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Peter-Paul Verbeek at the University of Twente

Teaching Technology as the Great Challenge of the New Generation

Youth Participation: Professor at a pop festival 

Interview with Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek

One of the themes of Europe on Track is Youth Participation, which comprises a very broad range of discussions. A question that immediately comes to mind is: what should we, as the European youth, participate in and how should we participate or get involved? I have discussed one possible answer with Peter-Paul Verbeek, who is professor of philosophy of technology at the University of Twente. He argues that technology is one of the biggest challenges of the new generation and that there is a desperate need for creating a public political sphere to discuss it. His work focuses on the role of technology in society; how it embodies human values and how we can find ways of dealing with the interweaving of humans and technology. I’m meeting him in his office at the University of Twente, in between a multitude of meetings about new publications and educational changes.

When asked for the main challenge for today’s youth, he answers straightforward: “technology itself might be a very big challenge! Many technological developments are directly influencing our lives and we need a framework to assess the qualities of these technologies. Themes I’m working with are for example human enhancement, which blurs the lines between curing diseases and actually improving the natural functioning of human beings. Technologies in this category affect our cognitive fields and power relations between people. Another theme is robotics, since robots are increasingly entering our life worlds. My kids at school already have an assistant robot in their classroom, how does that influence their education? Regarding the current environmental crisis, a multitude of technologies are emerging, ranging from clean energy technologies to geo-engineering with giant solar shields to persuasive technologies that try to influence our consumer behavior.”

One of the main points of Peter-Paul’s work is to make clear that these technologies are not just neutral artefacts made by engineers, but that they are a driving force behind the shaping of our societies. Persuasive technologies, for example, directly influence our behaviour so we ought to question how they affect our freedom. Technological developments are one of the main sources of change in our contemporary lives. Who could for example have imagined ten years ago to maintain a huge part of our communication on social media or only exchanging digital money for buying products? However, the debate about the influence of technology on our lives has barely been initiated. I asked Peter-Paul about the reason behind the relative silence of this debate.

“We need a public sphere to discuss new technologies and their impact on people”

“The debate on technology is absolutely overshadowed by other political issues. One of the biggest problems in politics is the one-sided focus on economy. Politics should be about society, and society changes rapidly because of new technologies. We need a public sphere to discuss new technologies and their impact on people. Getting young people involved in this is a central issue and maybe the answer to the question “how” to do this lies in the question itself. The new generation is growing up with technologies like the internet, which makes it an obvious starting point for reflection.”

So what could be ways to make young people participate in this debate? “First of all, education could do a lot more. At the moment it mostly involves how technology works; what knowledge and skills are needed to build a car. However, it is almost never considers how these technologies influence our lives, how cars influence our behaviour and for example our relation between private and working live. I think it is as important to know how a car works as it is to know how it actually changes our lives. Furthermore, we need to figure out what the new public sphere is for young people to discuss these issues. Social media, for example, is a very interesting new political public sphere and people could use the medium itself to criticize it from the inside out. To use social media in order to find out that it is not a neutral technology but that it affects our relations and daily lives.”

“On a European level … there is no public sphere to discuss about technology”

There is the need for a public sphere to discuss the influence of technology on society according to Peter-Paul, but what about the current situation? Do the EU or the member states provide such a sphere? “If we should deal with these issues on a European level, the answer is certainly no. There is no public sphere yet to debate these things. The European parliament is quite remote and we would need serious European media in order to create such a common political sphere. But maybe the question is also whether the countries have such a sphere and there the answer is also no, so a lot of work still needs to be done.”

The urge for such a political change is clear according to Peter-Paul, but how should we see technology in this respect? “It’s not about asking ourselves what we should do and what we shouldn’t do, but rather the question what it means for us to have a good life. The biggest question that technology puts in front of us is the question of what good ways of life would be. So for example, if we use the technology of embryo selection in order to get rid of imperfections, how does this affect our way of life? This raises the need for asking questions about the quality of life. In our current liberal system, however, it is not possible to discuss these issues in the public sphere because we have – probably for good reasons – moved them to the private sphere. Maybe the real question is how we could create a public sphere to discuss the issues once more. At this point, most public institutions are to rigid to do so.”

“The biggest question that technology puts in front of us is the question of what good ways of life would be”

Apart from politics, we might ask how we could bring the academic debate to the young people. “What you need to convey”, Peter-Paul argues, “is not the philosophical details and readings of Kant and Aristotle, but ways to understand technology as a social and cultural factor. You can show this by pointing at people’s daily lives and how new ethical questions emerge there. A nice example of how to bring this to the public is my lecture at the giant pop festival Lowlands, which brings young people much closer to the interesting issues in academia.”