Philosophy of Computing

The Techno-Pro Attitude

The underlying presumption of the technology imperative calls for scrutiny.

Credit: Getty Images futuristic city under a dome, illustration

Tech solutionism, as identified by Moss and Metcalf [Moss], is the notion that all problems have tractable technical fixes. We see variants in the naming and definition of this phenomenon: the technology imperative [PCMag], or “the underlying technocratic philosophy of inevitability” [LaFrance], or even old-fashioned technocracy itself. (My own version is the Artificialistic Fallacy [Hill], the name a nod to the Naturalisitic Fallacy that “ought” can be derived from “is.”) All versions designate a confident deployment of technology to solve a non-technical problem, with costs and other drawbacks reduced to secondary consideration. (Technological determinism boasts a long history, and web search will show that the tech imperative troubles health care with some urgency.)

A certain Tech Leader promotes a new startup, Sunshine, thus: “… by applying AI … you can both solve valuable problems and you can give people back time. You can also build their confidence in AI.” [Liedtke] A second Tech Leader as paraphrased on a generative AI product: “The release, he explains, was part of a strategy designed to acclimate the public to the reality that artificial intelligence is destined to change their everyday lives, presumably for the better” [Levy]. This discussion suppresses names (easily determined!) so as not to pin down any particular High Tech spokesperson, as the focus here is not the individual, but the attitude shared across Silicon Valley. That attitude holds the normative stance that the technology is good-for-us whether we like it or not. What’s more, the public needs to be convinced of that. This is puzzling; shouldn’t the clear efficacy of the AI product generate its own fan base?

There is some underlying presumption at play here, and it calls for scrutiny. LaFrance warns that tech leaders form an anti-democratic, illiberal movement, yet my view is that there is no ideological commitment beyond a shallow progressivism (with a few notorious exceptions). I envision tech leaders and their critics both baffled, staring at each other wondering “Why are they saying that?” If we assume that these are smart people, and sincere, and not evil, we might ask: What is the reasoning? What gives rise to this stance, this tech imperative? Can we extract the premises, articulate the critical one, and present it to Tech Leaders to defend or forswear?

The unspoken foundational claim is not that computing technology confers certain benefits, a pragmatic claim and a matter of fact, but that it carries normative value, that it’s good; in particular, our tech is good, and therefore should be out there in the world. This is tricky. To investigate this question, we must accept the notion of normative reasons, that is, we must do some elementary logic with statements of ethics (statements with “should”). As usual, I shamelessly abuse philosophical concepts with stripped-down renderings that suit the present purpose.

Given this conclusion:
(Our) computing technologies are good.
What are the premises that lead to it?

How about a categorical argument in the form of:

  • There is a lack here, previously unnoticed.
  • Any lack is a problem.
  • Any problem should be fixed.
  • Our computing technologies are _______.
  • Technologies that are _______ should be developed/adopted/purchased/followed.

A possibility to fill the blank is “smarter.” Or maybe it’s “making what people do more efficient.” Then what is the assumed definition of “efficient”—speedy?…but not frugal with resources… and new; the tech has to be new. Well, the argument seems to call for more than that. Among possible missing premises: That time is the most important resource, that white-collar tech is the work that matters, that the signigicant social improvements will be made on points farther along the tech trajectory… Yet we’re not pinpointing any compelling kernel of conviction. This is not working. We need to realign our inquiry.

Given that the tech imperative moves from assertion to promotion so smoothly, let’s look at action rather than argument/reasoning. It turns out that philosophy can handle that, albeit the analytical mechanism (for action) may not be as compelling as categorical logic (for argument). According to Donald Davidson, a reason for action consists of claims of both cause and rationalization, or, in his own terms, a primary reason is a pro-attitude plus a belief [Davidson]. The pro-attitude, like it sounds, is what the agent wants. So we shift the focus of our inquiry to an action—promotion of AI products—and tease out the two components. The belief component is what we were just trying to extract from a straightforward chain of reasoning, without much success. But it’s the pro-attitude component, a judgement of value, that gives us the element of approval, of sanction, of goodness. And the pro-attitude seems to lead the way.

Davidson intends this analysis to incorporate causality into the reasons for action, but we offer it here as elucidation of a critical element of action—promotion of their AI products—taken by Tech Leaders. Davidson asserts that a single action may have several descriptions, even comprising consequences not intended. A claim of causation is no small matter in philosophy, and commentary on Davidson’s claims in the literature is rich and contentious. For example, Koh and Sinhababu interpret the pro-attitude to require an additional element, pleasure at the attainment of the object [Koh], which aligns coarsely with the entrepreneurial stance that we interrogate here. But we leave our account of Davidson at the superficial level of identification of the two components of action.

These philosophical niceties do not provide the solid answers we seek, as our inquiry does not yield a logical solution, that is, the exposure of a shaky premise. What do we learn here? It’s the action that is leading, not the reasoning. An ungenerous critic would simply snort that there is no thinking going on in Tech Leadership. In any case, our result is modest, a restatement of the question rather than an answer to it. The question remains, “Why are they so convinced that this is good?”… except that no convincing seems necessary, so a better question is “Whence comes this pro-attitude?” That leaves us teetering on the brink of psychology, which we are not equipped to take on. But it also affords interested parties the vocabulary for further inquiry.


[Davidson] Donald Davidson. 1963. Actions, Reasons, and Causes. Journal of Philosophy, LX:23. Symposium on Action at the 60th annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

[Hill] Hill, R. 2019. The Artificialistic Fallacy. BLOG@CACM, March 30, 2019.

[Koh] Jeremias Koh and Neil Sinhababu. 2021. Pleasure Makes Pro-attitudes. In: Yang, S.CM., Myers, R.H. (eds) Donald Davidson on Action, Mind and Value. Logic in Asia: Studia Logica Library. Springer, Singapore.

[LaFrance] Adrienne LaFrance. The Despots of Silicon Valley. The Atlantic 333:2. March 2024. Pages 11–15.

[Levy] Levy, Steven. 2023. The Transformers. WIRED. Oct. 2023]

[Liedtke] Michael Liedtke. 2024. Ex-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer discusses the current tech scene from vantage point of her AI startup. Associate Press. February 20, 2024.

[Moss] Moss, Emanuel and Jacob Metcalf. 2019. The Ethical Dilemma at the Heart of Big Tech Companies. Harvard Business Review. November 14, 2019

[PCMag] Technology Imperative. PC Magazine Encyclopedia. Accessed 18 March 2024.

Robin K. Hill

Robin K. Hill is a lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and an affiliate of both the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research at the University of Wyoming. She has been a member of ACM since 1978.

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