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

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 [1]

Key Resources

Key Books

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


Key Thinkers

Pages in category "P2P Technology Theory"

The following 88 pages are in this category, out of 88 total.