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- Author: Graeme Kirkpatrick x
This is the first monograph devoted to the work of one of the foremost contemporary advocates of critical theory, Andrew Feenberg. It focuses on Feenberg’s central concept, technical politics, and explores his suggestion that democratising technology design is key to a strategic understanding of the process of civilisational change. In this way, it presents Feenberg’s intervention as the necessary bridge between various species of critical constructivism and wider visions of the kind of change that are urgently needed to move human society onto a more sustainable footing. The book describes the development of Feenberg’s thought out of the tradition of Marx and Marcuse, and presents critical analyses of his main ideas: the theory of formal bias, technology’s ambivalence, progressive rationalisation, and the theory of primary and secondary instrumentalisation. Technical politics identifies a limitation of Feenberg’s work associated with his attachment to critique, as the opposite pole to a negative kind of rationality (instrumentalism). It concludes by offering a utopian corrective to the theory that can provide a fuller account of the process of willed technological transformation and of the author’s own idea of a technologically authorised socialism.
The introduction sets out what distinguishes contemporary critical theory, placing Feenberg in context alongside other prominent exponents of the tradition inspired by the Frankfurt School, especially Habermas. It sets Feenberg’s intervention in its social and historical context – the rise of the digital, which, from its inception, has been the locus of a culture of popular participation in technology design. The introduction concludes with a chapter overview of the book.
This chapter describes the issue that motivates Feenberg’s theory, and the problematic to which it is a response. This is based in Marx, whose reflections on technology are paradoxical: on one side technology sets humanity free and creates the conditions for a socialism based on great wealth; on the other, technology is shaped by social interests, and under capitalism this results in machines designed to oppress their users. Feenberg’s theory of ambivalence is presented as the first step towards a resolution that preserves the progressive orientation of the theory while enabling it to engage with the complex realities of technology design and use in twenty-first-century societies.
If technology is fashioned to oppress workers and yet will ultimately, in Marx’s phrase, redound to their benefit, then some account is needed of the shaping process itself, in order to see how it might be challenged as part of the transition to a post-capitalist society. This chapter discusses Feenberg’s suggestion that technology is ‘formally biased’ rather than substantively or essentially so. Formally biased designs are those that are shaped by a distinctive, technical intention and which, once placed in social context, promote the interests of specific groups. The chapter interrogates this idea and suggests that it represents an advance on previous critical thinking about the bias of technology, detaching concerns about it from the sweeping and largely unhelpful claims about ‘instrumental reason’ that are to be found in the writings of earlier critical theorists. It suggests that Feenberg has been insufficiently bold in capitalising on the gains of his own approach and recommends reviving the category of substantive bias in a way that will give critical theory access to some of the insights of post-phenomenological studies of technology.
The central concept in Feenberg’s theory, technical politics synthesises insights from constructivism in the sociology of technology with Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘post-Marxist’ theory of hegemony and radical democracy. Interpreting the dominant conception of what counts as good technology as the form taken by contemporary hegemony enables Feenberg to read the involvement of social actors in technology design as the principal form of politics in contemporary society. Digital culture, in which non-expert populations routinely refashion gadgets and devices to suit their own purposes, then appears as a hotbed of resistance and activism. Feenberg advances a strategic conception of this activity as moving what he calls the boundary of technique, so as to shift the prevailing conception of what technology can do. The aggregate effect of technical politics in all of its diverse manifestations is a push towards softer, more humane technology, which constitutes a change of civilisational paradigm and facilitates a more harmonious social order that works with rather than against nature. While recognising technical politics as an important conceptual advance, the chapter lodges some reservations concerning the political nature of the theory, which threatens to obscure important sociological questions.
The notion of a more humanised technology and a superior nature–society mediation turns on what Feenberg calls the aesthetic critique of technology design. Unifying the disparate interventions that constitute technical politics is a concern to create technology that is less violent and more pleasurable to use. Here Feenberg’s theory has paralleled interesting developments in the scholarly disciplines concerned with technology design, especially interface design for digital artefacts. He argues that while industrial modernity neglected the aesthetic dimension of technology, prioritising a narrowly construed efficiency over other values, this is a historical aberration. The question arises, then, of what kind of aesthetic ought to be embraced by advocates of democratic design culture. The chapter endorses Feenberg’s vision of re-aestheticisation but disagrees with his preference for naturalistic modernism as the source for a reinvigorated technological aesthetic.
The final chapter looks more closely at Feenberg’s ‘instrumentalisation theory’, in which he defines technology in terms of two moments: a primary instrumentalisation that forces objects out of their natural settings to foreground their useful properties, and a secondary one that uses symbolisation processes to facilitate their cultural incorporation, making it possible for them to be used. The interaction of these two dimensions varies between historical civilisations, so that capitalist industrialism, for example, narrows secondary instrumentalisation around the singular value of efficiency, while other cultures decorate their tools and associate them with social functions that may be associated with individual identities and more or less esteemed. Feenberg presents this distinction as a framework for envisaging how technology might be transformed in the future; to set out what we might think of as the ‘historical essence’ of technology. Drawing on the argument of previous chapters, the chapter concludes by suggesting that, while he takes a significant step towards accommodating utopian projection within Marxian theory of technology, Feenberg could be more ambitious in thinking through some of the ramifications of the alternative ‘concretisations’ implied by this theory. The idea of technologically authorised socialism is advanced as a way to start addressing this.
The conclusion summarises the argument of the book: Feenberg’s intervention is an important advance for the way that Marxism and critical theory handle the question of technology, especially in its relation to progressive social change. His attachment to the idea of critique inhibits his capacity to fully capitalise on his conceptual innovations.