Feenberg, A.: "Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Freedom"

Feenberg, A. (2003). Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Freedom. In R. Scharff & V. Dusek (Eds.), <em ">Philosophy of technology (pp. 652-665). Malden,  MA: Blackwell Publishing. Originally published 1992.

I. The Limits of Democratic Theory

Using Marx as foundation, argues that "today we do not appear to be much closer to democratizing industrialism than in Marx's time" (652). Rationale is typically either that modern tech incompatible with workplace democracy or that technology not responsible for concentration of industrial power (652). Purpose of article: argue for a view in which technology as "neither determining nor as neutral" and that "the democratization of our society requires radical technical as well as political change" (653). Structure of article:

  • theoretical overview: modern societies/dependence on tech require authoritarian hierarchy; presuppose technological determinism (refuted by historical/sociological arguments).
  • presents non-deterministic theory -- a "critical theory of technology" which emphasizes context.
  • demonstrates how view underlies reliance on efficiency/expediency
  • possibilities of change

II. Dystopian Modernity

Cites Weber; argues 'democratic' rationalization is a contradiction in terms (653). Feenberg states that title is meant to "reject the dichotomy between rational hierarchy and irrational protest implicit in Weber's position" (653). Do not need to go "underground or native to preserve threatened values such as freedom or individualism" (653). Argues with Heidegger and Ellul's stance that "we have become little more than objects of technique, incorporated into the mechanism we have created" (653). 

III. Technological Determinism

"Determinism rests on the assumption that technologies have an autonomous functional logic that can be explained without reference to society. Technology is presumably social only through the purpose it serves, and purposes are in the mind of the beholder" (653). Feenberg explains this view as that technology directly affects society, though there may be no "reciprocal influence" (654). Explains deterministic premises:

  • thesis of unilinear progress: "fixed track"-- lower to higher development, single sequence of stages
  • thesis of determination by the base: social systems adapt to "imperatives" of technological base (uses example of supposed "trade-off" "between prosperity and environmental values" [654])

IV. Constructivism

"argues that theories and technologies are underdetermined by scientific and technical criteria" (654). Meaning: many workable solutions to a given problem, social actors make final choice among batch of viable options, and the problem-definition changes in the course of solution. Cites Pinch and Bijker's explanation of the development of the bicycle (high-wheeler and safety); Whig history (hindsight assumes determinism).

V. Indeterminism

Cites the struggle over workday length/ child labor in 1840s England. Caught between social needs and economic fears. Child labor laws did not bring downfall of system. Feenberg argues that this "shows the tremendous flexibility of the the technical system" (655). In the example, "technology is a scene of social struggle, a 'parliament of things,' on which civilizational alternatives contend" (656).

VI. Interpreting Technology

Major themes of non-determinist approach to technology. Treat technology as an artifact, subject to interpretation (though this generally doesn't happen). Two "hermeneutic dimensions" of technical objects: social meaning and cultural horizon (656). Engineer view: once object stabilized, object is discrete; human interpreter has no input. Points out difference between "goal" and "meaning"-- concept of technological goal "strips bare" social contexts, "but in the real world all sorts of unpredictable attitudes crystallize around technical objects and influence later design changes" (656). Uses example of Teletel/Minitel and ways that it was "hacked" by users to achieve their own needs. "At issue in the transformation is not only the computer's narrowly conceived technical function, but the very nature of the advanced society it makes possible" (657). "In this case technology is not merely the servant of some predefined social purpose; it is an environment within which a way of life is elaborated" (657). 

In sum, differences in the way social groups interpret and use technical objects are not merely extrinsic but make a difference in the nature of the objects themselves. What the object is for the groups that ultimately decide its fate determines what it becomes as it is redesigned and improved over time. If this is true, then we can only understand technological development by studying the sociopolitical situation of the various groups involved in it. (657)

VII. Technological Hegemony

Cultural horizon--defining heemony as a "form of domination so deeply rooted in social life that it seems natural" (657). Horizon implies unquestioned assumptions. Argues rationalization our modern horizon, as notion of divine right was to medievals. 

"Technological development is constrained by cultural norms originating in economics, ideology, religion, and tradition" (657). Cites Marcuse-- rationalization "confounds the control of labor by management with control of nature by technology" (657). Some control transferred from humans to machines. "If Marcuse is right, it ought to be possible to trace the impress of class relations in the very design of production technology" (658). "Technological rationality is not merely a belief, an ideology, but is effectively incorporated into the structure of machines" (658). 

VIII. Double Aspect Theory

"Social meaning and functional rationality are inextricably intertwined dimensions of technology. They are not ontologically distinct, for example, with meaning in the observer's mind and rationality in the technology proper. Rather they are 'double aspects' of the same underlying technical object, each aspect revealed by a specific contextualization" (658). Functional rationality "isolates objects from their original context in order to incorporate them into theoretical or functional systems" (658). Cites Foucault, "power knowledge"--modern forms of oppression not so much based on false ideologies as on the tech 'truths' which form basis of dominant hegemony and which reproduce it" (close para 658). Ultimately

The legitimizing effectiveness of technology depends on unconsciousness of the cultural-political horizon under which it was designed. A recontextualizing critique of technology can uncover that horizon, demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices. (658)

IX. The Social Relativity of Efficiency

uses example of modern environmental movement (orig pub 1992). Proposed changes would benefit nature/humans, but capitalist concerns. In capitalist society, focus less on a priori prevention to a posteriori cleanup. Difference between economic exchange and technique: exchange is all about trade-offs; technique should be designs that incorporate many variables. "Design is not a zero-sum economic game, but an ambivalent cultural process that serves a multiplicity of values and social groups with necessarily sacrificing efficiency" (659). 

X. The Technical Code

Steamboat boilers > regulation would kill the industry (though explosions were killing people, we're talking econ here). Better design was not technically, but social determined. "Technology adapts to social change" (660). "Fetishism of efficiency" (660). What becomes essential to the object is determined by design/design standards, which are "controversial while they are in flux" (660).

Technology is thus not merely a means to an end; technical design standards define major portions of the social environment, such as urban and built spaces, workplaces, medical activities and expectations, life patterns, and so on. The economic significance of technical change often pales beside its wider human implications in framing a way of life. In such cases, regulation defines the cultural freamwork of the economy; it is not an act in the economy. (661)

XI. Heidegger's "Essence" of Technology

"Universal functionalization destroys the integrity of all that is" -- pursuing expediency/effectiveness violent to human nature (661). Argues against Heidegger's view of chalice/ dam on Rhine. Agrees that means not neutral, that content f/x society independent of goals served, but claims content not essentially destructive-- matter of "design and social insertion" (661). Heidegger distinguishes between ontological problem of tech and ontic solutions. Charges Heidegger with being too abstract, to extent that nuances lost as well as rejecting technical regression.

XII. History or Metaphysics

Modern technology is not unique; what is special is its shifts in emphasis. Technology was essentially about choice of vocation; guilds became new forms of technical control. Disagrees with Heidegger's placement of technology as separate from society, a "contextless force aiming at pure power" (662). Modern tech's master? The entrepreneur (production and profit).

The narrow focus of modern technology meets the needs of a particular hegemony; it is not a metaphysical condition. Under that hegemony technological design is unusually decontextualized and destructive. It is that hegemony that is called into account, not technology per se, when we point out that today technical means form an increasingly threatening life environment. It is that hegemony, as it has embodied itself in technology, that must be challenged in the struggle for technological reform. (663)

XIII. Democratic Rationalization

Progress perceived historically: technical necessity dictates the path of development, and that the pursuit of efficiency provides a basis for identifying that path (663). What does it mean to democratize technology--not just legal rights but initiative and participation. Resistance shown through worker struggles, community action. Comparison in form of AIDS treatment-- "non-compliant" patients who refused to be objects of treatment--they 'hacked' the system to recover medicine's "symbolic dimension and caring functions" (664). 

Hopeful--though asks whether technology excludes democracy, but responds "technology can support more than one type of technological civilization, and may someday be incorporated into a more democratic society than ours" (664).