Chapter 6: Democratizing Technology

One of the interesting potentials of blogs lies in research. With a few key words you can compile a sampling of attitudes within a sector. Sure you can find any opinion you want to promote, but the potential for a public dialogue exists. You can replace “technology” in this book with any other public institution and it would more or less hold up. Is this because medicine, housing, education, transportation are technology? Here’s a blog post entitled rather descriptively People Who Know Nothing About Schools Telling Us How to Fix Them again, switch “schools” with “technologies,” “hospitals,” or “shelters” and it amounts to pretty much the same thing; professionals want to feel like they have some control over their work. This is the control Feenberg wants to see wrested from the professions. In chapter 2 Feenberg shows how these “white collar” labourers sided with the people against the ruling class.

Education gets knocked about often enough by public policy and it seems to be in constant crisis. I guess that’s why Feenberg might like to see locally elected technology boards. I’ll just put the pulled quotes here again:

Technology is power in modern societies, a greater power in many domains than the political system itself. (p.131)

But if technology is so powerful, why don’t we apply the same democratic standards to it we apply to other political institutions? By those standards the design process as it now exists is clearly illegitimate. (p.131)

Representation, even at its best, diminishes the citizens by confiscating their agency. (p.133)

Disarmed by its emphasis on representation and central role of majorities in electoral politics, conventional democratic theory tends to devalue or ignore actual public participation by smaller numbers and tacitly to accept the mass mediated shadow for the substance of public life. (p.133)

Only reinvigorated communities can arrest the slide of modern society into media-manipulated passivity. (p.134)

All too often, public interventions into technology are dismissed as nonpolitical or, worse yet, undemocratic because they mobilize only small minorities. (p.134)

Feenberg uses the sidewalk ramp as an example of public policy for the benefit of minority groups. (p.141)

Instead, the most important means of assuring more democratic technical representation remains transformation of the technical codes and the educational process through which they are inculcated. (p.143)

Such schemes [electronic town hall meetings] deligitimate by implication the forms of intervention open to us today which are not usually based on the principle of majority rule in a community setting. (p.145)

Feenberg proposes “a strategy combining the democratic rationalization of technical codes with electoral controls on technical institutions.” With this strategy, popular agency “would be normalized and incorporated into the standard procedures of technical design.” (p.147)

I’d like to have more time to write these up, maybe have something clear to say, hopefully this will be useful to me later. This has got to be better than writing nothing. Right now I can’t make any argument, and maybe it’s best to consider my words a little more carefully. I am reactionary. When I come up against even an attempted optimism (see pages 4 and 14 of chapter 1) my pessimism rises, and the reverse is true.

Do I simply need to develop more of a personal stance? Stance? Perhaps a straddling of the polemical divides, like some sort of conceptual millipede. That’s more the case. I’d like to see technology legislated. After watching Who Killed The Electric Car, it’s obvious how out of control the people who drive technology, the people who actually work for, make necessary and pay for that technology, have no say in how it is designed. When the Big Three are wiped off the map, it’ll have been for their own short-sightedness.

I’d like to see something done, but national governments are corporate ideology cushions, and local governments, as powerless in the sway of corporate dollars. Anyone who challenges these institutions will be beaten. And yet, many of the social services we take for granted were implemented to domesticate the enraged working class. Their unions were heavily legislated. Communists, their ideological foundation, weren’t allowed in leadership positions. Their actions were completely legislated, their potential controlled. The government’s moves to provide free education for everyone were condemned as a communistic idea, which it was. The working class was given everything its communist champions were calling for except control.

I don’t know how our democracy works. I’ve got a schoolboy’s idea of democracy, but this tired middle-aged hack doesn’t know all the forces at play. This idea Feenberg proposes feels good to the freedom and peace loving schoolboy who still lives around here somewhere, but for the cagey veteran in us the system isn’t rational.

There is no free and lively dialogue. It’s written in the history of Socrates, Jesus, unnumbered union leaders, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John Lennon. Our power potential reduced to a monologue. Libel chill, Advertising boycott chill. To imagine there is some free and lively dialogue in North America is to be so intellectually limited that the stunted back and forth… no one buys it. Everybody know the reality. If you’re not dead, you haven’t said anything we need to hear. What a funny world we live in where an assassin’s bullet is our highest intellectual prize.


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