson

iStock_000000396261XSmallIt’s not science fiction. Nowadays prospective parents cannot only know the sex of their unborn child but also learn whether it can supply tissue-matched bone marrow to a dying sibling and whether it is predisposed to develop breast cancer or Huntington’s disease — all before the embryo gets implanted into the mother’s womb.” -Esthur Landhuis

Have you heard of “designer babies”?  Or perhaps you saw or read My Sister’s Keeper, a story about a young girl who was conceived through In Vitro Fertilization to be a genetically matched donor for her older sister with leukemia? The concept of selecting  traits for one’s child comes from a technology called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a technique used on embryos acquired during In Vitro Fertilization to screen for genetic diseases.  PGD tests embryos for genetic abnormalities, and based on the information gleaned, provides potential parents with the opportunity to select to implant only the “healthy”, non-genetically diseased embryos into the mother.  But this genetic testing of the embryo also opens the door for other uses as well, including selecting whether you have a male or female child, or even the possibility of selecting specific features for the child, like eye color.  Thus, many ethicists wonder about the future of the technology, and whether it will lead to babies that are “designed” by their parents.

Today’s post is an exploration of the ethical issues raised by prenatal and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, written by Santa Clara Professor Dr. Lawrence Nelson, who has been writing about and teaching bioethics for over 30 years.  Read on to examine the many ethical issues raised by this technology.

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Food For Thought: Preimplantation Genetics

question mark“I was born for a very specific purpose.  I wasn’t the result of a cheap bottle of wine or a full moon or the heat of the moment.  I was born because a scientist managed to hook up my mother’s eggs and my father’s sperm to create a specific combination of precious genetic material.  In fact, when (my brother) Jesse told me how babies get made and I, the great disbeliever, decided to ask my parents the truth, I got more than I bargained for.  They sat me down and told me all the usual stuff, of course – but they also explained that they chose little embryonic me, specifically, because I could save my sister, Kate.  ‘We loved you even more,’ my mother made sure to say, ‘because we knew what exactly we were getting.”

-A passage from My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, written from the perspective of Anna, a child conceived using PGD to save the life of her cancer-stricken sister. Read more here.

Media-Multitasking and ‘The Good Life’

Picture 4 02-12-30Be honest: how many other things are you doing right now?

Are you in the midst of responding to your e-mail, while casually browsing the web, scanning your friend’s most recent Facebook updates, chatting on Gchat, and mid-article on your favorite news site or blog?

Go ahead and count them: how many windows are open on your computer right now?

And what else are you doing? Are you listening to music, watching TV, or half-talking to a friend nearby? Is your cell phone within a hands reach, ready to be answered the instant you hear a text message or phone call? Or perhaps you’re even reading this on your cell phone, on your way in between classes or meetings, biding time while waiting for the next thing to require your attention?

No, this isn’t a post about Big Brother watching you; it’s about a term we all know too well: Multitasking. We have become, as writer Christine Rosen says, “mavens of multitasking,” glued to our technological gadgets, driven by our seemingly endless to-do lists of tasks. My post today asks, how have all the technologies we use – the cell phones, computers, PDAs, e-mails, and the like– accelerated the extent to which we multitask? And more importantly, what effect has it had on the way we live our lives? Read more »

Food For Thought: Multitasking

question mark“I begin, a little sheepishly, with a question that strikes me as sensationalistic, nonscientific, and probably unanswerable by someone who’s been professionally trained in the discipline of cautious objectivity: Are we living through a crisis of attention?

Before I even have a chance to apologize, Meyer responds with the air of an Old Testament prophet. “Yes,” he says. “And I think it’s going to get a lot worse than people expect.” He sees our distraction as a full-blown epidemic—a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought. He compares it, in fact, to smoking. “People aren’t aware what’s happening to their mental processes,” he says, “in the same way that people years ago couldn’t look into their lungs and see the residual deposits.”

I ask him if, as the world’s foremost expert on multitasking and distraction, he has found his own life negatively affected by the new world order of multitasking and distraction.

“Yep,” he says immediately, then adds, with admirable (although slightly hurtful) bluntness: “I get calls all the time from people like you. Because of the way the Internet works, once you become visible, you’re approached from left and right by people wanting to have interactions in ways that are extremely time-consuming. I could spend my whole day, my whole night, just answering e-mails. I just can’t deal with it all. None of this happened even ten years ago. It was a lot calmer. There was a lot of opportunity for getting steady work done.”

-Sam Anderson, interviewing “multitasking expert” David Meyer in the article In Defense of Distraction.  Read more here.

“The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music. “I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17-year-old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it.”

-Walter Kirn, The Autumn of The Multitaskers.  Read more here.

What Ethical Issues Are Raised By Advertisements for Egg Donors?

donor“Help loving couples conceive a child! Seeking egg donors with a clear health history, GPA 3.6+ and above 1350 on SAT.  Must play a musical instrument.  $10,00 Compensation.”

Have you seen an ad like this in your local college newspaper?  Chances are if you leaf through the classified sections of any elite university, you’ll find one just like it.  The advertisements, placed by couples or agencies looking for women to donate their eggs to be used to help couples conceive through In Vitro Fertilization, appear in college classifieds across the country.  They are notoriously featured at Ivy League schools, often targeting high achieving women with superior grades and test scores, offering anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 for highly qualified donors.  Many call for specific qualities in their donors:  “Donor ideally has artistic skills, as intended mother is a talented oil painter and piano player,” reads one.

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Food For Thought: Egg Donation

question mark“Now in market terms, this potential transaction makes perfect sense—matching a willing seller and a willing buyer. Both parties get what they need—tuition money, the seeds of a new child—and no one is coerced into anything. But what is the human meaning of what is happening?”

-Eric Cohen, Biotechnology and The Spirit of Capitalism.  Read more here.

Is It Ethical For Employers To Factor In Online Profiles in Hiring Decisions?

facebook_drunks What happens when the pictures and content you post online for friends to see is also viewed by a potential employer?

The question has become of particular importance in recent years, where photos, profiles, and online commentary are being factored into who gets hired–and fired–in the workforce.

Close to 50% of companies report doing background checks on their candidates by searching through online content, and claim to have not hired candidates based on finding “provocative photographs,” “content about drinking or using drugs,” or even “poor communication skills” demonstrated on their online profiles. For recent college students joining the workplace, this is particularly a problem, because they often have this type of “unprofessional” content on their profiles from their time in school.

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Food For Thought: Online Profile Privacy

question mark“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

-Google CEO Eric Schmidt.  Read more here.

What Is The Internet’s Effect on Deep Reading?

iStock_000010264645XSmallHere’s a challenge: can you read this whole post without getting distracted?  Can you resist the urge to skim each paragraph for the “gist of it”, and instead read each sentence carefully, reflecting on its meaning, even thinking about how it might apply to your life?

Chances are this might take some work: if you are accustomed to reading on the web, you’ve likely also grown accustomed to the online reading style known as the “F-shaped pattern“, where when you open a webpage, you read in an F-shape quickly from left to right across the top, and then scan the middle until you get to the bottom, absorbing a few main ideas but not truly engaging with any of them.  It’s a quick and easy way to catch the major points, enabling you to get an overview of everything presented, perhaps giving you the sense of comprehension.  But as the research shows, it’s likely that you are absorbing very little.

And when you’re websurfing, reading for entertainment, or perusing blogs, maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re just skimming. But as the internet is increasingly the source for all our content – the news we read, the research we do for work and school, the entertainment we enjoy– we must ask the question: how is the internet changing the way we read, and the depth with which we take in information? What are the implications for society if the deep, reflective thinking associated with reading is replaced by the “web-page graze”?

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Food For Thought: Online Reading

question mark

“Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.”

-Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? Read more here.

“Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another’s inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?”

-Mary Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

The Future Of Technology: Where Are We Headed?

916663___gump__ Nanotech Self-Assemblers.  Genetically Engineered Offspring.  Full     Immersion Virtual Reality. Robots That Can Think.

It’s easy to dismiss many of these “future technologies” as the stuff of     science fiction, existing only in the ‘advanced’ societies we’ve seen       rendered in the movies.  But Ray Kurzweil, famous futurist and author   of “The Singularity Is Near,” believes we are at a precipice of a technological revolution where nanotechnology, information   technology, and artificial intellegience will, over the next few decades, develop at such a fast rate that the human race will soon be faced with a fundamentally restructured way of living. He declares that we are entering into “an era in which our intelligence will become   increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today–the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.

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Neuroethics: Morality In The Age Of Neuroscience

stock photo 4 Advances in our understanding of the brain – and subsequently, in  our understanding of how to manipulate it—are raising profound  moral and ethical questions going into the 21st century. How do  we  evaluate our course of action in the brain sciences in a morally  principled and responsible way?

In his lecture, “Autonomy and the History of American Bioethics”  at Santa Clara in May 2009, Bioethicist Albert Jonsen explained  that we are facing unchartered ethical territory in the field of  neuroscience which previous bioethical frameworks are ill  equipped to handle.

Technology and The Environment: What Is Our Ethical Obligation To Nature?

1035588_nature_buttons_11Global climate change, sustainable energy, being “green.” These are terms we hear everyday – but what do they mean, and why are they important? 

Historically, ethical frameworks have rarely considered our moral obligations to “nature”– the planet was too vast and seemingly unalterable to be considered in our decision-making. Concerns for destroying the food chain, changing the climate patterns, or poisoning soil that would affect people for thousands of years to come were simply not considered because the planet seemed impervious to mankind’s actions. 

But technology has changed everything. From nuclear power to genetic engineering to global warming, humans now have the ability to Read more »

Health and Technology: An Overview

227030816_b545ac2489In the United States, technology is deeply integrated into nearly every aspect of maintaining and treating health.  What influence do these technologies have on how we diagnose, treat, and view disease? How does technology shape the way we approach and treat health overall?

It is undeniable that medical technologies have saved countless lives and contributed to great advances in medicine.  But famed integrative medicine doctor Andrew Weil takes the view that medical technologies have drawbacks that are not often acknowledged.  He says:

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Technology and Society: Are You Overwhelmed By Gadgets?

Juggling GadgetsToday, it’s hard to find a person who isn’t glued to his or her Blackberry, iPhone, iPod, or other preferred technological gadget.  One recent study found that people spend an average of 8 hours staring at a screen each day.  But what effect is being “plugged in” having on the way we live our lives, and how we interact with each other?  What is the impact of being so wired into technology?

On The Technological Citizen, we will be exploring a variety of topics related to the impact that mainstream technologies have on our daily lives. How has the internet, e-mail, cell phones, and MP3 players impacted the way we spend our time?  The way we interact with other people? How might these technologies be reshaping our attention spans, our learning styles, and the overall way we think?  Have these technologies enhanced the human experience, or diminished it? 

Tune into the blog to read reflections on living in the technological age.

Welcome To The Technological Citizen!


The Technological Citizen is a forum to explore and exchange ideas about the issues that arise from modern technologies. A wide variety of topics will be explored, including the ethics of cognitive enhancement, genetic testing, and biotechnologies, as well as the way in which technology impacts our relationship with other people, the environment, and ourselves.

Postings will fall under five basic categories:

Technology and Society
Technology and The Environment
Ethical Issues in Health and Biotechnology
The Future of Technology

If you are interested in seeing all the posts on one particular topic, please click on that topic heading under “Categories”.

Thanks for checking out the blog! I look forward to hearing your ideas about these topics.

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