Western culture is becoming increasingly technological. It seems in be an unavoidable (and inescapable) trend. Critiques of technology are becoming a bit more frequent, but what I want to do is begin to examine a disturbing sociological trend: the issue of technology in conjunction with personhood. Personhood is a topic familiar to those who study ethics. The issue is centered on the abortion debate (namely, at what gestational juncture does a fetus become a person?). However, personhood is rarely spoken of in relation to technology. Yet the personalization of technology is becoming common. Most recently, the latest version of the iPhone has a feature named Siri which literally talks back and at you. It can (even if meant in jest) tell you it loves you, it cares for you and other such personal sentiments.
What I want to do in this series (a yet undetermined number of installments) is examine the trend of the personalization of technology while culture simultaneously negates personhood of the unborn. We do not yet (thankfully) have walking, talking robots. But (science) fiction has prophesied cultural trends in the area of technology and robotics. For those that know me, you are aware that I am quite the admirer of the fanatic science fiction series, Star Trek and Star Wars. These series, especially the former, go to great lengths to portray issues of ethics, personhood and technology. Thus, because we do not yet have robots serving us coffee, I will rely heavily on trajectories portrayed in these series to draw analogies seen in today’s discussion of philosophical ethics.
Personhood can be defined in several different ways. Edward Johnson states that it is the “condition or property of being a person, especially when this is considered to entail moral and/or metaphysical importance. This seems straightforward and would generally raise few objections. However, it is unclear how artificial intelligence would meld with this definition. One does not, however, have to look much further for traits of personhood, for Johnson himself gives several characteristics of personhood which include: agency, reason, language, volition and a basic subject-object relationship. Even the most up-to-date technology available does not meet all of these basic requirements. For example, the new Siri feature of the iPhone does not have volition, yet does have the ability to communicate via language (or features that resemble language). For example, the phone cannot turn itself on or off. Further, Siri only responds when commanded to, thus lacking a volitional aspect to its inception.
Yet the personhood conditions listed here, however, are met in popular culture, namely in the Star Trek franchise. While I will use Trek frequently and in a number of different ways, I will here focus on the character of Data as featured in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data (pictured here) resembles a human being in nearly every aspect (yet lacking human skin pigment and normal eye color). Data has friends (relationship), is capable of communicating normally with other people (relationship and language), can make choices (volition) and makes some of the most logical decisions of any of the Enterprise crew (reason). Data is also able to engage in human recreation activities, can eat and drink, and can even engage in sexual activity. Yet, Data is incapable of attaining certain feats. Most prominently, Data is incapable of feeling emotion of any kind. He cannot be happy, cannot get angry, is inept in comedy and, despite his best efforts, cannot fall in love. Throughout the seven-year run of The Next Generation, Data is on a quest to “become more human.”
Data is one of the most popular character in the Trek franchise (which at five series and over 700 episodes is quite a feat). What is endearing about Data is his comical, yet desperate, failures in his attempt to become more human. Eventually, Data achieves emotion and, in the last film to feature his character, Data sacrifices his own “life” to save his comrades. At such an event, his friends do not mourn the loss of a computer, which is essentially what Data is. Rather, they lament the death of a friend – someone they loved.
People cheer for Data; they want him to succeed in his endeavor towards humanity. The viewer of Trek empathizes with Data and the writers portray him as a sympathetic character. Data embodies personalized technology. While he physically resembles a human male, he does not possess actual human body parts. He has no brain, but a positronic brain; no heart, rather complex circuits. He is not a member of species homo sapiens but a machine. But this machine is special – he is treated as a person.
Society is moving in this direction, yet is moving further away from granting personhood to members of the human race. I will attempt to present philosophical and sociological faults with this proclivity in future installments. In such writings, I will rely heavily on Data, and Star Trek: Voyager’s holographic (and unnamed) doctor for examples.
Part two will feature human hesitation towards granting personhood to technology.
 Edward Johnson, “Personhood,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 662.
 This is the quote that Data often refers to. While the term “human” is used, it is acceptable to connect the term to “personhood” as this is evidently what Data wants. While there is often a distinction in philosophical ethics between the two words, Data either finds them to be synonymous or implies personhood in his definition of “human.”