Saturday, December 4, 2010

Technology is not Value Neutral

How far would you go to help your new baby boy born with a neural defect?  What if the doctor’s prognosis was that your son’s brain would not develop past the age of an average two year old?  Would you consider utilizing the technology of stem-cell transplantation, despite its controversial methodologies, to save your son? 
Through this scenario analysis, I propose that no technology is value neutral.  To further explain this position, I hold that a value proposition was inherent and decisively made in order to develop of the stem-cell research technology.
Stem-cell research is the technology that allows the study of the basic building blocks of the human body.  Stem-cells are unique in that they have the capability to differentiate into any type of cell.  As a result of this unique and highly useful characteristic, private and limited public research has been and continues to be conducted on stem-cells to understand the process of embryonic development and to capitalize on tremendous advancements that stem-cells allow in the development of medical treatments for a wide array of conditions, including neural defects and cancerous tumors.  The technology that makes this research possible is hotly debated, as one of the two sources of stem cell research is the human embryo, which scientists agree has more potential for development of treatments than stem-cells from adults.
How did this understanding that the human embryonic stem-cell has more potential than adult stem-cells come about?  Many historical decisions and events played a part, but two specific events brought this potential to the forefront – a) legalized abortion, the result of the court case Roe v. Wade in 1973 and b) into vitro fertilization research that resulted in its first live birth in 1978.  These decisions placed into researchers’ grasp the potential of experimenting on embryos that were otherwise not coming to term.   
On what value base was this technology developed, that has pushed us far down the road of debate on a topic that wasn’t conceived of until the 1970’s?  Marshall McLuhan states in Understanding Media that the “medium is socially the message…technology can do anything but add itself on to what we already are” (18).  In other words, technology cannot simply be developed for positive or negative effect, leaving all else equal.  Rather, technological advancements fundamentally alter our ecology; just as an earthquake can shift an entire street by one inch, or global warming can raise the oceanic water tables by one inch.   The stem cell research technology was developed to conduct research on embryonic stem cells, predicated on the fact that this research concluded the existence of that stem cell.  Rather than value-neutral, I see a specific value statement inherent in even conceiving of this research.
Indeed, had I found myself in the scenario presented above, I would face a complex maternal debate to save my son.  Consider even the word ‘save’ takes on a different meaning as “radical technologies create new definitions of old terms, and this process takes place without our being fully conscious of it” (Postman, 8).  Does ‘save’ mean life-saving or simply that his life would be more normal with the transfusion?  How would you decide, considering your own values as they relate to the values you perceive to be inherent in the development of the stem-cell technology?
Department of Neurobiology and Physiology, Northwestern University.  (2002).  “What are stem cells?”  Retrieved from
McLuhan, M.  (2003).  Understanding Media.  Gingko Press, CA. 
Postman, N.  (1992).  Technopoly.  Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., NY. 

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