In 1870, W. A. Rogers, a British bureaucrat in the Bombay Civil Service, wrote of the fortifying effect that modern transport systems were having on the character of the local populace:
Railways are opening the eyes of the people who are within reach of them in a variety of ways. They teach them that time is worth money, and induce them to economise that which they had been in the habit of slighting and wasting; they teach them that speed attained is time, and therefore money, saved or made. . . . Above all, they induce in them habits of self-dependence, causing them to act for themselves promptly and not lean on others.
The locomotive was a moral engine as well as a mechanical one. It carried people horizontally, across the land, but also vertically, up the ladder of enlightenment. As Russell Hittinger notes:
What is most striking about [Rogers’s] statement is that the machine is regarded as the proximate cause of the liberal virtues; habits of self-dependence are the effect of the application of a technology. The benighted peoples of the sub-continent are to be civilized, not by reading Cicero, not by conversion to the Church of England, not even by adopting the liberal faith, but by receiving the discipline of trains and clocks. The machine is both the exemplar and the proximate cause of individual and cultural perfection.
Tools are, whether by design or by accident, imbued with a certain moral character — they instruct us in how to act — and that in-built, artificial morality offers a readymade substitute for our own. The technology becomes an ethical guide. We embrace its morality as our own. An earlier and more dramatic example of such ethical transference came, as Hittinger suggests, in the form of the mechanical clock. Before the arrival of the time-keeping machine, life was largely “free of haste, careless of exactitude, unconcerned by productivity,” the historian Jacques Le Goff has written. With every tick, the new clock in the town square issued an indictment of such idleness and imprecision. It taught people that time was as measurable as money, something precious that could be wasted or lost. The clock became, to quote David Landes, “prod and key to personal achievement and productivity.”
Just as the clock and the railroad gave our forebears lessons in, and indeed models for, industriousness, thrift, and punctuality, so the computer today offers us its own character instruction. Its technical features are taken for ethical traits. Consider how the protocols of networking, the arcane codes that allow computers to exchange data and share resources, have become imbued with moral weight. The computer fulfills its potential, becomes a whole being, so to speak, only when it is connected to and actively communicating with other computers. An isolated computer is as bad as an idle computer. And the same goes for people. The sense of the computer network as a model for a moral society runs, with different emphases, through the work of such prominent and diverse thinkers as Yochai Benkler, David Weinberger, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, and Kevin Kelly. We, too, become whole beings only when we are connected. And if being connected is the ideal, then being disconnected becomes morally suspect. The loner, the recluse, the outsider, the solitary thinker, the romantic quester: all such individuals carry an ethical stain today that goes beyond mere unsociability — they are letting the rest of us down by not sharing, by not connecting. To be inaccessible to the network is to waste one’s social capital, a deadly sin.
But the computer goes even further than mechanical tools and systems in shaping our conception of virtue. It provides more than just a model. It offers us a means for “outsourcing” our ethical sense, as Evan Selinger and Thomas Seager put it. With the personal computer, we have an intimate machine, a technological companion and guru, that can automate the making of moral choices, that through its programming can prod us, nudge us, and otherwise lead us down the righteous path. Arianna Huffington celebrates the potential of the smartphone to provide a “GPS for the soul,” offering ethical “course corrections” as we go through the day.
In discussing the automation of moral choice, Hittinger draws a connection with the work of the historian Christopher Dawson, who in a 1960 lecture argued that modern technology, and the social order it both represents and underpins, has become “the real basis of secular culture”:
Modern technologies are not only “labor saving” devices. A labor saving device, like an automated farm implement or a piston, replaces repetitive human acts. But most distinctive of contemporary technology is the replacement of the human act; or, of what the scholastic philosophers called the actus humanus. The machine reorganizes and to some extent supplants the world of human action, in the moral sense of the term. … It is important to understand that Dawson’s criticism of technology is not aimed at the tool per se. His criticism has nothing to do with the older, and in our context, misleading notion of “labor saving” devices. Rather, it is aimed at a new cultural pattern in which tools are either deliberately designed to replace the human act, or at least have the unintended effect of making the human act unnecessary or subordinate to the machine.
Philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild goes further: “Automation makes us forget that we are moral agents.” When software code becomes moral code, moral code becomes meaningless.