‘Non-living things also influence our behaviour’

Ching Hung: “An electricity-hungry heater that does not provide information about its energy consumption cannot remind its users to turn it off in time.”

via Ching Hung

We place our hopes on education to tackle the environmental crisis, but education is not enough, according to Taiwanese philosopher Ching Hung. Our behavior is not only determined by our beliefs, but also by our environment. We know we need to change, and yet we don’t. According to Hung, technology can give a nudge in the right direction: “We need to design technologies to promote environmentally friendly behavior of users without coercion.”

The past year has been intense for the entire planet because of the corona pandemic. Which development surprised you the most?

“Like many other countries, Taiwan has taken several measures to combat the pandemic. Although there was an outbreak in mid-May, the number of infections measured fell back to 0 or 1 per day in two months. Is that because of strict rules or a government lockdown policy? New. Taiwanese have never had to deal with this. People here spontaneously wear medical masks every time they go out and scan a QR code in every shop and restaurant to report their location to Taiwan’s CDC (Centers for Disease Control). Unlike vaccines or contact tracing apps, masks and QR codes are pretty low tech, but they work very well.”

“A key factor for its success lies in Taiwan’s political culture. Taiwan is recognized as a mature democracy, but the people here are heavily influenced by the Confucian tradition. This means that we do not prioritize the individual over the collective. That is why we are more willing to cooperate with the government. This reveals an interesting relationship between politics and technology: When people care about others as much as they care about themselves, they will have more confidence in their elected government, reducing the need for high-tech solutions that often cause ethical problems, such as privacy.”

Many Dutch people are concerned about the future of their children, because our way of life is unsustainable; we exhaust ourselves and the earth. But it is difficult to change our habits. Do you have any advice for us?

“The way of life of the Taiwanese is also unsustainable. Many Dutch people cycle to their friends or work, but Taiwanese are highly dependent on motorcycles or scooters. Still, I see good opportunities for sustainability in Taiwan in particular. As I mentioned earlier, Taiwan’s political culture is rooted in Confucianism, which means that many Taiwanese accept a paternalistic style of government for the common good. This presents a great opportunity for the Taiwanese government to leverage what I call ‘behaviour-directing technology’.”

“While many people know that environmental protection is important, most don’t act like it – they prefer convenience or comfort over the value of nature. For these people, knowledge alone is apparently not enough. Technologies should be designed to promote environmentally friendly user behavior without coercion. For example, if you place elevators in corners of buildings and stairs in the hall, people will take the stairs faster instead of the elevator.”

If you could design a new lesson for primary school (4-12 years), what would it be? In other words, what do our children need to know to be prepared for the future?

“In my opinion, children need to know why they behave the way they do. We pin our hopes on education to tackle the environmental crisis because we think human behavior is the product of humans themselves—we do what we do because of our brain, mind, soul, personality, or anything else in our bodies. But recent developments in philosophy of technology and behavioral economics show that our thinking and acting is determined not only by the technologies people use, but also by the environment in which people think and act. In other words, we also need to understand human behavior in terms of things outside our bodies. As children learn about the role artifacts have and can play in shaping their behavior, they start to think about improving their environmental behavior by (re)designing artifacts, rather than changing their mind or attitude.”

Humans are relational beings. We take care of each other, our pets and our environment. But we take better care of some people, animals and things than others. If you were in charge, what should we take more care of in the next fifty years?

“Instead of those living things – our family, pets, nature – we should pay a lot more attention to non-living things – the things we design, make and use. While these artifacts have no life and therefore seemingly have nothing to do with environmental protection or conservation, they do have an impact on the environment and our behavior. An electricity-hungry heater that does not provide information about its energy consumption cannot remind its users to switch it off in time.”

“If ‘taking care of something’ means taking something seriously and treating it appropriately, then we need to take better care of our artifacts. On the one hand, we can make and use nature-friendly products to do less damage to the planet. On the other hand, we can also design and implement artifacts that change our environmental behavior because they help us drive less, use less energy, produce less waste, and so on. Yes, humans are relational beings, but too often we forget that we have relationships not only with living beings, but also with things. By taking care of those things, we take a roundabout way back to caring for the living beings we love.”

Philosophy around the world

On Thursday, November 18, 2021, on the occasion of World Philosophy Day 2021, UNESCO is organizing a worldwide online event Philosophy Around the World – Worldwide Philosophical Relay-Race. Ching Hung is one of the speakers. He will tell more about current Taiwanese culture, which he believes is a hybrid between Western liberalism and Eastern paternalism.

Source: Kennislink by www.nemokennislink.nl.

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