Questioning Technology by Andrew Feenberg is both deeply important and fundamentally flawed. It would take me a couple hundred pages to appropriately respond to this text, and such a response would be worthwhile. As such, these reactions are intended to provoke more than to explain. In this brief review, I will touch on three aspects that I find troubling in this text.
Democracy as process in confronting “the field”…
Feenberg confronts a problem many proponents of egalitarianism and democracy before him have: the existing technical infrastructures have been developed through a repressive process and reproduce domination, and “the field is taken.” Like most others before him, he constructs a philosophy and politics of technology that demand an evaluative and practical response. And like most of them, he considers the field before him, taken by so many systems that are integrated with daily life, and caters the politics to the maintenance of the degree of technical development to which Western industrial societies have become accustomed. In doing so, he has softened the requirements for egalitarianism and democracy to a degree to which they are weakened or contradictory forms. Direct, localized democracy is indeed incompatible with many – indeed most – existing technologies. He is correct to consider the field as taken by so many technologies that prohibit popular engagement, and perceive Sclove’s requirements for a democratic assessment to negate most of them. So, Feenberg abandons the prospect for direct, local democracy in favor of a representative and guild system. I find this choice to be fatal to Feenberg’s own politics of technology. Continue reading →
In The Techno-Human Condition, Allenby and Sarewitz confront the growth of transhumanism as a movement and the history of humans engaging with technics that have shaped the species’ evolution. They additionally issue a particular critique of the Enlightenment. The limits of reason in complex, global technosystems is deeply explored and effectively trounced upon. In reading this text, one might be inspired to recall Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment. However, in such a comparison, we might realize a primary weakness at the heart of Allenby and Sarewitz’s project. Horkheimer and Adorno found in the Enlightenment not simply the limits or reason, but a commitment to domination of nature, which extends to the complete domination of humankind. The pinnacle of the Enlightenment is not found in transhumanism (as in Allenby and Sarewitz), but in the concentration camp. If we might update this scenario, we could say the pinnacle of the Enlightenment is perpetual war for oil fought by drone planes and cyborg soldiers in which millions of civilians are murdered (only on the enemy side, of course). Continue reading →
In Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor, Paul Farmer combines his experiences as a physician and anthropologist in the Third World to bring forth evidence and analysis of poverty. While primarily focused on health, and profiling the effects of Tuberculosis, AIDS and other diseases on particular locales, his experience in treating patients beaten by members of military dictatorships and those who experience malnourishment point to deeply social health problems. As he quickly demonstrates, military attacks on civilians and AIDS are equally socially determined problems. Continue reading →
Esteva and Prakash’s Grassroots Postmodernism presents a powerful theoretical model for alternatives to development. In reading this accessible, yet deep survey into the competing ideologies of development and local people’s power, one is confronted with a text rife with aphorisms that challenge the sacred cows of global development. Continue reading →
Language is an “ephemeral perceptual boundary […] established by a common tongue” (256). In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram demonstrates how, through the development of the alphabet, this division between the human and non-human worlds amplifies. Abram demonstrates the socio-cultural evolution of the written language replaces experiential communication with and about the natural world with a symbolic representation of it, an abstraction of speech represented in phonetic signs or letters. In oral cultures, speech is tied directly to place, and the breathed word with the air. In Western civilization, the written language is a simulation of and instruction on mouth-sounds. The written language and the characters of the alphabet refer to human speech, rather than depending “upon the larger field of sensuous phenomena” (257). “The letters of the alphabet, each referring to a particular sound or sound-gesture of the human mouth, begin to function as mirrors reflecting us back upon ourselves” (187). The irony is that those illiterates many see as bar-barous seem to have a significantly more cognizant approach to language than the civilized, with our billions of tomes that tell us how to grunt.
In this review of The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency by Matthew M. Aid, published by The New York Review of Books, we learn about one of the largest developments in cyber-surveillance and the assault on our privacy by an increasingly tyrannical government.
Just how much information will be stored in these windowless cybertemples? A clue comes from a recent report prepared by the MITRE Corporation, a Pentagon think tank. “As the sensors associated with the various surveillance missions improve,” says the report, referring to a variety of technical collection methods, “the data volumes are increasing with a projection that sensor data volume could potentially increase to the level of Yottabytes (1024 Bytes) by 2015.” Roughly equal to about a septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text, numbers beyond Yottabytes haven’t yet been named. Once vacuumed up and stored in these near-infinite “libraries,” the data are then analyzed by powerful infoweapons, supercomputers running complex algorithmic programs, to determine who among us may be—or may one day become—a terrorist. In the NSA’s world of automated surveillance on steroids, every bit has a history and every keystroke tells a story.
Thoughts on Paul Hawken and Blessed Unrest by Ben Brucato, September, 2009:
One Big Movement
In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken discusses the history of ideas and action of “a broad nonideological movement” that “has come into being that does not invoke the masses’ fantasized will but rather engages citizens’ localized needs” (18). This movement offers “thousands of practical and useful [ideas]” and “processes, concerns, and compassion” and is “eminently pragmatic” (ibid.).
The movement that Hawken is dealing with “has three basic roots: environmental activism, social justice initiatives, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined” (12). He explores dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of environmental destruction, human rights abuses and the decimation of aboriginal culture, some with passing comments and others with great elaboration. However, we see few mentions of particular organizations or coalitions of organizations mobilizing against a particular offender or groups of offenders with a particular single-issue campaign or as part of a broad reform or revolutionary movement. The avoidance of particulars of the movement while being particular about what they oppose is deliberate. The more he veils the conglomeration of thousands of organizations and corporations comprised by hundreds of thousands of individuals, the easier it is for him to suggest they are part of one great whole. We should, as Hawken suggests, see that “the movement’s key contribution is the rejection of one big idea,” (18) but that this is one big movement.