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 →
While bioengineering students are earning doctorates manipulating human genes and building synthetic organisms, doctoral candidate Julijonas Urbonas at the Royal College of Art in London has developed a “concept” roller coaster designed to kill its passengers.
“Euthanasia Coaster” is a hypothetic euthanasia machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to humanely – with elegance and euphoria – take the life of a human being. Riding the coaster’s track, the rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death. Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant and meaningful. Celebrating the limits of the human body but also the liberation from the horizontal life, this ‘kinetic sculpture’ is in fact the ultimate roller coaster: John Allen, former president of the famed Philadelphia Toboggan Company, once sad that “the ultimate roller coaster is built when you send out twenty-four people and they all come back dead. This could be done, you know.”
Between the politics of technology and the social construction of technological systems (SCOTS), exists considerable tension over three distinct problems centered on the commitment of SCOTS to relativism. First, the SCOTS program can find no useful criteria to judge a technology. But can society in “an age of high technology” (Winner 1986) afford this position? Second, the defining of the “social groups” or actors involved in shaping a technology during the innovation and diffusion stages brackets off the agents in consideration. What about those impacted by a technology who are outside this consideration? And, while Latour (in Bijker and Law 1992) wants us to consider the nonhuman, the SCOTS program disregards issues related to the processes by which resources are made available and sustainable access to them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the question of whether the socio-political structure and the status of actors should be left out of the discussion. “Where’s the power?” we might ask.
Sigmund Freud posited that the pleasure principle dictates the purpose of one’s life, and the search for pleasure dominates mental processes, no matter how insurmountably the reality principle interferes (1961, 25). We can experience pleasure only as an “episodic phenomenon,” he argues, and we seek to moderate claims to happiness. We do this through multiple methods: through technology, intoxication, attempting to control our internal impulses and needs, the development of illusions, fetishizing objects, seeking enjoyment aesthetically, among others (ibid. 26-34).
In “Anthropology and the Development Encounter,” Arturo Escobar discusses the past approaches of development anthropology as problematic. He focuses on the epistemology of development, the complicity of anthropologists in the modernization approach of development, and the Western worldview assumptions that pervade the discourse even among critics of development within the discipline. In this short response, I will focus my attention on the alternative episteme Escobar offers, particularly in his discussion of alternatives to development and indigenous resistance to the development process. I will then quickly profile Nash’s view of activist anthropology, and argue this methodology offers the applied anthropology of development an avenue to explore alternatives to development.
I have begun a formal inquiry into social theories that are radically critical of technology. This is involving a re-reading of some of my favorite texts and authors, and exploring new territory. My goal is to write and publish a brief theoretical and methodological guide for social criticism and research that problematizes technology.
Classic sociological texts were frequently and vehemently critical of technology. In recent times, the formal study of human culture, particularly sociology, has a general ambivalence toward technology. Positivist and post-positivist postures of objectivity have led to a stated neutral view of technology that is ultimately positive, in that it fails to test its neutrality. Further, the ubiquitous nature of advanced technology is assumed to be evidence of its general functionality.
Both from Technology, Time, and the Conversations of Modernity, by Lorenzo C. Simpson:
“['Technology'] refers to that set of practices whose purpose is, through ever more radical interventions into nature [...], systematically to place the future at our disposal [...] through hastening the achievement of a goal located in the future; through control over what occurs in the future [...], and through maintaining a given state while containing and reducing the period of deviations from it.” (p. 24)
“The technological reduction reduces experience to resources, tools and products, just as the scientific ‘world’ consists of constructs and pointer readings. We might then well understand science and technology as forms of life, but they are forms of life lacking ‘depth’; that is, they are essentially worldless.” (p. 48)