A fine post by Ethan Marcotte called The negotiation cycle led me to an incredible essay by Alan Jacobs called From Tech Critique to Ways of Living. It references an old idea called “The SCT1” which is new to me but based on thinking by the likes of Ursula Franklin and Neil Postman who I am familiar with. Neil Postman’s Technopoly2 –which I read in March– was one of the best books on technology I’ve ever read, so this is relevant for me.

Jacobs’ essay takes an unexpected yet welcome turn towards Daoism linking to a heavier essay by Yuk Hui called Cosmotechnics and Cosmopolitics. I’m not smart enough to fully understand all these philosophical (epistemological?) arguments3, but reading the word “cosmotechnics” felt like a beacon in the night for a concept I’ve intuitively felt but never had a word to describe. In Hui’s words:

Let me give you a preliminary definition of cosmotechnics: it is the unification of the cosmos and the moral through technical activities, whether craft-making or art-making.

I believe that science and technology are moral. Try as we may to divorce a tool from an outcome, there is always an interplay. As a contrived example, I can make a <Button/> component and it would by itself be morally neutral. But if I make a <Button/> that someone with a disability cannot use, then I have made a moral decision through either action or inaction. Similarly, I can make a <Button/> that puts a stuffed animal in a digital shopping cart, that is morally neutral. But if that stuffed animal is knowingly assembled with child labor and dropshipped from afar with an immense carbon cost relative to the value of the item, I have made an immoral <Button/>. It’s not hard for me to imagine that someone somewhere is making a <Button/> component that launches a nuclear missile…

In the words of Dr. King from his sermon The Three Evils of Society:

“When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But if you believe technology is moral, then the next larger follow up question is “Whose morals?”

This question of “Whose morals?” permeates my thoughts, specifically in regards to global challenges like climate change. Call me unpatriotic, but I don’t think rugged American individualism is going to manifest destiny our way out of the climate crisis. A technological breakthrough seems unlikely. We need to rely on the knowledge and experiences of African, Asian, and Indigenous societies who have a different ontology, a different Dao (a code of behavior that is in harmony with the natural order); one that prioritizes the group over the individual. In less metaphysical terms, I believe we need to listen to societies built on cooperation and sharing of limited resources over societies built on the continuous expansion of dominion through exploitation of markets, labor, and people.

We need a new language of cosmopolitics to elaborate this new world order that goes beyond a single hegemon.4

I agree with Hui that a singular perspective cannot and will not solve the current crisis we are facing. Technology alone will not save us. We need scientific power in the hands of moral-powered men and women. And the longer we wait the more we risk erasing the communities and ancient knowledge we need to find an equitable solution.

Climate change, geopolitical conflict, the rise of authoritarianism brought about by social media companies… these are all large problems that take governments decades to solve. That puts cosmotechnics far away from me, a would-be practitioner. Hui thankfully provides a story from the Zhuangzi; the butcher Pao Ding.

Pao Ding is excellent at butchering cows. He claims that the key to being a good butcher doesn’t lie in mastering certain skills, but rather in comprehending the Dao. Replying to a question from Duke Wen Huei about the Dao of butchering cows, Pao Ding points out that having a good knife is not necessarily enough; it is more important to understand the Dao in the cow, so that one does not use the blade to cut through the bones and tendons, but rather to pass alongside them in order to enter into the gaps between them.

This is the kind of web development I like. It agrees with me. I better understand the Dao of web design. Our apps and websites are like water, flowing in and out of viewports. Contextualizing themselves to the recipient’s limitations or preferences. Those who find the easier paths through the gaps become excellent butchers of websites.

Pao Ding adds that a good butcher has to change his knife once a year because he cuts through tendons, while a bad butcher has to change his knife every month because he cuts through bones. Pao Ding, on the other hand—an excellent butcher—has not changed his knife in nineteen years, and it looks as if it has just been sharpened with a whetstone. Whenever Pao Ding encounters any difficulty, he slows down the knife and gropes for the right place to move further.

Another translation I read phrased the bad butcher as “hacking” through bones and what a serviceable metaphor we’ve found! The knife, a technology. The medium, a cow or software. Our tools will last longer if we learn how to slow down and understand the nature of the medium, the grain, rather than hacking against it.

The hustle and bustle of capitalism and keeping up with the zeitgeist makes this hard. There’s a pressure to keep up, lest you fall off the cliff of irrelevance. After all, technology always only advances and there’s always a better knife in the distance… right?

Over the years I’ve heard myself referred to as a “curmudgeon”, “old guard”, “gatekeeper”, and “dinosaur”. That is due in part to my loudmouthed punditry but also because I dislike a specific technology from an immoral company that does our industry, society, and users irreparable harm. Moving fast and rethinking best practices spawned untold lifetimes worth of human hours dedicated to knife swapping each year. And when tools dull, we throw stones at each other.

I’ve always been overly cautious and considered in the tools I use but I’ve never thought of the tools I use as a moral choice. Perhaps now I will. I’m not a Daoist by any means, but this idea of cosmotechnics begins to provide a mental framework for expressing the relationship between technology and morality. From the large scale of the cosmos to the small scale of the knife, I’m glad to have vocabulary to think about future problems.

  1. The Standard Critique of Technology: “We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, and reshape us in their image.”

  2. My library’s copy of Technoloply had a copyright date of 2012. A ten year old book being so relevant to me in 2024 was impressive. But that was the reprint date! The book was actually published almost twenty years before that in 1993 at the advent of the world wide web. I’m still astounded.

  3. Philosophy is a lot of invoking old thoughts to introduce or lend credibility to new thoughts. You need some level of familiarity with the entire corpus of materials to fully grasp the subject and that’s outside of my literary wheelhouse.

  4. One nuanced point I disagree with Hui on is on who should hold the leading power in this new cosmopolitical system. I fully agree we need to grow out of our single hegemony (America), but I’ve heard this “multipolar world’ philosophy echoed by Vladimir Putin before and I don’t believe we should cede moral authority over to authoritarian regimes that slaughter and demonize LGBTQ+ groups and ethnic minorities. We shouldn’t use new technology to reinstate old Cold War era superpowers of oppression. We need something entirely new. That said, I sit in a comfortable seat of privilege and systemic power well within the borders of the American Empire…