Archive for the ‘Questioning Technology’ Category

Chapter 6: Democratizing Technology

March 20, 2007

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.

Chapter 5: The Problem of Agency

March 16, 2007

I hadn’t read Chapter 7: Critical Theories of Technology, when Kant was recommended to me. In Chapter 7 Feenberg asks the question: “what can we learn from Marcuse and Habermas assuming that we are neither metaphysicians nor instrumentalists, that we reject both a romantic critique of science and the neutrality of technology?” Of course he goes on to answer that question for us. Now, One Dimensional Man is on my reading list, and I’m thinking about something by Niklas Luhmann, but I’ll have to ask around. What can we learn, and how can we use it to build the grand theory?

I’ve got the feeling that these quotes/ideas are going to be useful:

As in the factory or hospital or school, urban centers, media, even unions are reconstructed around the paradigm of technical administration. Expertise legitimates power in society at large, and “citizenship” consists in the recognition of its claims and conscientious performance in mindless subordinate roles. The public sphere withers; a literal silence is instituted as one-way communication replaces dialogue throughout society. (p.101)

The resulting weakness of democratic intervention into technology is symptomatic. (p.101)

The politics of sexual and racial identity returns agency to the individual but at a level that leaves basic technocratic structures untouched. (p.102)

Despite diminishing educational and cultural inequalities, social evolution continues on an authoritarian track. (p.103)

What we have learned is that even if no totalizing approach makes sense, the tensions in the individual system can be grasped on a local basis from “within,” by individuals immediately engaged in technically mediated activities and able to actualize ambivalent potentialities suppressed by the prevailing technological rationality. (p.105)

Social groups constituted by technology will reflexively turn on it.??????

It is this sort of agency that holds the promise of a democratization of technology. Technical politics foreshadows a world in which technology, as a kind of social “legislation” affecting every aspect of our lives, will emerge from these new types of public consultations. (p.105)

The problem is still the struggle against technocracy and its claim to an exclusive monopoly on rationality. But the solution now is to find radical political resources immanent to technologically advanced societies. (p.108)

Change in the system can destabilize its power structure.

“A thousand ways of playing/outplaying the other’s game, that is to say, the space that others have instituted, characterize the subtle, tenacious, resistant activity of groups which, for lack of a base, must maneuver in a network of established forces and representations.” From de Certeau

What de Certeau calls “exorbitant” practices are the equivalent of dominant language. Everyone must speak it, but marginal practices, like local slang, can give it a special twist. (p.113)

Where excluded members mobilize, political movements of a new type emerge that promise to create a lively technical public sphere.

Formulating local knowledge in a technical language that has legitimacy in the public sphere.

Chapter 4: The Limits of Technical Rationality

March 14, 2007

I had a short conversation with a couple academics a few weeks ago. Questioning Technology came up, and they wondered what I thought of it. It’s hard to talk about books like this with guys like this, but I had to confess that I’d never read any of the philosophers Feenberg uses to get his concepts together. Weber, Heidegger (only an article on Nietzsche), Marcuse, Habermas, I hadn’t read a single word of them. That’s pretty much why the pulled quotes I call “notes” are all I type out. But in philosophy I have read, the concepts of autonomy and human creative force were forged long ago.

So I ask a question, why read some monster tome of god-smothered thinking? I’ve tried Kant. Once you’ve read his name being dragged through the mud of Nietzsche’s anger it’s hard to put in the effort to read Kant. I picked up a slim hardcover copy of his Introduction to Logic, and I’ve tried to start it several times but can’t get past the first line, maybe I get a little into the second line, then I’m done. The book goes back on the shelf. I was told by one of the academics to hold off my judgement and read Kant. No reason, just read Kant.

Like I said this was weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about that. My philosophical reading has been limited to the sons of Nietzsche. So I decided to read the Critique of Pure Reason. I thought it would be interesting to read it with the Critique of Cynical Reason. Plus, there’s something mystical about this.

Anyway, these are some quotes that I pulled:

“Democratic” rationalism is a contradiction in Weberian terms. On those terms, once tradition has been defeated by modernity, radical struggle for freedom and individuality degenerates into an affirmation of irrational life forces against the routine and drab predictability of a bureaucratic order. This is not a democratic program but a romantic anti-dystopian one, the sort of thing that is already foreshadowed in Dostoievsky’s Notes From Underground and various back to nature ideologies. (p.75)

We need not go underground or native to escape the iron cage… this is in fact the meaning of the emerging social movements to change technology in a variety of areas such as computers, medicine and the environment. (p.76)

Two principles of technology’s ambivalence:
1. Conservation of hierarchy: social hierarchy and the continuation of power are generally unaffected by the introduction of new technologies.
2. Democratic rationalization: technical initiatives often follow structural reforms pursued by social movements.(p.76)

Technological development is not unilinear but branches in many directions, and could reach generally higher levels along several different tracks. (p.83)

A critical theory of technology can “demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices.”(p.87)

Social groups excluded from the original design network articulate their unrepresented interests politically. New values the outsiders believe would enhance their welfare appear as mere ideology to insiders who are adequately represented by the existing designs. (p.94)

Design is not a zero sum economic game but an ambivalent cultural process that serves a multiplicity of values and social groups without necessarily sacrificing efficiency. (p.95)

We will someday mock those who object to cleaner air and water as a “false principle of humanity” that violates technological imperatives. (p.97)

Chapter 3: Environmentalism and the Politics of Technology

March 13, 2007

Feenberg draws his philosophy out of the late 60s-early 70s social movements. A couple years ago this documentary about Bruce Haack made evident the culture of experiment that existed in those far gone days. A real possibility of something new was just beyond the veil if only we could do something magic to lift it. “Thank you America for raping the only dream we had left.” I’m quoting from (often faulty) memory there, Burroughs’ Thanksgiving Day Prayer. When the pointlessness of the moon landing (or any other product of that culture of experiment) slowly revealed itself, “you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

The May Events of 1968 “enlarged the field of the possible.” Three years later Barry Commoner “proposed transforming modern technology “to meet the inescapable demands of the ecosystem.” (“Be realistic. Demand the impossible.” Who said that? Now when I said in my notes on chapter two I was going to finish reading the book before I continued to review it chapter for chapter because there was something I didn’t understand it was this.) How could a free thinker not see in technology a legislative possibility? Isn’t that what Nader’s Raiders were doing? Am I misunderstanding the philosophy in this book if I see that organization as getting democratic on the technocracy? Is Feenberg drawing the philosophy out of this political action as well? Theory goes both ways, right? You can put theory into practice, apply theory (are they synonyms?), but what do you call it the other way? You can extract philosophical concepts out of political action?(I’ve read something like that somewhere before) Is that what’s happening here?

And some notes:

“Commoner’s contrary view depends on a nondeterminist philosophy of technology which admits the possibility of radical technical transformation”(p.47)

“Keep America Beautiful, Inc. proclaimed: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Hundreds of millions of dollars of free advertising space were devoted to diverting environmental pressures away from business and toward individual action.” (p.61)
“The business men who sponsored this campaign… hoped that the political energy mobilized by the increasingly articulate critics of capitalist environmental practice could be focused on private options, leaving basic economic institutions unchanged.”(p.62)

“the environmental movement must choose between repressive policy of increasing control over the individual, or a democratic policy of control over the social processes of production (and, I would add, culture.)” (p.69)

Technocracy and Rebellion: The May Events of 1968

February 21, 2007

This chapter… some notes. Feenberg “argues for subjecting technology to democratic debate and reconstruction.” That’s from one of the blurbs in the front of the book. I’m going to read through to the end of the book before I touch another chapter. There’s something happening here in the first part of this book that is completely disconnected from anything I understand.

This chapter is supposed to “open a window on the revolution in thinking about technology that continues to this day.” But again, not being much of a reader, and born after May ’68, I haven’t been much influenced by the thinking before this revolution. The essentialism and determinism explained in chapter 1, I don’t know, maybe being born after ’68 the thought of being creative in the world has just always existed.

And I don’t mean creative in the sense of free and easy artists. Maybe determinism comes from an inability to see our own selves. Perhaps it’s a belief in God, or a desire to believe in an authority, because the superficial message we get is not our people’s. The perfect example comes around every year. Each November 11 we’re reminded of the state’s role in securing our rights and freedoms. I grew up in a union home. The change in our standard of living didn’t come from the government. A dying generation created my situation. They literally had to fight the state(complex) to improve our lives.

Once you’ve seen it in your life, you recognize it in history. Civil rights, women’s right, Gay rights, no one in standard issue uniform went to war for their rights.

The ’68 student movement creates a new politics, “challenging capitalism in new ways.”(p.21)

Feenberg “reconsiders” the May events along four themes.

  1. logic of student revolt
  2. student/worker relations
  3. middle strata’s ideological crisis
  4. new libertarian image of socialism

“[the students] refuse to become professors serving a teaching system which selects the sons of the bourgeoisie and eliminates the others;”(p.25) They rejected their “role in the process of social reproduction.” While Feenberg alludes to a complex “c” conservatism in the university(p.23), the students’ writing claim the revolt was not about the situation in the university.

Society “pretends to be based on knowledge.” The students called for workers’ self management and for a transformation of daily life and culture.

The middle strata sided with the people.

“workers would set there factories back in motion on their own account.”(p.39)

Sartre wrote, the events of May ’68 “enlarged the field of the possible.”

“In the domain that interests us here, these movements were precursors that announced the limits of technocratic power”(p.43)

The Politics of Homework

February 13, 2007

I watched this documentary on Derrida the other night. An interviewer asks him a question about his knowledge of Seinfeld as deconstruction. Derrida doesn’t understand the question. He doesn’t know Kramer from Jerry, I’m sure, but it doesn’t matter. He says something like “A sitcom is not, can not be, deconstruction, and to anyone who thinks it is, I’d say, ‘Do your homework. Read about deconstruction.'”

I’m recalling this in response to the question “Why are you saying what you’re saying and what conversation is you engaged in that I have dropped in on too late?”

What I wrote about the preface to Questioning Technology, is merely a weak form of literary criticism limited to impression. I haven’t done my homework. I’ve yet to read Habermas or Marcuse or Heidegger. And so, writing about the preface, I can only describe my feeling of showing late, or unprepared, to this conversation. (There’s a Star trek episode where Picard is unable to communicate with aliens because they speak in metaphors. A place or person’s name refers to a historical situation unknown to Picard.) Marcuse’s name has an entire body of work, I’ve never read, attached to it. I ask the question of the preface, in ignorance, but the interest is real. I have gone on to read through to Part II. The second introductory chapter reassures me that the ideas attached to the names in the preface will be more fully explored as I read on.

Again I’m reading on. I’m looking forward to the philosophy. I’ve read Postman’s Technopoly and Roszak’s The Cult of Information and that’s about it as far as anything focused on technology. Both these authors were interested in making technology visible. They also write for school teachers. Questioning Technology is written for academics, or at least followers of a certain philosophical thread. It’s possible that after reading Questioning Technology, I will pick up that thread.

“We fight all the time about our conflicting theoretical views” This line from the email might lead to an idea of an ongoing conversation, a conversation that is somehow shaping my understanding of the preface. Maybe, it’s possible my reaction to the idea of a unifying theme comes out of that conversation. The word in the email was “fight.”

And it has to be a fight. (does it?) Any theoretical view that sees unity in its foundation can’t be reconciled with a view that sees the exact opposite, more an active opposition to unity, not just no foundation, but constant movement.

Chapter 1: Technology, Philosophy, Politics (notes)

February 8, 2007

This might be a trick I use to move on. I’ll simply pull quotes from a chapter. They may or may not become useful to me later on…

“If human significance of technology is largely unmapped territory, this is mainly due to the idealism of Western higher culture.”

“Technological development transforms what it is to be human.”

Essentialism holds that there is one and only one “essence” of technology and it is responsible for the chief problems of modern civilization. I will offer both a critique of essentialism, which continues to set the terms of most philosophy of technology, and an alternative to it, in the concluding chapters of this book.”

“It is not easy to explain the dramatic shift in attitudes toward technology that occurred in the 1960s. By the end of the decade early enthusiasm for nuclear energy and the space program gave way to technophobic reaction. But it was not so much technology itself as the rising technocracy that provided public hostility.”

“Part I of this book therefore includes two chapters on particularly revealing events and debates of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have chosen subjects which seemed important to me at the time and which shape the philosophy of technology presented in this book. I do not claim that these examples are typical, but I do believe that close attention to them opens a window on the revolution in the thinking about technology that continues to this day.”

“[Marcuse and Foucault] relate technical domination to social organization and argue that technology has no singular essence but is socially contingent and could therefore be reconstructed to play different roles in different social systems.”

“The debate between Habermas and Marcuse is the subject of Chapter 7.”

“In part II I attempt to develop and apply this new democratic conception of technology in the light of what social constructivism has taught us in the intervening years.”

“Whatever the ultimate status of scientific-technical knowledge, it is what we use for truth in making policy.”

“Must we choose between universal rationality and culturally or politically particularized values?”

“In the third part of the book, I will attempt to preserve these thinkers’ advance toward the critical integration of technical themes to philosophy without losing the conceptual space for imagining a radical reconstruction of modernity.”

“Its political implications appear where it interferes with human communication in essential lifeworld domains such as family or education.”