Philosophy meets technology – Fellows’ seminar by Klaus Kornwachs

20 December 2022
And what about reversible technologies?

“We must think about recycling, removal and substitution when designing technologies in the first place. The property of reversibility should be included as a value criterion for technology assessment,” said Klaus Kornwachs of the Humboldt Center for the Study of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Ulm, Germany.

Reversible technologies are those that can be taken back, switched off, dismantled, and, if necessary, replaced by existing, new or parallel technologies. Irreversible technologies, on the other hand, cannot be reinstated to their original state – a simple example is a champagne cork.

STIAS Fellow Klaus Kornwachs

Kornwachs pointed out that the most important task of science and engineering is to ensure the survival of humankind and this is not possible without the development of technology. There can also be no doubt that humankind has benefitted hugely from technology. He gave the example of passenger cars indicating that between 1970 and 2000 accumulated mileage in passenger cars in Germany more than doubled but the introduction of technologies including speed limits, crumple zones, crash testing, hazard lights, seat belts, airbags and navigation systems, as well as limits on alcohol use, meant that absolute numbers of deaths decreased.

But technology also comes with huge philosophical questions including: What are wrong technologies or too much technology? Do we have the technology we need and do we need the technology we have? Could we have known earlier about the undesired side effects of technologies? Should all possible technologies be allowed? Why are some technologies accepted and others not? What do we refrain from doing because we can’t deal with it in a responsible, ethical way? And what are the real impacts of technology on our social reality?

“How do we deal with technologies that have come of age – that are decaying, cannot be maintained, are non-compliant with new technologies, or cannot be adapted to new regulations or conditions?” asked Kornwachs. “And what about technologies that are over-engineered – that have too many functions or require too much knowledge to use, that don’t meet our needs? And, importantly, who decides?”

“All of this requires a value system. The acceptance of new technology is dependent on critical values,” he added.

“Philosophy meets technology sounds like a clash of cultures but they are actually complementary,” he continued. “Many philosophers have reflected on technology, even Aristotle wrote about natural versus manmade things. But the real thinking came with the threats of the atomic bomb and environmental pollution which made people really look at the implications and consequences of modern technology.”

Different perspectives and questions

Kornwachs explained that you can think about technology in two ways – from a natural-science and from a humanities perspective. These ask different but complementary questions.

“The Philosophy of Science and Engineering, sometimes called the Philosophy of Technology, has two approaches: One path is to look at the relationships between nature and technology and between natural sciences and engineering. The other path is to look at the social and cultural impact of technologies, and how technology development is driven by cultural, economic and cognitive constraints.”

He pointed out that from the viewpoint of the natural sciences we are bound by models, hypotheses and the need to conclude things by experimentation and observation. Theories of nature are expressed in hypothetical laws. “If A, then B. If B is the desired result, try A. True or false? You make a hypothesis, build and test”.

“At the same time the natural world can also tell us about technology, for example birds and aeroplanes, although it’s an incomplete imitation because we are still far from bird flight efficiency.”

“Technology also tells us what we can do with and within nature.”

“But how we handle and shape technology is also vital. You can’t separate technology from human actions. People use technologies. Technology is part of social actions and systems. Technological knowledge influences what we can do and is embedded in social norms, culture and social reality.”

“Technology is also nested within the balance of power – within social, political and economic constraints. Technological knowledge introduces ideas into social, cultural and organisational knowledge, and the other way round.”

Assessing technologies

Kornwachs explained that his entry into this area of work was via technology assessment – a discipline that tries to analyse the impacts of existing and future technologies.

“Technology assessment and evaluation is a form of policy research that examines the short and long-term consequences of technology. It looks at past, existing, in-progress and future technologies, and is usually done by research institutions, universities and governments using interdisciplinary methods including systems analysis, scenario forecasting and impact analysis. It came to prominence with the establishment of the Office of Technology Assessment of the US Congress.”

The steps include – developing criteria for evaluation, deciding on the time horizon, developing indicators, taking account of wild cards and black swans (disruptive and unusual events), and playing with all the various possibilities. Such analyses also look at the predictability and acceptability of the side effects of technologies and, where these are unacceptable, who is responsible.

“It’s about extrapolating for possible futures, different scenarios and probabilities. But every prediction, while as careful as possible, has limitations. The further you look into the future the more fuzzy it becomes.”

He focused on the German Association of Engineers which, in 1997, developed eight values for technological assessment – namely societal quality, prosperity, economy, functionality, safety, health, environment, and personal development. To which he believes reversibility should be added. He pointed to different degrees of reversibility including fully reversible where a technology is replaced by another with improved functionality; strongly reversible where a technology can be shut down without significantly affecting the overall functioning of the system and a parallel method can be used; and, low reversibility where the technology cannot immediately be phased out – for example, nuclear power and GMOs.

“Irreversible technologies are a burden,” he said. “I am developing a typology of reversibility. To do this, it’s necessary to look more closely at the relationships between parallel technologies and to analyse the interactions between them, since overlapping innovation cycles result in parallel technologies with comparable functionalities.”

“Using the energy transition and digitisation as an example, it can be shown that energy technologies and digitisation must form a coherent technology if the energy supply is to remain controllable. A rapid withdrawal of one technology requires the timely expansion of another, in this case renewable energy technologies. The late and non-digitised deployment of these technologies is probably one of the causes of the current energy crisis in Europe and elsewhere.”

He is also focusing specifically on existing and future technologies that are important for emerging and newly industrialised countries. Technology leapfrogging is a feature in most developing countries, “however, if the time of parallel development is short you run the risk of not having all the functionalities you need. Plus you may not understand if you can really substitute the old technology”.

“Path dependency is also important,” he added. “We have to ask if we are running into a technology that could prove to be irreversible, when we could have something better later.”

“My project is based on the hypothesis that reversible technologies, which can be ‘dismantled’ and replaced by other technologies without economic and societal damage or disadvantage, could contribute to a reduction of technological and social complexity, and a more sustainable civil society. Furthermore, such reversible technologies could support environmental protection, and the development of ecological indicators. Moreover, they offer better, discrimination-free access to everyday technology.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

Related to this article

News categories



STIAS is a creative space for the mind.