Reflections on the Role of Technology in the 20th Century

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* Article / Conference lecture: Looking Backward, Looking Forward: Reflections on the 20th Century. Andrew Feenberg.


Hitotsubashi University conference on "The 20th Century---Dreams and Realities," Dec. 2000

Contextual Quote

"In a world where capital has insinuated itself everywhere, there is now no central front of struggle. Instead, contestation snakes through homes, schools, universities, hospitals, and media. In the newsly socialized sphere of capital, a fractal logic obtains, such that each apparently independent location replicates the fundamental antagonism that informs the entire structure - i.e. capital's insistence that life-time is subordinated to profit."

- Nick Dyer-Whiteford, "Cycles", p. 82


"In the year 1888, Edward Bellamy published a prophetic science fiction novel entitled Looking Backward: 2000-1887. His insomniac hero sleeps hypnotized in an underground chamber where he survives the fire that destroys his house. Undiscovered amidst the ruins, he dozes on in suspended animation for more than a century, awakening finally in the year 2000 in a Boston transformed into a socialist utopia. Most of the book is taken up with his puzzled questions about his new surroundings and his hosts' lucid explanations of the workings of an ideal society.

Bellamy's book is now forgotten except by specialists but it quickly became one of the bestsellers of all times, read by millions of Americans from the closing years of the 19th Century until World War II. It articulated the hope in a rational society for several generations of readers. In 1932, less than 50 years after Bellamy's famous book appeared, Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, a kind of refutation of Looking Backward. The exergue to Huxley's book is a dismal quotation from the Russian philosopher Berdiaeff regretting that "utopias appear to be far more realizable than used to be believed." Berdiaeff goes on: "...a new century is beginning, a century in which intellectuals and the cultivated classes will dream of the means of avoiding utopias and returning to a less 'perfect' and freer non-utopian society."

Unlike Looking Backward, Brave New World is still widely read. It is the model for many later "dystopias," fictions of a totally rationalized social order in which "the attempt to recreate human beings in the likeness of termites has been pushed almost to the limits of the possible" (Huxley, 1958: 24). Or, as Marshall McLuhan once put it, we humans are becoming "sex organs of the machine world."

We can now literally "look backwards" at the 20th Century and as we do so, the contrast between Bellamy's utopia and Huxley's dystopia is a useful one to simulate reflection on what went wrong. And, clearly, something very important did go wrong to confound the reasonable hopes of men and women of the late 19th Century. While they expected that moral and social progress would continue in parallel with technical progress, in reality every forward advance seems to have been accompanied by catastrophes that call into question the very survival of the human race."

Reading Notes

From Michel Bauwens, 2006:

In this review of philosophy and technology, Feenberg distinguishes two schools

   - 1) a dystopian, held by Heidegger and Marcuse, and now by Baudrillard and Virilio and Albert Bergman. In some ways, they reflect a nostalgia for a idealized past
   - 2) it is this that is rejected by the non-modern or the postmodern approaces. According to these actors, like Bruno Latour and Donna Harraway, we have gone through dystopia and have come out on the other side

- "Our involvement with technology is now the unsurpassable horizon of being", and thus we have to make the best of its new potentialities. It is time to stop rearguard resistance and by embracing it, it gives its future development a more benign direction.

According to Feenberg, it is the internet which transformed the relationship of technology from one of antagonism to one of participation.

- "The logic of action is participative and individual action is supported by the technology." And it was done by the users, who subverted the intentions of the designers.

- Before the internet, the population was geographically fragmented and powerless against global trends. Now, these diffused groups can connect globally and create a global public arena.

More information:

  • Book: Technical politics. Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology. By Graeme Kirkpatrick. Manchester University Press, 2020.