Technology and utilitarianism

Technologists and engineers often use the ideas of utilitarianism to evaluate their solutions. If something is cheaper, or faster, or lets people live 3.2 days longer on average, or some other number can be optimised, they judge a solution to be better. In short, they use a quantitative form of  judgment. This way of thinking is the appropriate way of judging engineering problems, but not the best way of judging design problems.

To a degree it is possible to come up with a new product by simply improving on some numbers from an old one. “Here’s a new hard drive with 1.3x more space.” However, such innovation will always be incremental.

The challenge for technology is how to create products and solutions that are not justified or evaluated from a quantitative, utilitarian perspective, but from an entirely different one, perhaps an aesthetic perspective. And this is also the challenge for social innovators and policymakers in society. Solutions that maximise numbers have value and can enable qualitative change in the long run, but in themselves they never constitute true progress.

To see how far the utilitarian thinking has gone, think about how many technology products are justified with sentences along the lines of “it makes more information available”, or “it makes X cheaper” , or “it makes you more connected”. In all seriousness, there are situations when it is not desirable to have more information.

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