Can stuff be good?

Part 1: Why technology is never neutral.

Mike Brownnutt
11 min readNov 24, 2023

Re-Assembling Reality #33a, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

Is your phone evil?

This is, in many ways, a difficult question. Don’t worry about how difficult it may be to answer: it is difficult to even pose. What does the question even mean? What can it mean?

“Evil” is some moral category. Morality is connected to religion. Religion has to do with people’s souls or, at very least, to do with people. But a phone has no soul, no will, no desire, no intent, no agency. It is a base, material object. It does what it was made to do, ruled by the laws of physics. What can it mean for a phone to be evil, or good?

Maybe your phone isplotting world domination in its dark little heart. Or maybe not. (Credit: Gratuit.)

And what possible difference would it make if my phone was found to be evil? Would we make laws for phones? Would we send phones that broke those laws to prison? On the Final Day of Judgement, would God cast my phone into the Lake of Fire?

More optimistically, could my phone, if it was evil, be redeemed? And what would that mean? What part does my phone have in Jesus’ death and resurrection? Is it washed by His blood? Can my phone become a Christian?

Over this essay, and the ones that follow, we shall unpack these questions. In this opening essay, there is a myth that we need to dispel.

My phone — like any technology, or any tool — is neutral. I decide how to use it, for good or evil. And if the good that I achieve with my phone outweighs the bad, then, overall, the world is better off for my phone being in it.

This myth is wrong on every level: my phone is not neutral. No tool is neutral. I am not free to decide how to use technology; rather the technology itself shapes me, my thoughts, and my actions. The technology changes the world both for good and bad, but we are not able to say in any objective sense that the technology has a net effect of making the world better.

How we sleep at night

Many people who work with and create technology think of it as being morally neutral, even necessarily so. Inanimate objects, whether that be a phone, or a rock, or a piece of paper, have no moral value: they are neither good nor bad; they just are.

Some people accept that some technology has a moral dimension. Maybe something like a nuclear bomb is morally problematic. But they steer clear of nuclear bombs. So the technology that they engage with is morally neutral.

Some people accept that the technology that they engage with is not morally neutral. Maybe they work with nuclear weapons, or they believe that phones have a moral dimension. But they then think that the moral responsibility lies with the politician who presses the button, or some other guy who makes the button, or the salesman who sells the phone, or the person who uses the phone. But whoever it is that is responsible, it is all about the people. The argument then goes that as long as the people are good, the phone is fine.

In this essay I want to argue that technology is not morally neutral. It is not simply a thing to be used in a good way by good people, or in a bad way by bad people. It has its own agenda. And it will, if you let it, bend your thinking and your actions to its own value system and its own agenda.

More than that, it is not just an agenda held by what we might call “modern” technology — electronic devices, smart devices. No, this is an agenda that under lies all technology: computers, contact lenses, condoms, carbon capture, clothes. All the way back to fire, and the wheel, and clay tablets. All technology.

For the scientists and engineers who take the course relating to this series, this is important: they need to be aware of what they are making. And for any readers of this series who use technology — which is to say every single reader — it is important because you need to know that the phone in your hand and the clothes you are wearing right now have their own agenda, and it may not align with yours.

When does nuclear annihilation become a problem?

Let us consider a range of topics from theoretical to applied.

If we start with pure maths, the objects with which it deals are easily considered to be neutral in every sense. The statement “2+2=4” is surely neutral. It is not good or bad. It doesn’t discriminate on grounds of race, or sex, or age, or wealth. It is simply the way things are.

Working along the scale toward more applied topics, physics is based on maths. Still, “E = m c^2” is simply a fact. A fact that was once waiting to be discovered, but an eternal truth, nonetheless. One outworking of this fact is that a uranium atom releases energy when it decays. This is neither good nor bad. It is a statement of how the universe is, and makes no judgement of how the universe should be. Uranium is not evil. It does not plot world domination. It just does what it does.

Taking a further step towards applications, engineering is based on physics. If you put uranium in a particular configuration, you can instigate a runaway cascade of fission on demand. This, too, is a timeless truth. It would always remain true, irrespective of whether any human ever knew it, or ever did it. This special configuration — either as a concept or physically realised — has no desire to kill millions of people. It is what it is.

Moral issues only enter the situation the moment a person decides to push a big red button.

This big red button would stop a polish train. The actual red nuclear button is square and less photogenic. (Credit: Włodi.)

So what happened? Surely something important happened, somewhere between “2+2=4” and “push this button”. But what? And where?

The idea that all the moral questions arrived at the point of pushing the big red button is neat and convenient. It is particularly convenient for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, who are involved in each step except the last, and who can thereby excuse themselves from taking any moral responsibility for how their work is used. It is so convenient, in fact, that one may wish to become a little suspicious, and dig a little deeper.

We might imagine that — once the genie is out of the bottle — we may be faced with all manner of questions:

— Should I try to persuade a nuclear warhead to become a Christian?

— Are we sure that bad things are not just things made by bad people?

— What does it even mean for a thing — as a thing — to be bad?

— Is this my problem?

— How can I even start to engage with the problem?

These are important questions. This Essay will sketch out some answers to them. For those who would like an indication of where we are going:

— No, you should not try to persuade a nuclear warhead to become a Christian;

— No, even good people can make bad things; and

— Yes, it is your problem.

Technology changes you

Technology is not neutral. It changes the way we interact with the world. That is the entire point. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t use it.

Let us step back from liminal examples of guns and bombs, and consider the more innocuous technology of glass.

If you want to see the detail of a bird in a distant tree, you could use a pair of binoculars. At the risk of stating the obvious, binoculars are a very helpful tool which makes things look bigger. This obvious idea provides a foot in the door for thinking about the neutrality (or otherwise) of technology.

The binoculars change the image of the thing you are looking at: they make it look bigger. That is exactly why you are using them. If they did not change the image of the thing you were looking at, why would you want them? The binoculars are not a neutral conduit of light from a bird to your eye: they change the path of the light so that the bird looks different. Sure, they change the path in a way that you recognise, that is predictable, and desired. But they still change it. That’s why you use them.

By changing what you see, they change the way you interact with the world. With them, you can stand at a distance and see that the bird in the tree is a Chinese Goshawk. Without them you can either say that the bird in the tree is grey, or you can get closer and scare the bird away. It bears repeating: If a tool did not change the way you interact with the world, you would have no reason to use that tool.

Tools therefore tools cannot be considered as inert and neutral bystanders in your activities. Instead, tools — even “inert” ones like binoculars — are necessarily active influencers of what you do.

Seeing this photo changes the way you relate to Chinese Goshawks. You did not chose whether or not to update your mental image from what you had before (“a grey bird”) to what you have now. Technology made this photo possible, and you cannot go back the way you were before. (Credit: Hiyashi Haka.)

Some of the changes are relatively simple to spot. Some of the changes are more subtle. Some may go entirely un-noticed. Binoculars make it easier to identify birds visually. But (inasmuch as they enable or encourage you to stand further away) they also make it harder for you to identify birds acoustically. Binoculars mean you can see a bird without disturbing it in its natural environment. But they also mean that the bird’s natural environment does not disturb you. They permit you to sit at a distance, isolated from the heat or the cold or the damp. They permit you to be isolated from the mosquitos and isolated from the fragrance of the trees.

So binoculars do not leave you unchanged, and they do not leave the world unchanged. They necessarily change how you encounter the world, and how you are encountered by the world.

This prompts a question: are those changes good or bad? A quick glance at the above list suggests they are probably a mixture of both.

So let us nuance our question a little: are the changes — overall, on balance, taken together — more good than bad, or more bad than good?

Unfortunately, being able to ask a question does not mean it is answerable. And the changes wrought by binoculars cannot be analyzed in terms of being overall good or overall bad. For those readers who have been with us since Essay #7, you may already realize that the reason for this lies in the incommensurability of the good and bad things. We shall reprise the argument here by leaving ornithology for a moment and delving into the world of money and food.


If Alice gives Bob a $20 note, and Bob gives Alice three $10 notes, then — overall — Alice is $10 better off. We can compare what she lost with what she gained, and see which is greater. We can even say how many $10 notes it would have taken to create a net-neutral interaction — for her to end up back where she started. This is an entirely meaningful calculation to do. This is not only how money works, but why money works. Money keeps track of transactions exactly because it is fungible. We get so used to this that we forget that most things don’t work that way.

Consider a different scenario: Alice gives a restaurant $20, and the restaurant gives Alice dinner with her friends. She lost $20 and she gained an evening out. Which is greater? How much money would she have had to pay to be back to where she started? There is no answer, because the question doesn’t make sense. She lost $20 and gained an evening out. If she paid more she might have lost $200 and gained an evening out. She will never be back to where she started because she will always have the evening out. The exchange can never be neutral. It cannot be “neither good nor bad”. Instead it will always be ambivalent: both good and bad. Paying to have dinner with friends is simultaneously good (because she had dinner with friends) and bad (because she paid).

In the first example, the good (gaining $30) and the bad (losing $20) are commensurate. They involve the same type of thing. For this reason, we can meaningfully talk of the net gain or loss: Alice has a net gain of $10. In the second example, however, the good (gaining dinner with friends) and the bad (losing $20) are incommensurate. They are not the same type of things. There is no scale on which to compare them without neglecting some aspect of one or other or both.[1] Alice may judge that she was happy to have spent $20 on an evening with friends, and this is meaningful. She can say “I would happily do it again.” She can even say, “I would do it again, even if I had to pay $200.” In this sense, then, she can say that she found it to be, overall, “a good evening.” But this is a very different kind of statement from the objective rational calculation which says that a trade in which you swap $20 for $30 is, overall, “a good trade.” (If you are still unconvinced on this point, Essay #7 unpacks the idea further.)

Now let us return to the binoculars. How many mosquito bites is the smell of damp moss worth? How much more clearly does one need to see a bird for that good to cancel out the bad of not being able to hear it so well? The experiences are different. The changes which the binoculars create — and they must create changes if they are to be worth using at all — are not neutral; they are irreducibly and necessarily ambivalent.

Walking with our eyes open

There is an attractively neat simplicity to the idea that technology is neutral and the user of technology is responsible for how it is used. By contrast, the situation we have outlined in this essay leaves us with a difficult-to-navigate minefield. Clinging to the idea that technology is neutral, however, does not make the minefield go away. It simply means that, as we walk through the minefield, we are oblivious to our situation.

Technology is not neutral. We can pretend that it is, and walk through a minefield with our eyes closed. Or we can pay attention and take care to be very aware of what is going on around us. I do not use this metaphor lightly, or show this picture of minefield markers glibly. For the sake of humanity, we must think carefully about technology. (Credit: Babak Fakhamzadeh.)

In the essays that follow we will consider moral culpability in a world of morally loaded technology; ways of sensitizing ourselves to notice the value systems built into technology; and how we can live well with technology, even given the inherently problematic value systems that technology embodies.

[1] The technically minded reader will notice that this idea is nothing other than dimensional analysis.



Mike Brownnutt

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.