Moral implications found in the fruition of man-computer symbiosis


In November of 2014, Time magazine reported on the United States of America government’s use of smartphone surveillance in tracking suspects. Airplanes equipped with “dirtboxes” mimic cell towers and trick cell phones into releasing data to the aircraft. When these airplanes are in use, data is collected from thousands of innocent Americans (and hopefully also from suspects on the run) during each flight. According to Time, the FBI stated that they do not store the massive amounts of location information gained from these flights, and that this tactic is similar to other mass-data collection tactics used in government surveillance everyday (Frizell, 2015).

Fast-forward to the spring of 2015. The tension between complete online privacy and the need to counteract digital terrorism and protect identities drove several bipartisan lawyer groups and civil liberty organizations to challenge the government’s sweeping smartphone surveillance campaigns (Bennett, 2015). But worry about such governmental practices is not reflected in public surveys. Recent Pew Research Center findings reveal that 68% of Americans range between “not very concerned” and “somewhat concerned” in regards to government surveillance of American data (Rainie and Madden, 2015).

To understand why more and more people are embracing technological enhancements in their daily lives, and why they are willing to trade the collection of their personal data for the conveniences afforded by technology, we must first consider how consumers perceive the benefits and draw-backs of technological human augmentation, and how personal technologies have evolved to this point in time.

One major proponent of human augmentation by technology was computer scientist HCI3J.C.R. Licklider. In his famous essay defining man-computer symbiosis, his vision of technological advancement purports the cooperative teamwork of humans and machines. “It will involve very close coupling between the human and the electronic members of the partnership,” (Licklider, 1960, p.4). The goal of this coupling would be to use technology to facilitate computer solutions to problems guided by the creative flexibility of the human mind. The modern acceptance of this impending integrated man-computer symbiosis offers one explanation for why people accept device tracking surveillance.

As digital selves continue to blend seamlessly with physical selves (Elwell, 2014), and humans embrace deepening relationships with technological augmentations, the ethical framing of these choices is needed to better help politicians, inventors and consumers understand the benefits and consequences of living in technology-controlled societies. Discussing the philosophical forecasts guiding human-computer interaction device development and the current applications of these devices should inform this very needed ethic of personal technology.

Key philosophers of technology development

  • J.C.R. Licklider – Proposed the pursuit of augmented intelligence (vs. artificial intelligence) as a focus for computer science research
  • John McCarthy –  Defined artificial intelligence (AI) as the “science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs,” (McCarthy, 2007). A breakthrough in AI happened when researchers created algorithms “that could mimic how humans made meaning out of large amounts of data … scientists instructed computers to mimic [human pattern recognition] in an automated trial-and-error process that utilized code that worked more effectively and rejected code that did not,” (Seel, 2012, p. 258).
  • Brian Gains – Highlighted the importance of team work with computers as the proponent of man-computer symbiosis. Our teamwork with technology is essential to the achievement of man-computer symbiosis.
  • Ray Kurzweil – forecasted a deepened manifesto of “The Singularity” as a time when the unprecedented multiplication of technology’s capacities would completely alter human existence. Kurzweil’s application of singularity implies such a successful merger of humanity and technology that all disease, poverty, pollution and human frailty will dissolve into unlimited possibilities of human evolution and progress.
  • Jacques Ellul criticized technology’s advancing role in modern society. He defined La Technique as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at, and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity,” (Ellul, 1964, p. xxv). In the eyes of Ellul, the adoption of technology eventually creates more problems than were solved by innovation, and we can never fully comprehend the far-reaching effects technological advancements will play on our society.
  • Jaron Lanier, a founding proponent of virtual reality, recognized cloud-computing technologies as an example of bringing Technique to life.
  • Philosopher Neil Postman’s concern of this godlike status given to technology stemmed from ruminating on the effects of applying technology to every aspect of human existence. His technopoly is “a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists of the deification of technology, which means that culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology,” (Postman, 1992, p. 71).

    Modern traces of merging with technology: Digital footprints and big dataHCI6Technology is “the architect of our intimacies, but this means that as we text, Twitter, e-mail, and spend time on Facebook, technology is not just doing things for us, but to us, changing the way we view ourselves and our relationships,” (Turkle, 2011, p. 28). And as we interact seamlessly with technology, we create digital footprints, the composite actions of treading through the World Wide Web (Greysen, 2010, p. 1228).

    One manifestation of the creation of digital footprints is the by-product of the seemingly endless data ripe for analyzation. The pursuit of harvesting knowledge bases with the help of computer technologies (such as meta-data analysis research techniques) is realized through the teamwork of man-computer symbiosis to employ big data in problem solving. The ability to comb through knowledge and determine the importance of that knowledge is becoming an important model both for business and for solving world-wide issues.

    With the undeniable persuasive use of personal technologies in modern society, we must decide what rights governments, individuals and even companies have in guiding trans-media selves. Philosophical reactions to technology tend to swing from one extreme to the other; technology will either take over and destroy all shreds of humanity, or technology will create a utopian universe. Reality tends to land somewhere in the middle. Ultimately, machines and technology will not take on their own life – our best efforts should be spent on furthering the relationship of human-computer symbiosis.

    However, the discussions raised by Postman and Ellul regarding authority raise important issues. Do consumers really recognize what they are submitting to when they agree to be interconnected and tethered to technology 24/7? And even if the majority of us do not care about our privacy of information, as referenced previously by the Pew study on people’s knowledge and concern levels about digital governmental surveillance, does this lack of care give our governments the complete authority to use information as they please? We are not machines. Although we may be fascinated with post-apocalyptic story lines proposing the demise of society as created by technology (an attitude inferred from the popularity of fictional franchises such as The Hunger Games and The Divergent series), we are also in love with the conveniences afforded by the daily integration of technology into our lives.

    Man-computer symbiosis is on the horizon. This symbiosis may not look like a chip implanted into our bodies or the completion of a fully integrated human-robot interface (not that these technologies are completely out of the question). In many virtual (and tangible) ways, we have begun to integrate computers into nearly everything that we do. I can only see this technology expanding. Ultimately, an ethic of technological adoption must consider the complicated roles at play in the evolving dance between humans and technology. It seems as though integration into technology will remain an essential component to interacting with mainstream society, the essential fabric to business, social and personal success.

    In light of these considerations, an ethic of technology should define the rights of all humans to protect and define their digital footprints. If the line between digital selves and physical selves has dissolved, then the basic tenets of democracy need to guide the fruition of man-computer symbiosis. Such an ethic needs to shape governmental surveillance practices as well as research practice.



    Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. New York: Knopf.

    Elwell, J. (2014). The transmediated self: Life between the digital and the analog. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 20 (2), 233–249-233–249.

    Frizell, S. (2014, November 15). Is the Government’s Aerial Smartphone Surveillance Program Legal? Retrieved March 27, 2015, from

    Greysen, S. R., Kind, T., & Chretien, K. C. (2010). Online Professionalism and the Mirror of Social Media. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 25(11), 1227–1229.

    Kurzweil, R. (2006, March 1). Reinventing Humanity: The Future of Machine–Human Intelligence. The Futurist, 39-46.

    Licklier, J.C.R. (1960, March). Man-Computer Symbiosis. IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, 1, 4-11.

    McCarthy, J. (2007, November 12). What is Artificial Intelligence? Retrieved March 31, 2015, from

    Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage.

    Rainie, L., & Madden, M. (2015, March 16). Americans’ Views on Government Surveillance Programs. Retrieved March 28, 2015, from

    Seel, P. (2012). The Future of the Digital Universe. In Digital Universe: The Global Telecommunication Revolution. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Turkle, S. (2011). The Tethered Self: Technology Reinvents Intimacy and Solitude. Continuing Higher Education Review, 75, 28-31.