A perennial debate in technology studies is over the question of agency and determinism. Does technology drive history? Is technology socially constructed? Who or what exercises agency in sociotechnical development? In this blog, I summarize and analyze the ideas that have emerged from this debate that I find most useful. Specifically, I touch on the work of Jacques Ellul and Langdon Winner.
For Ellul, “when technique enters into every area of life, including the human, it ceases to be external to man and becomes his very substance.” Donna Haraway has taken this point to the extreme, suggesting that humans are cyborgs, inextricably linked to their devices, not only to participate in social life, but in their conceptions of self. “This transformation, so obvious in modern society,” wrote Ellul, “is the result of the fact that technique has become autonomous.” By autonomous, Ellul meant that “technique pursues its own course more and more independently of man.” Humans are directed to technical ends by their reliance upon its means for every aspect of their lives, whereby humans are “reduced to the level of a catalyst…” It is not technology alone that requires this relationship, but the role of technology in society. “When technique enters into the realm of social life, it collides ceaselessly with the human being to the degree that the combination of man and technique is unavoidable, and that technical action necessarily results in a determined result.” This characterization has led some to dismiss Ellul’s philosophy as “technological determinism.” Winner rejects that Ellul commits to determinism, and finds utility in this approach – that of autonomous technology – when he presents Ellul’s vision “that technology is somehow out of control by human agency.” In this view, “far from being controlled by the desired and rational ends of human beings, technology in a real sense now governs its own course, speed, and destination.” Ellul argued that “there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy.” Continue reading
“the wealth of networks is just as concentrated as financial wealth.”
Techno-utopianism has a history that extends beyond the widespread use of the personal computer. The champions of the PC itself have a past that extend into the 1960s counterculture. In this blog, I examine the relationship of the Whole Earth Network to the techno-utopianism of today.
The Whole Earth Network emerged not only out of 1960s counterculture, but also out of new modes of work and organization that emerged during and after WWII. These modes stressed collaboration, flexibility, and, at times, decentralization. “[M]embers of the Whole Earth network helped reverse the political valence of information and information technology and turn computes into emblems of countercultural revolution,” writes Turner. “At the same time, however, they legitimated a metamorphosis within – and a widespread diffusion of – the core cultural styles of military-industrial-academic technocracy that their generation had sought to undermine” (2006, p. 238). This network, which Turner refers to as the New Communalists,” began with “the bohemian artists of cold war Manhattan and San Francisco, and later the hippies of Haight-Ashbury and the youthful back-to-the-landers,” which later in the 1980s and 1990s became the pioneers of internet culture. Contrary to the New Left, the New Communalists “in fact embraced technocentric optimism, the information theories, and the collaborative work style of the research world” (p. 240). Continue reading
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 Technics & Civilization, among Mumford’s other work, he develops a rich historical account of technological development. Being “the last generalist,” I would imagine unfamiliar readers today might be surprised by Mumford’s ability to eloquently transcend disciplinary boundaries among sociology, anthropology and history. He was particularly skilled at conveying nuance and the important interactions among environment, artifacts, techniques, human organization, labor, infrastructure and so forth. Additionally, Mumford articulates an approach to ‘social construction’ that avoids the solipsistic idealism now popular. Instead, technics and society are constantly engaged in remaking one another – and confining and constraining one another. Certain innovations are either promoted with vigor and others stalled or abandoned because technics serves the worldview and values of the society that shapes it. Simultaneously, existing technics transform how we see and relate to ourselves, one another and our environment. This process is shaped by values, as specific paths are chosen among others because they fit the ethics and motives of those steering innovation, but also as the material, machinic and organizational demands of existing technics. Winner’s discussion of autonomous technology carries a similar theme to the latter point, addressing specifically how existing technical systems create demands of their users and the society in which they are embedded. Social reproduction in a highly complex technological society generates a considerable momentum for increasing the role of technology in social and individual life, an apparently out-of-control juggernaut. Mumford demonstrates that this has deep historical roots, particularly over the last 1,000 years. This is not the experience of industrial society, but the experience of civilization in toto. Continue reading
“People don’t want to get involved. They’d rather watch on TV,” said Troy Simmons, 47, who joined demonstrators as he left work. 
“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”
The crowd resounds, chanting condemnation in unison to an army of police abusing Occupy Wall Street protesters.They are, of course, referring to a contingent of protesters and media armed with still and video cameras, who appear to outnumber those protesters without.
Let’s consider this chant, and what’s being said. Continue reading
I’m working on an article for a special issue of Anarchist Studies focusing on technology. This article focuses many of my central ideas about technology toward anarchists in particular, but it has implications for direct or participatory democrats, and radical democrats. It would also pose problems for communists who hold true to Marx’s commitment to the withering away of the state under communism.
This article focuses on issues of justice that have unfortunately not been taken up very well in the literatures I have been able to find. The treatment of justice by anarchists has been incomplete and haphazard. Distributive and resource-based justice and social justice have been well developed more broadly (by liberals and socialists), and have important uses when injected into an anti-authoritarian politics. With the added demand of simplicity – of relying on neither representatives or authorities, nor on unwieldy participatory models which may not be capable of grappling with overly complex sociotechnical systems – we may turn to the systems themselves to ask of them what they demand from us in order for them to function. Which artifacts permit a nonauthoritarian, stateless society when deeply embedded in social reproduction? Continue reading
When Kirkpatrick Sale was finishing up Rebels Against the Future, he was interviewed by Kevin Kelly for Wired. This interview, however, became more of a debate, between a technophile and someone urging caution and limits with regard to technology – a neo-Luddite.
Kelly begins by wondering whether the Luddites accomplished anything “other than arson and a lot of vandalism.” Perhaps a brief history is in order for some of my more casual readers. Even Kelly doesn’t seem to understand the Luddites, as he claims:
The Luddite cottagers thought it was inhuman to be put out of work by machines. But what’s really inhuman is to have cloth made by human labor at all. Cloth should be made by machines, because machines make much better cloth than humans. Making cloth is not a good job for humans… 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.”
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