Technology, Modernity, and Democracy

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

* Book: Technology, Modernity, and Democracy. Essays by Andrew Feenberg. Rowman and Littlefield, 2018



"This important collection of essays by Andrew Feenberg presents his critical theory of technology, an innovative approach to philosophy and sociology of technology based on a synthesis of ideas drawn from STS and Frankfurt School Critical Theory. - According to critical theory of technology, technologies are neither neutral nor deterministic, but are encoded with specific socio-economic values and interests. Feenberg explores how they can be developed and adapted to more or less democratic values and institutions, and how their future is subject to social action, negotiation and reinterpretation. Technologies bring with them a particular "rationality," sets of rules and implied ways of behaving and thinking which, despite their profound influence on institutions, ideas and actions, can be transformed in a process of democratic rationalization. Feenberg argues that the emergence of human communication on the Internet and the environmental movement offer abundant examples of public interventions that have reshaped technologies originally designed for different purposes. This volume includes chapters on citizenship and critical theory of technology, philosophy of technology and modernity, and Heidegger and Marcuse, two of the most prominent philosophers of technology."

Contextual Quote

"Reality lies in the background of disciplines such as engineering, laying out the framework within which they define and solve problems, but it is not an object of engineering science. The typical engineering illusion is that the technical device is identical with what th engineer makes of it, and relates only externally to the society in which it is found; while it is in fact rich manyfold incorporation of many parameters, and it subject to description in many discourses, none of which is 'foundational'."

- Andrew Feenberg

Reading notes by Michel Bauwens

In 2006, I printed out various essays by Andrew Feenberg, which may not be identical to those chosen in this 2018 selection, but will nevertheless be informative about Andrew Feenberg's general approach and ideas. His general aim seems to be to apply Critical Theory to an understanding of technology.

As noted in a seperate note on a essay,

- i.e. Reflections on the Role of Technology in the 20th Century

Feenberg divides the philosophy of technology in two camps:

   - 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

Feenberg also gives a double definition of modernity:

   - 1) as opposed to tradition, and thus referring to the accomplishments of science and technology, which are universal, though they first appearded in the West
   - 2) as the expression of a particular 'Western' tradition, but which is 'masquerading' as universalism, and has been charged by postmodernism for doing so

- Feenberg notes the powerlessness of the postmodern critique, and proposes to go more deeply by using a Critical Theory of Technology.

Feenberg's approach starts from a series of methodological assumptions, described here under four principiples:


- Technology is not the product of a unique technical rationality, but of a combination of technical and social factors, which should be studied not only with the empirical methods of the social sciences, but also with the interpretative methods of the humanities. The latter to uncover the meaning of technological objects.


- How the professions have defined history, blinds them to the deep impact of public opinion. Technology is far more able to incorporate social values.


- A democratic public sphere sensitive to technical affairs is a necessity and is already shown to exist in the concern for environmental and biotechnical matters. Also important is the 're-appropriation' by users.


- Technologies decontextualize objects and then recontextualize them, a process which is differentiation in modernity (and not in premodernity ?). This allows for a deconstructive critique of technology and therefore shows a freedom from determinism.

In the introduction to the Chinese translation of his book on 'Alternative Modernity', Feenberg argues against technological determinism. Technology is not driven by a universal rationality but by social actors, and thus it has become part of democratic decision-making and wants to release the hitherto 'subjugated knowledge'.

Critical Theory Essay

Feenberg distinguishes between essentialist critiques of technology (Heidegger, Mumford, Marcuse), which qre often anti-modern, from the constructiist studies of technology, often seen as uncritical. His aim is to combine the strength of both, in a Instrumentalization Theory

Instrumentalization Theory

Instrumentalization Theory holds that technology must be analyzed from two levels:

   - 1)  at the level of our original functional relation to reality,  i.e. attention to the de-worldling of objects, torn from their original context, subject to control and manipulation. Primary instrumentalization explains the constitution of technical objects and subjects, and is 'invariant'.
   - 2) at the level of design and implementation. The secondary instrumentalization focuses on the realization of constituted objects and subjects in actual technical systems, and is variable across the ages.

The primary level simplifies objects for incorporation in a device, while the secondary level integrates the simplified objects to a natural and social environment.

Analysis of the first level is inspired by categories introduced by Heidegger and other substantivists critics - but without its anti-modernism, while analyses at the second level is inspired by the empirical study of technology in a constructivist vein.

Primary instrumentalization has four 're-ifying moments':

1. Decontextualization: f.e. sharpness is abstracted from rock edges and made technically useful in a knife: loss of meaning occurs.

2. Reductionism: things are simplified to their primary qualities, while secondary are eliminated, f.e. wood-in-a-wheel has lost its quality of providing shade. All of reality is hence simplified in technical society.

3. Autonomization: The subject isolates itself from the effects of the action of the object. F.e. the hunter using his bow, does not feel the pain of teh dying rabbit, i.e. we are more and more isolated.

4. Positioning: Alll technical action presumes the acceptance of natural laws, but requires strategic positioning in order to take advantage of it.

Secondary Instrumentalization also has four aspects:

1. Systematization: the combining of technical objects in an embedded system. Premodern tech was better embedded in nature and less to each other; modern technology is the opposite.

2. Mediation: Objects are aesthetically and ethically formed for insertion in a social web of meaning, a process thta was much stronger in premodern societies.

3. Vocation: i.e. the acquisition of craft, or the adaptation of the subject to the object

4. Initiative: users are not just passive recipients of technical objects.

"Secondary instrumentalization support the re-integration of object into subject, object with context, primary with secondary qualities, and leadership with group through a reflexive meta-technical practice."

Constructivism presupposes that there are different solutions to technological problems, which reflects the different interests of the various actors involved, but usually favors isolated experts working for the corporate and political elites. It denies efficiency is the primary method of meta-ranking. "Technology is 'undetermined' by the criterion of efficiency". Technical codes already incorporate the dominant values and interests, and 'hide' them. Marx had already discovered the impersonal domination inherent in capitalism which differs from the personal domination of earlier social formations.

He did not foresee the extension of the technical mgt of human resources to the entire social field: "The whole life environment of society comes under the rule of technique.". Feenberg calls this the operational autonomy of management, which does not integrate subordinated actors in decision-making. It reproduces itself through technology. But this technology is only one possible path of development, truncated as it is by the demands of power.

A different power structure would bring differential technological paths into existence. There is no such thing as technology as such. Therefore, Feenberg calls for a democratic movement in the technical sphere to create alliances that would take into account the destructive effects of the technology on human beings and the environment.

He relies on De Certeau for this account of democratic resistances, because he incorporates the viewpoints of those subordinated to technical management, something Heidegger fails to do. An example is pollution control for automobiles, something implemented only after a political subject arose who demanded it to be mandatory. The same failure can be seen in the anti-modernist critics of the de-worldization seen in computerization and internetization, for example as online education. They see only a 'terminal subject', i.e. user, being controlled.

They do not see what the subjects are doing in the technological lifeworld, and the meanings, processes and relations they are constructing:

- "As computer networks developed, communication functions were often introduced by users." The collective itself re-constituted itself around the contested formation of the computer." (Latour)

Feenberg on Michel de Certeau:

Michel de Certeau "offers an interesting interpretation of Foucault's theory of power, which can be applied to highlight the two-sided nature of technology. He distinguishes between:

   - 1) the strategies of groups with an institutional base from which to exercise power and
   - 2) the tactics of those subjects to that power who improvise micropolitical resistances

An example of this would be the reaction to online education. The first force is that of administrators who want to introduce to automate and deskill their workforce of teachers and so make education a more profitable business. Traditionalists, as a second force oppose this and succeed in slowing down, but not stopping the trend. The third force, humanistic faculty and students, however, changes the nature of online education by insisting on the integration of human communication in these projects.

Box: Review of the technical concepts used by Feenberg, by Philip Brey:

- Technology is the sum of rational means employed in a society.

- Rationality implies the application of formal rules, to some domain of experience. Rationalization is the process of making some domain conform to such a standard of rationality.

- Modernity is the building of a rational society. Therefore, it does not have to coincide with the current institutions, and a alternative to modernity could be imagined (as long as rationalization defines its cultural horizon.). An alternative modernity could be based on different standards of rationalization.

- Technological rationality is embodied in the design of machines. Technological design is the key to the effectiveness of establishing hegemonies under the current horizon of rationalization.

- Feenberg's expanded definitions allow for different versions of social technology to exist. Feenberg distinguishes therefore the traditionalists who aim for a return to premodernity, the proponents of an alternative modernity, such as himself or Latour, and the postmodern tradition.

- Technical code consists of the features of the design of technical artefacts which incorporate the hegemonic values of capitalist rationalisation. Subversive rationalisation can alter the codes.

Essay: What is the philosophy of technology ?

Science is concerned with truth (and hence: epistemological issues), while technology is concerned with usefulness (hence, it seeks to control). Scientific-technological rationality has become our culture, and the philosophy of technology is the self-awareness of this form of society.

It started with the Greeks who saw the human as a laboring animal at work at transforming nature. They distinguished 'physis', i.e. nature that creates itself, from 'poeiesis', the act of producing something , i.e. artefacts. Techne is the knowledge associated with a specific form of poiesis, such as medicine. They also distinguished 'existence' (that is: being itself), and 'essence' ('what' it is). In poiesis, a thing is first an essence, as an idea in the maker, before it comes into existence. This essence belongs to the techne and is therefore independent of the maker. In nature, essence and existence co-exist. But Plato posited that their essence existed independently in an ideal plane. Thus the inherent purpose that the Greeks saw in techne, was also inherent to nature. The universe was therefore full of meaning and intention, and could be known by man. The important conclusion is: "We humans are not masters of nature, but work with its potential to bring a meaningful world to fruition."

The next big step (17th-18th cy), comes with Descartes and Bacon, where it is said "humans would become masters and possessors of nature" and "knowledge is power". Clearly this was a break with the Greek tradition. The essence of things was no longer 'within nature', not something we discover but something we create. Yet, because of the underlying vision of a mechanistic universe, technology is still the model of being. "Great ontology survived the defeat of its principles". However, physics has made place for 'stuff', that we modern humans can use as raw materials. Since we can subjectively choose our purposes, modernity no longer knows where it is going. Because technology now can do great harm, the optimism about progress is dead!

After processing the approaches of Heidegger and Habermas, see the subsections below, Feenberg discusses the role of critical theory itself.

Though critical theorists recognize the catastrophic consequences of technology, they also see it as a tool for freedom. We could tame it by devising appropriate processes of human and democratic control. It does not reject the efficiency embedded in technology but adds the crucial question: "efficiency for what?". These questions can be put in a higher framework which determines value-laden lifestyles.

Feenberg also introduces Borgmann, the leading essentialist philosopher of technology today. Showing this negative critique of hyper-intelligence, Feenberg proves how little it can explain the positive side of internet communication. Feenberg writes that "It is the capitalist technical rationality that is reflected in the narrow essentialism of Heidegger, Habermas and Borgmann. Because their characterization is so confined, the yare unable to develop a socially and historically concrete concept of its development and potential."

Feenberg also introduces Borgmann, the leading essentialist philosopher of technology today. Showing this negative critique of hyper-intelligence, Feenberg proves how little it can explain the positive side of internet communication. Feenberg writes that "It is the capitalist technical rationality that is reflected in the narrow essentialism of Heidegger, Habermas and Borgmann. Because their characterization is so confined, the yare unable to develop a socially and historically concrete concept of its development and potential."

"Heidegger, Habermas and Borgmann seem to believe that technical action has a kind of unity that defies complexity and diversity, as well as the profound socio-cultural embeddedness that 20 years of critical history and sociology have discovered." Constructivists sometimes dissolve the latter in its varied manifestations, and face the opposite problem, which can block a deeper reflection on modernity.

Feenberg's own approach will be developmental, looking at historically concrete stages with attention to both what is common (essentialism), and how it is different across stages (constructivism). After explaining primary and secondary instrumentalization, and their features (see box), Feenberg notes that premodern technology had the same features as today, but not with the same intensity, not with the same 'total mobilization' and alienation. It is capitalism which has created the latter, not technology itself.

- "It is modern management which has replaced the collegiality of the guilds, it is Taylorism which has deskilled the workers. Numerous historical studies show that there are more democratic forms."

Dominant forms are not so much derived from the 'essence' of technology, as from capitalist economics.

- "Given a different social control and path of development, it should be possible to recover these traditional technical values and organizational forms in new ways."

Hermeneutic Constructivism

Feenberg says there is a widespread 'technological fetischism' in the essentialist authors: they critique the form of technology but not its reality as a social nexus.

This social nexus demands attention to:

   - 1) the larger integration into technical systems and nature
   - 2) the symbolic order of ethics and aesthetics
   - 3) the relation to the life and learning processes of workers and users
   - 4) the social organization of work and use

All these are integrated in Feenberg's account, but excluded as 'contingent' features by the essentialists. The problem is that the sciences, engineering, and other differentiated 'technical disciplines', tan an abstracted, idealized, and rationalistic view of technological objects and systems, which disembed them from its relations in the real world, just as economics does with markets. This then contaminates not only common sense, but even the philosophy of technology. "it's function resembles price as a fetishistic form of objectivity."

Having shown that a device is a manyfold of many parameters and a subject of many discourses, Feenberg sets out for concepts to arrive at such 'surplus meaning':

- 1) Devices are always embedded in systems, i.e. self-reproducing structures (such as the corporation), but never in just 'one system', as different social, natural and technical systems are usually related and overlap in a network.

- 2) Feenberg rejects the notion that these networks and systems interact with an 'environment', rather choosing to cal it 'lifeworld'.

- 3) The lifeworld consists of intentional subjects which can and do subvert functions, systems and networks.

This is why the fetishism of 'function' is untenable, as function is always a choice amongst many possibilities. The lifeworld can prompt totally new designs (such as email for the internet), or new organizations. Such radical transitions cannot be conceptualized from a purely functional point of view.

A hermeneutic of technology must clarify the background which goes beyond function. Feenberg proposes to go beyond the break between technical and social systems: "we have to look at the process in which social constraints are embodied internally in the design." Feenberg thus rejects a sole emphasis on differentiation theories.

The process of concretization (Simondon), the opposite of differentiation, which it reverses, refers to the condensation of various functions in a single technical structure. Concretization means that the instrumentalization of objects is reconciled with wider contextual considerations, which may be social.

In the case of 'social concretisation', a social demand is incorporated in the device. But this is usually forgotten. Hence, 'the concretisation process is a technological unconscious, present only in the sedimented technical codes that are interpreted as purely rational and seperate from society.

According to Simondon, concretisation was more intense in premodern craftsmen, where devices were adapted to human operators, and collegial use. It was partially reversed in the industrial system, which marginalized the role of the worker in a hierarchical system, but is again stronger today in cognitive capitalism, as information technology needs the creative worker to be more in control of the productive process.

The idea that 'concrete technology', which includes human beings and nature in its very structure, contradicts the essentialist idea that technique conquers its objects, and opens the path for alternative technical paths. Thus today, we can have the idea of the ambivalence of technology, as a locus of social change.

Quadrant of Four Technology Theories

The philosophy of technology has emerged as a critique. The four quadrants (see box) exemplify these current trends.

   - Instrumentalism is the dominant view: we choose our purpose then make value-neutral tools to get there.
   - Determinism says that we have no control because technology has its own logic as an expression of human knowledge.
   - Substantivism argues that technology is a value in itself, that it functions like a religious choice, excluding other alternatives. 

Once a society chooses a technological path, it will be dedicated to values such as efficiency and power, and traditional values can not survive. Determinism and substantivism are closely related but the former are usually optimists (such as Marx), while the latter are usually pessimists.

  • The Quadrant:

- Technology can be: Autonomous vs Human Controlled

- and Neutral (means and ends are separated)vs Value Laden (means and end are related)

This gives us four possibilities:

       - Neutral + Autonomous: Determinism (modernization theory)
       - Neutral + Humanly Controlled: Instrumentalism (liberal faith in progress)
       - Value-laden + Autonomous: Substantivism (means and ends linked in through systems)
       - Value-Laden and Human Controlled: Critical Theory (choice of alternative means-ends systems)

Feenberg on Heidegger:

"Technology constitutes a new type of cultural system that restructures the entire social world as an object of control." It invades everything and it is inescapable. The only possibility is retreat. "Only a God can save us."

Heidegger contrasts the Greek craftsman who brings the truth out of the material, from the modern engineer who completely obliterates it. He 'de-worlds' his material to make it fit his plan. According to Feenberg, Heidegger's critique is at such a high level of abstraction, that it cannot distinguish between atomic bombs and agriculture.

Feenberg on Habermas

For Habermas, technical action is part of his general critique of 'purposive-rational action'. This positivist understanding of reason, is what he sees realized in technocratic society. His fundamental essay on the topic is: 'Technology and Science as Ideology'. And the two books related to the topic are 'Toward a Rational Society' (Beacon Press, 1970) and 'The Theory of Communicative Action: Lifeworld and System, a critique of functionalist reason' (Beacon Press, 1984). Whereas Heidegger proposed a 'quasi-historical account', Habermas offers a theory of the transhistorical essence of technological action 'in general'. In his later work , he contrasted 'media theory' from 'communicative action': Media make it possible for modern individuals to coordinate their actins while still individually pursuing success through an instrumental attitude. He distinguishes this 'media-steered interaction' from communicative understanding, i.e. the attempt to arrived at shared beliefs in the course of linguistic understandings (the former replaces the latter more and more).

The central pathology is the colonization of the lifeworld (the sphere of everyday communicative interactions), by systems (i.e. media-regulated rational institutions), i.e. the result being the technicization of the lifeworld (see also Luhman). Habermas relies on the Weberian hypothesis that premodern and modern societies are distinguished by the degree of differentiation of domains, and that this differentiation has led to a degradation of the object of technical action to a lower plane of being than that of the subject using it. While Heidegger looked at the object, Habermas looks to the side of the subject. Thus, Heidegger and Habermas can be read as complementary. Both are too 'essentialist' and Heidegger is substantivist.

Feenberg on Marcuse

  • Plato distinguished between Techne, based on a logos and striving for the good (ex. a good doctor motivated by a desire to heal), and Empirae, mere tricks used for subjective purposes (rhetoric, when it is abused).
  • Weber distinguishes between substantive rationality, which aims for a good (education for all), and chooses the means for it (teachers and classrooms), and formal rationality, which is solely concerned with the efficiency of the means (the good must come from the outside, from its users). The latter, through the market, is now more predominant. Weber's formal rationality was systemic and inexorable.
  • A generation later, Heidegger shifted his attention away from markets and bureaucracy, to technology, i.e. technoscience itself, and that it would destroy both man and nature. The embedded 'value' in technology is 'pure domination'. Where Plato and classical philosophy distinguished empirical reality from finality, this distinction has been lost in modernity. Finalities are now treated as mere subjective preferences. Thus that government must serve justice has now become entirely immaterial.
  • Marcuse however, returned to this classical distinction, but said Marxism's original contention that technology could be used for higher ends was naive. Technology had to be reformed at the fundamental level.

He differed however from Heidegger and the Frankfurt School by insisting that technology still had a promise, that a new instrumentality could be forged. Technology is to be reconstructed around a conception of the good, i.e. Eros, and should recognize Nature as another subject. But of course, the static essences of the ancients (fixed community standards are no longer acceptable to us moderns ), had to be historicized, made dynamic. Since technology is not a mere set of objects but a way of seeing the whole of reality as an object of technological control, what has to be created is a whole set of new experiences. This is called 'aesthetic reduction" and aims to recognize the essences, from what is contingent. Essence is defined as the potentiality they could achieve, if they were not stunted in their development.