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.
Agency and hegemony
In addressing the absence of agency in Critical Theory, Feenberg points to theorists who have attempted to redefine agency. Unfortunately, he embraces these redefinitions of the term that define it out of existence. The ability to choose from a range of options is substituted for the option of refusal or rejection. Domestication serves as a rather empty and politically bankrupt form of agency. Feenberg dismisses ideas off the cuff when they fail to be “easy” to convince full participation (i.e. his treatment of de-development on pp. 61, 68). These modifications prove devastating to his politics of technology. The range of options for transcending the domination and hegemony of democracy become closed. A democratization of technology becomes impossible even in the abstract. Marcuse’s “absolute refusal” is considered a “tragic moral posture, not an effective political strategy” (p. 105). But we are left to agree with Feenberg that effective strategy is the primary criterion of a politics of technology, not its penetration of the object of critique. This is a troublesome standard. When one abandons the quality of analysis for the ease of strategic political implementation, the vision that even Feenberg impels his reader to see as critical to driving democratizing movements forward is forbidden. On this question, Feenberg’s mentor had it right.
Feenberg constructs caricatures of the ideas of Ellul and Mumford as determinism which bear little resemblance to their work. Interestingly, when Feenberg writes about critical debates in environmentalism, or develops a genealogy of constructivism, citations and quotations abound. But when addressing autonomous technology, they are all but absent. I wouldn’t accuse Feenberg of intellectual laziness, but then this is even more problematic. His principle position in Questioning Technology depends on a refutation of autonomous technology, yet his treatment of it is unfair. His refutation relies on this view of technology dismissing the role of society, seeing technology as autonomous without its social component, and on the direction of influence between technology and society being unilinear. What serious theorist of technology represents this view and where? Citations are necessary, though curiously missing.
Feenberg proposes the constructivist view as an alternative. This he explains as: “the choice between alternatives [a Hegelo-Marcusean term] ultimately depends neither on technical nor economic efficiency, but on the ‘fit’ between devices and the interests and beliefs of the various social groups that influence the design process” (p. 79). Here I again side with his mentor, Marcuse, who wrote:
The way in which a society organizes the life of its members involves an initial choice between historical alternatives which are determined by the inherited level of the material and intellectual culture. The choice itself results from the play of the dominant interests. It anticipates specific modes of transforming and utilizing man and nature and rejects other modes. It is one “project” of realization among others. But once the project has become operative in the basic institutions and relations, it tends to become exclusive and to determine the development of the society as a whole. As a technological universe, advanced industrial society is a political universe, the latest stage in the realization of a specific historical project – namely, the experience, transformation and organization of nature as the mere stuff of domination (1964, p. xvi).
I see it as essential to take into account the role of material culture in limiting the range of possibilities. A society must reject artifacts, techniques, organizations and even systems of technology if maintaining them keeps democratic practice beyond their scope. In this way, technologies do determine politics, but a given society may elect to jettison a given technology to open up political opportunities.
Feenberg would reply that technology can be redefined, appropriated, or reconstructed. It would certainly evolve to serve alternate political and cultural contingencies. But this view of the plasticity of technology is not considered so optimistically even by many SCOT theorists, and Feenberg’s examples leave much to be desired.
In closing, technophiles aching for more democracy in a technically complex society will love Feenberg’s compromising position. Unfortunately, in failing to grapple with systems theory, his proposals fall short of his criticisms.
Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning Technology. Routledge.
Marcuse, H. (1964). One-Dimensional Man. Vintage.