Category:P2P Technology Theory

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How to think about the relation between technological and social change, specifically from the point of view of a 'peer to peer transition' ?

Status: ported from Technology section: A to C.


Thinking about the role of technology and social change

An introduction to competing philosophical schools by Pieter Lemmens:

"In the philosophy of technology one distinguishes roughly between two opposing views about the relationship between technology and society: on the one hand technological determinism, the thesis that it is technology and technological change which determines the structure of society and/or culture, and on the other hand social or cultural determinism, the thesis that it is society and/or culture that determines the shape and character of technologies and technological change. This last view, which is held by the many Latour- and Callon-inspired social-constructivists in the Netherlands, is also referred to as the ‘social shaping of technology’ thesis. The first view is held for instance by Jacques Ellul but is also attributed sometimes to Marx.

Another broad opposition is that between the so-called autonomy theory of technology (also known as technological substantivism), and the instrumentalist view of technology. The first holds to the idea that technology and technological change have a logic of their own and are outside of human control and decision, the second claims that technology is a neutral means used by autonomously acting human beings for a variety of ends, to which technologies are indifferent. This view is also sometimes referred to as the humanist view. Substantivism is most often associated with Heidegger and Ellul, whereas liberal conceptions of technology are generally perceived as being instrumental and typically subscribing to social and/or economic determinism."


Andrew Feenberg's Quadrant of Four Technology Theories

- 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)

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.

Key Quotes

""The twentieth century is not going to be remembered for its wars or its technological innovations, but rather as the era in which we stood by--neither actively endorsed nor passively accepted--the massive destruction of both biological and cultural diversity on the planet....You know genocide as the physical extinction of a people is universally condemned, but ethnocide--the destruction of a people's way of life--is not only not condemned, it's universally in many quarters celebrated as part of a development strategy....In the end then it comes down to a choice: do we really want to live in a monochromatic world full of monotony or do we want to embrace a polychromatic world of diversity."

- Wade Davis

Undermining the resonance with the Other

""In real conversations, people's bodies constantly resonate with each other. The facial and body muscles of the listener contract in the same way as those of the speaker, and the same areas of the brain are activated. When people speak with each other, they form a supra-organism on a psychic and subtle-physical level. They are connected by a psychic membrane that imperceptibly transmits the most subtle emotions from one person to another. In this way a kind of spontaneous empathy occurs in the interlocutor (unless the ego structure is extremely developed, as in psychopathy). Every (real) conversation thus satisfies the first and foremost primal need of man – resonance with the Other. In a digital conversation, this resonance is compromised."


Technology is about designing subjects

"Today, technology allows us a new form of design: one that designs subjects, not objects; people, not things. By designing the information someone consumes, we can frame their opinions. By designing the interactions they have with digital devices, we can frame their thinking. This is known by not only tech giants but by military intelligence. And now, it is time that it becomes known by designers - especially those at the vanguard of dying paradigms. Our environments, our tools and even our ideas are extensions of ourselves. Our clothes extend our skin’s ability to keep our body warm, and our glasses improve our eye’s ability to see. This is simple enough. But what about language, or the internet? What does it do to us? How do they extend our humanity? More importantly: can we design that extension? In this century, algorithmically powered ontological design will radically reinvent what “human” means. It will not only be used to create “better” humans, but to redesign the very concepts of “better” itself, disrupting the values of the old world order and kickstarting a struggle for the new. Creatively terrifying designs are becoming possible."

- Daniel Fraga [2]

What the Hyperreal World Demands from Us Is Our Participation in its Mode of Production

A crucial essay on what it means to be a 'peer':

"The cultural attitude of the early 21st century may perhaps one day be known as “the assault on concentration.” In an endless stream of information, the “new” is what counts. And when the “new” is endlessly replenished, concentration is superfluous. One does not need concentration when reality effortlessly floats by like a series of fragments, images, stimuli, informational content, episodes of a TV series, or handy slogans " ... "The proliferation of individual, yet acceptable viewpoints obfuscate a vantage point that becomes less visible over time: namely, that as an individual, one can generate universal insights. To deny this is to fully accept and internalize the postmodern assumption and its associated nihilism. To hold that one’s position “is just another narrative” is to submit oneself already to the postmodern mode of cultural production, and thereby succumbing to its oppressive and invasive logic of production. To treat one’s own convictions as mere narratives devoid of universality is to internalize the postmodern mode of cultural production, severing oneself from the exercise of one’s autonomy. If anything, a renewed and radicalized subjectivism is not the ultimate weapon of postmodernity, but against it. It is an attitudinal disposition that refuses to regard itself as a mere cog in the machine, and that actualizes the power of its own autonomy and validity through the liberating power of its subjective determinations. It does away with the bland relativism that reality is the sum total of viewpoints, thereby overcoming the postmodern, projected fear that one reasons “just from one’s own privileged perspective”, and that therefore one has to distance oneself from one’s innermost convictions. I use the term “subjectivism” as a deliberate provocation. The philosophy of high modernity abhorred subjectivism because it was seen as a nonsensical aberration that would have no place in the project of modernity. In postmodern culture, the only type of subjectivism on offer is the watered-down and marketable variety. In both cases, the exercise of individual autonomy is deeply mistrusted and undermined. Nevertheless, what appears from the viewpoint of high modern and postmodern culture as a cultural dead end appears from the viewpoint of radical subjectivism as the way forward—and more importantly, as the road to liberation and the free exercise of autonomy."

- Otto Paans [3]

Technology as Artificial Representation

"The very idea of “natural representation,” when combined with the 17th-century Cartesian idea of an objective space in which we can represent by means of coordinates, contributed significantly to the emergence of the mechanistic worldview: not only is the natural world nothing but a large-scale complex machine, but also the human perceptual mind is nothing but a small-scale simple machine like a pinhole camera, i.e., a camera obscura. This thought-shaping mental model—the human perceptual mind as a camera obscura—which more or less covertly lies behind the shaped thought that the technology associated with the leading formal and natural sciences are the final answer to the problem of mental representation—whether it is a pinhole camera, a brownie camera, a movie camera, or a digital camera application in a smart phone—has proven to be a remarkably influential and persistent myth. The increasing mathematization of the sciences, the models for problem-solving derived from engineering, the reduction of biology to statistical mathematics, evolutionary genetics, chemistry, and physics, and the reduction of animal behavior to Turing-computable algorithms, as well as the reduction of consciousness to physico-neural processes, all point in the same conceptual direction: the variety of life itself must be brought under one idealizing system of representation. And, not surprisingly, that very idiom is conceptual and limited to the operations of mathematizability and/or formal logic. The fact that science itself speaks in abstractions and idealizations does not in the slightest stop the advance of mechanistic thinking, because it justifies its existence by appeals to its objectivity and practical efficacy. Thereby, it reduces life (and in its wake, Being) to phenomena that are understood once they can be replicated or described in mathematical (and increasingly digital) terms, potentially making them available for artificial reproduction."

- Otto Paans [4]

Noah Smith on Positive vs Normative Techno-Optimism

"Positive techno-optimism is basically the opposite of stagnationism. In recent years, a number of thinkers have started to say that humanity has basically picked the low-hanging fruit of what the Universe can do, and that future innovation will get a lot more expensive — or even slow to a trickle. Positive techno-optimism says that no, there’s still a lot of low-hanging fruit, and relative to our total GDP it’s still not that expensive to find it. >< Normative techno-optimism is different. It says that more technology will make the world a better place for humanity. In fact, this kind of techno-optimism is surprisingly rare — even some of my favorite science fiction stories are implicitly or explicitly built around the idea that no matter how our capabilities improve, humans’ fundamental brutish nature will never change. As far as I can tell, this very prevalent attitude comes from the World Wars in the 20th century, in which the industrial technologies that were deployed to improve living standards before 1914 were turned to destructive purposes. There are a few people who argue that more technology makes us better people — Steve Pinker made this argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and I think it’s the implicit premise of Lois McMaster Bujold’s science fiction.

So that’s one distinction. For both of these, you can then define both active and passive forms of optimism. Passive optimism is basically just the belief that technology either will keep progressing at a rapid clip, and/or that it will improve human life, no matter what we do. Active optimism is the idea that technology will keep progressing and/or improve human life only if we humans take the appropriate actions to make sure this happens. Active optimism is what Gramsci and others have called “optimism of the will”. You could also call these “unconditional” and “conditional” optimism."

- Noah Smith: [5]

Key Resources

Key Articles

"Accelerating rates of historical change are achieved during the Terrestrial Eon by the invention of information inheritance processes. Second, eras can also be defined within Earth history by differences in the scaling of energy flow. This is because each era is based on a different kind of energy source: the material era depends on nuclear fusion, the biological era on metabolism, the cultural era on tools, and the technological era on machines."

Key Books

  • Power and Progress. By Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson. [7]: "a 546-page treatise that demolishes the Church of Technology, demonstrating how innovation often winds up being harmful to society. In their book "Power and Progress," Acemoglu and Johnson showcase a series of major inventions over the course of the past 1,000 years that, contrary to what we've been told, did nothing to improve, and sometimes even worsened, the lives of most people."
  • as recommended by Venkatesch Rao: "The Lever of Riches by Joel Mokyr, probably the most compelling model and account of how technological change drives the evolution of civilizations, through monotonic, path-dependent accumulation of changes."
  • Technology, Modernity, and Democracy. Essays by Andrew Feenberg. Rowman and Littlefield, 2018. MB: I have found Feenberg to be important as a synthesis of both the critique of technology, while remaining open to a constructive usage of technology. This entry contains my reading notes.
  • The Question Concerning Technology in China. By Yuk Hui. [8]: "A systematic historical survey of Chinese thought is followed by an investigation of the historical-metaphysical questions of modern technology, asking how Chinese thought might contribute to a renewed questioning of globalized technics."


"introducing a history of modern Eastern philosophical thinking largely unknown to Western readers, including philosophers such as Feng Youlan, Mou Zongsan, and Keiji Nishitani."

The Classics

This video contains very useful book recommendations and introduces the importance of each recommended book: The Evolution of Media Studies by John David Ebert

  • Ivan Illich. Tools for Conviviality: "The capacity to promote autonomy is a fundament characteristic of a convivial tool".

The Moderns

  • The Eye of the Master: A Social History of Artificial Intelligence. by Matteo Pasquinelli. Verso, 2023. [10]: "A “social” history of AI that finally reveals its roots in the spatial computation of industrial factories and the surveillance of collective behaviour."

The Provocateurs

Key Courses


Key Thinkers

Marshall McLuhan

Norbert Wiener

    • Books:
      • Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine
      • The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society
      • God & Golem, Inc: A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion

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